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MT - Illegally set trap kills man's dog in his arms

A friend lost / Illegally set trap kills man's dog in his arms
By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian

Filip Panusz holds a photograph of his dog, Cupcake, at the spot in Rock Creek where Cupcake died in a Conibear trap recently. During a walk with his two dogs near the popular Valley of the Moon trailhead, Panusz heard the illegally set trap crush his dog and was unable to free it before he died.
Photo by TOM BAUER/Missoulian

Filip Panusz will never forget the sound of his dog's death.

It's been almost two weeks since Panusz decided to take advantage of the year's first warm Sunday and go for a walk in the Rock Creek drainage with his two dogs. The three pulled into the U.S. Forest Service's popular Valley of the Moon trailhead near the large interpretive sign with big block letters proclaiming the spot to be “A Haven for Wildlife.”

There were other cars parked there when Panusz began walking downstream with his two border collie crosses, Kelly and Cupcake.

They'd made their way down to the creek about a quarter-mile from the trailhead when Panusz stopped to study some recent beaver activity.

“Both dogs were within 10 yards or less of me doing what dogs do,” he remembered. “Suddenly I heard this loud snap.”

That sound was immediately followed by a gurgling, strangled kind of noise.

“It was a horrible sound,” Panusz said. “I knew something had happened.”

Cupcake had disappeared over the creek's bank onto a gravel bar just a few steps away. Panusz covered the span in seconds. He wasn't prepared for what awaited him there.

His dog was caught in a Conibear trap. Its steel jaws were wrapped around the dog's neck. Cupcake was choking.

“I jumped into the creek,” he said. “I wasn't thinking. I tried to open the thing, but I couldn't. I was screaming for help, but no one was around. I'm holding him out of the water and screaming, ‘Why? Who did this? How do I open this thing? Please don't die.'

“I was trying to open it, but I didn't know how. It was so strong.”

With every passing second, Panusz lost hope of saving his dog.

“I felt so helpless,” he said. “I think it only took 15 to 30 seconds for him to die. His whole body just went limp. I try to comfort myself that it was quick.”

Cupcake died in his arms.

In water up above his waist, Panusz gave up trying to open the trap. He picked up his dog and tried to carry it to the shore, but the trap was attached to a nearby log with a light piece of wire. So he lowered Cupcake back into the water and began working to break the dog free.

“I kept looking back and I think that's when I realized he was really dead,” Panusz said. “He was there floating, his head underwater. It was horrible to see. My boy was underwater. He was dead.”

Panusz finally broke the wire and picked up his dog with the heavy trap still attached to its neck.

“He was soaking wet. I was soaking wet. I was starting to shake as I carried him back to my car. I was crying the whole way. It was a long, long walk.”

On the way home, Panusz called his pastor for advice. He wasn't sure how he was going to break the news to his wife, Aneta. He knew this was going to break her heart.

His pastor suggested he call the police to help him remove the trap from his dog's neck.

“At first, we weren't sure how to get it off,” he said. “There's a little trick to it. It took both of us to get it off.”

The Conibear trap consists of two metal rectangles hinged together midway on the long side to open and close like scissors. One jaw has a trigger and the opposite has a catch that holds the trap open. The trap is designed to snap shut in scissors-like fashion on an animal's spinal column at the base of the skull with enough force to kill it.

The trap that killed the Panusz family dog was probably set to capture a beaver.

It was also set illegally, said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Warden Capt. Jeff Darrah.

On public land, trappers are required by state law to either set Conibear traps inside an enclosure with a hole small enough to protect most dogs or partially covered in water.

“Those regulations were established to help avoid conflicts with dogs,” Darrah said. “This trap wasn't tagged correctly and it was set improperly out of the water and not enclosed.”

The state has cited the trapper on both counts.

The 70-plus-year-old trapper was “very remorseful” and has since pulled his traps, Darrah said.

“This is just a bad deal for everyone,” he said. “It's bad for the pet owner and it's bad for the sport of trapping. ... Every time something like this happens, it's another blow to trapping.”

Trapping furbearing animals has been a part of Montana heritage for longer than anyone alive can remember. Men like Bud Moore of the Swan Valley made their living trapping the sparsely settled land in the 1930s and '40s.

“When I look back on my whole life, trapping was pretty important to me,” Moore said. “It's really how I put my life together.”

But it was a different world back then.

“It would be harder to be a trapper now,” Moore said. “There are so many people in the woods Š and they show up in the most surprising places.”

That is the challenge for the modern-day trapper in Montana, especially west of the Divide, said Paul Schmidt, president of the Montana Trappers Association.

“I've always thought there should be a line on the map from Livingston to Wyoming and up to Canada,” Schmidt said. “There should be a set of rules for each side of that line.”

In Montana, trapping is close to a $3 million-a-year industry. As many as 3,000 people buy licenses to trap every year.

“Some people make their entire living from trapping,” Schmidt said. “They usually live in places where there aren't that many people.”

Part of the solution for conflicts between trappers and those who don't trap could come from better education. The Montana Trappers Association backed legislation that would have required anyone new to trapping to take an informational course, Schmidt said.

“We testified in favor of that,” he said.

The bill was carried by Rep. Gary MacLaren, R-Victor. After passing through the Fish and Wildlife Committee and before the full House, the bill died in the Appropriations Committee.

MacLaren offered the legislation after some constituents lost their dogs to Conibear traps. With western Montana's growing population, conflicts between dog lovers and trappers are bound to occur, he said.

“If people new to trapping were required to take a trapping course, they may be more careful when they're trying to trap in that urban interface,” MacLaren said. “A little education never hurt anyone.”

It's too early to predict whether the legislation will be offered two years from now, he said.

“There might be some sort of citizens initiative to ban trapping between now and then,” MacLaren said. “People don't like having their dogs caught in traps.”

Myni Ferguson of Kalispell thinks trappers all too often hurt their own image.

Ferguson was a member of a group called Friends of Buddy, which formed after a woman lost her dog to a Conibear trap in a well-documented case. That group encouraged the state to require trappers to walk at least 1,000 feet from a trailhead before setting traps.

This year, the state relaxed that distance at the urging of trappers to 300 feet.

“That's just 100 yards,” Ferguson said. “It's so ridiculous. Whether you like trapping or don't like it, putting traps that much closer to where unsuspecting people and their dogs might encounter them is so shortsighted.”

Every year, Ferguson said, she hears from people whose dogs are caught in Conibear traps.

Those traps are not easy to operate. Ferguson took the state's trapper education course and was told how to open a Conibear.

“I tried and I couldn't do it,” she said. “I'm not a delicate little flower type either. I stomped on them, but there was no way I could open one of them.”

Since trappers are making money from their enterprise, Ferguson thinks they should be required to obtain a commercial license and be educated.

“It almost seems like they are the favored black sheep of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks,” she said. “I fish and so my fishing rod is my weapon of choice. But at least I stay with my weapon. Trappers aren't required to check their traps but once every 48 hours.”

The Panusz family believes that, at the very least, trappers should be required to let people know they're in the area if they choose to trap in popular places like Rock Creek's Valley of the Moon.

“It's not a wilderness,” Aneta said. “It's Rock Creek. It's a place where you expect to be safe. You don't expect there to be a minefield there.”

“In places like this, there should be a responsibility to do that,” Filip said. “It's foreseeable that something like this could happen. It's so foreseeable.”

Filip expects someday to return to place a cross at the spot where he lost his dog.

In the meantime, he'll remember the time they shared. When Panusz found Cupcake at the Deer Lodge Humane Society shelter four months ago, the dog was just skin and bones.

“He had been poking around on the outskirts of Deer Lodge for some time before someone picked him up,” Filip said. “It was during that really cold period last winter. He was begging people to let him inside. Someone finally took him to the Humane Society. He was in really bad shape.”

Filip found him there - huddled back behind the pack - afraid and meek.

“You could tell he was very abused,” Aneta said. “He was very scared. We took care of him. He gained about 12 pounds. He trusted us and he was so happy. People should know this isn't right. We were trying to protect him. It's just hard for me to deal with the fact that he died by choking. He died suffering.”

Filip hopes someday he'll forget that part.

“I remember a lot of the scenes very vividly in my mind,” he said. “It's not necessarily an easy thing. We don't have any children. To us, these two dogs are like our children. And now one is gone.”

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at 523-5259 or at pbackus@missoulian.com

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