VIENNA -- Donald Webster took the dead muskrat in his hands, pinched the fur above its hind legs, drew a quick slit with his pocketknife and set about rolling the pelt over the animal's head.
"You're turning him inside out over the head, over the eyes, over the teeth. There you go," Webster said, pulling the skin free from the carcass. "You just undressed him. Now, anybody want a muskrat to eat?"
A dozen hands shot up. "Me, me, me."
The old trappers smiled to themselves. Junior Trapper Day -- a first for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources -- was a success.
In Dorchester County, the muskrat capital of Maryland, boys and girls as young as 4 and 5 years old are learning to trap and skin the marsh rodent, just as their ancestors have done for centuries.
"I've been trapping ever since I was 5 months old," Garett Colona, now 7, says matter-of-factly. "I caught my first fox when I was 4 years old, on Christmas Eve day. It was red."
Garett's father, Robert Colona, did indeed take his infant son along to check traps. A fur-bearer biologist for the state DNR, Colona organized Junior Trapper Day, which attracted more than 50 children and their parents to the LeCompte Wildlife Management Area yesterday.
For those not born into the sport, Junior Trapper Day offered an initiation into a way of life on the Eastern Shore, where the seasons bring their crops and muskrat is just another harvest.
"If us old guys don't teach kids this tradition, it will die out with us," said Lewis Quarles, who at 73 has been trapping most of his life.
The lessons of trapping are many. Don't set your trap in the marsh during duck season, when you can catch a thousand-dollar hunting dog (and a lawsuit). Don't ever wait more than a day to check your trap. "You are obligated to the animals you trap to make sure that they are not injured and do not suffer," Colona says.
Don't tear up the landowner's fields with your pickup truck -- you won't be invited back. And whatever you do, don't open the skunk lure in the house.
"Trapping," says Webster, also a DNR employee, "teaches children responsibility and a work ethic and a respect for nature."
Junior Trapper Day, with its instruction from the practical to the philosophical -- a bridal veil will keep rock and dirt from getting under the pan of your trap -- doesn't seem the stuff of animal abuse described in leaflets distributed by animal right's activists.
A representative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, asked for the organization's position on trapping, faxed The Sun a two-page fact sheet repleat with lurid descriptions of "gruesome deaths."
The fact sheet concluded with a suggestion that concerned people donate their fur coats to animal rights organizations for a tax deduction.
"Everyone has a right to his opinions," said one trapper, weary and wary of PETA's anti-fur campaign. "Most of these people don't seem to understand that these animals are going to die anyway and if we don't control the overpopulation, death by starvation or mange is far worse."
No one knows how many muskrats are harvested in Maryland each year, though best estimates put the pelt tally harvested at upward of 100,000. In the early 1980s, it was estimated that North American trappers harvested 7 million muskrat pelts a year.
There is no limit on the number of muskrats a trapper may harvest; the best collect hundreds each season.
At the Delmarva Trade Co. in Vienna -- under a sign that advertises "Raw Fur Dealer" and the hours of operation (3 p.m. until 9 p.m.) -- Vernon Boog buys 50,000 to 60,000 muskrat pelts from January through March. On Tuesday and Wednesday, regular trappers, advised of a pending price drop, brought in 11,000 muskrat pelts. The going price Friday: $4.75 for a whole muskrat, $4 for the hide.
The meat must be fresh -- Boog doesn't buy frozen muskrat -- which he, in turn, sells for $2 per animal.
"I turn a dead animal into a commodity," Boog says. Boog buys almost any wild pelt. He'll take in about 2,000 to 3,000 raccoons a year, which because of the threat of rabies are handled with extreme caution, and perhaps 1,000 red foxes.
During trapping season, Delmarva Trade Co., once an Exxon station, is a hub of activity in Vienna, a town of 330 people on the Nanticoke River.
This time of year, when the muskrats are, well, musky, the odor of the place is overpowering. The stench -- something like 4,000 dead mice decaying inside a wall -- smacks one in the face and clings to the clothes and hair long afterward. "Smells like money," Boog laughs.
Boog, who farms nine months a year, won't say what he gets for his pelts -- "a profit" -- from an international buyer. Most Eastern Shore muskrats end up in Russia, where the pelts are made into coats and hats and are much desired. Fur, after all, is a commodity, just like pork bellies, and is subject to market fluctuation.