Fur trappers now find themselves caught between falling prices and a rising outcry

January 13, 1993|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

At the edge of a frost-tinged Baltimore County soybean field, Lester Hackler leans over a patch of dirt and reads it like a newspaper. He's been outfoxed, quite literally.

"He's been here," Mr. Hackler says, forefinger tracing the paw print that is all the red fox left behind. "But he didn't work the bait. Too smart!"

He grins and shakes his head. The early sun makes his shadow huge. "A half-inch over that way," he says, "and I'd have had him. Too smart! Too smart!"

There's no annoyance in his voice, only admiration. It is the respect of a lifelong trapper for his prey, for the wariness that sawthrough all the tricks Mr. Hackler has learned to disguise the steel jaws that lie tensed beneath a half-inch of soil.

Yet a couple of nights later, a fox's instinct will fail, and in the morning Mr. Hackler will find him sitting on this same spot of frozen earth, the trap gripping his right front paw. And Mr. Hackler will take an old ax handle from his truck and bring it down on the fox's skull.

"I hit him once and he went down. Then I gave him another little tap to finish him off," he says afterward. The killing went smoothly; it is not always so easy. "Some of 'em look up at you with these big eyes, and it makes you feel a little bad," he says.

Mr. Hackler, 45, of Sparks, is part of a dwindling fraternity of Maryland fur trappers. Their number has plummeted over the past decade along with the price of fur, as the recession and the animal-rights movement together have ravaged the fur market.

The retreat of the trappers and furriers might appear to mark victory for the animals whose skins they turn into cash. In Maryland, their numbers are climbing. Raccoons, the ultimate urban and suburban survivors, are ubiquitous. Beavers have made a big comeback, appearing regularly just beyond the Baltimore Beltway. The fox population has been climbing for five years.

But proliferation comes at a price. Mange, one of several diseases that results from overpopulation, is being seen more and more often in Maryland foxes. It causes a painful, lingering death.

"We're in somewhat of a fox crisis in many of our suburban areas," says Pete Jayne, who has overseen the furbearer program of the state Department of Natural Resources for eight years. "With the trapping pressure down, we see extreme swings in population. Trapping doesn't eliminate those swings, but it levels out the peaks."

The leave-the-animals-alone school of public opinion proposes an ideal that is already out of reach, he says. "People say, 'Let nature take its course.' But nature is grossly disrupted in this state -- by people. We're dealing with half the ball team -- wolf, cougar, all kinds of predators are gone."

Out here in Sparks, where suburbs are pushing back the farmland and a rancher seems to have sprouted on every rise, Mr. Hackler skins his latest catch in the cellar of his 200-year-old house. He washes the muddy pelt, tumbles it dry in a contraption he fashioned from hickory wood and lawn mower parts, and he pronounces it "right nice red."

Then he stretches the fur and hangs it with the rest of this season's harvest across the ceiling of the shed behind his house -- red fox, gray fox, raccoon, beaver, opossum, skunk, muskrat, groundhog, the tail of a white-tailed deer. Most of it has been trapped, with permission, on nearby farms. Soon he'll take all the pelts to auction in Pennsylvania. In a few months they will have been fashioned into coats, stoles, gloves and even fishing flies.

Mr. Hackler started trapping as a kid. He has a bad scar from slicing his left thumb while skinning a raccoon at 13. He eats opossum, raccoon, beaver and muskrat.

He would make a living at trapping if he could. He can't. No Marylander can. For a fox pelt that would have brought him $60 in the mid-1970s, he'll be lucky to get $15 this year. His annual trapping income will total less than a couple of paychecks at his regular job, operating a crane unloading sand and gravel from barges on the Patapsco in Brooklyn.

"I get a little money out of it," Mr. Hackler says. "But I just like doing it. I guess it's the pioneer in me."

With the new development in these rolling hills has come more pressure from the "anti's," as Mr. Hackler likes to call them -- the anti-fur activists who condemn his craft as the torture of wild creatures to satisfy the whims of fashion for the rich.

There are more dogs and cats, who can plant a foot in a trap and turn their owners into enemies of trapping. There are even gripes from the fox-chasers -- the horsemen and women who follow the hounds as they chase the fox -- that the trappers are cutting the fox population and spoiling their fun.

It's enough to put a fellow on the defensive. Mr. Hackler, who was born into the Hereford Assembly of God Church, cites the highest of authorities to justify his avocation.

"I think they're beautiful animals. I really respect 'em for their smarts," he says. "But the Lord put 'em on the earth to feed us and clothe us."

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