It was an August morning two years ago when Maggie, a spry, 7-year-old border collie, slipped through the backyard fence of her family’s suburban Oregon home. Minutes later, she was dead – her neck snapped by a body-gripping trap set by the U.S. government less than 50 feet from the home she shared with the four children who loved her.
“It is an image that will never leave me,” Maggie’s owner, Denise McCurtain, of Gresham, Ore., said of her death. “She was still breathing as we tried to remove the trap. Her eyes were open and she was looking at me. All I could say was ‘I’m trying so hard. You didn’t do anything wrong.'”
Maggie’s death at a minimum was one of hundreds of accidental killings of pets over the last decade acknowledged by Wildlife Services, a little-known branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that is tasked with destroying animals seen as threats to people, agriculture and the environment.
Critics, including a source within the USDA, told FoxNews.com that the government’s taxpayer-funded Predator Control program and its killing methods are random — and at times, illegal.
Over the years, Wildlife Services has killed thousands of non-target animals in several states – from pet dogs to protected species – caught in body-gripping conibear traps and leg hold snares, or poisoned by lethal M-44 devices that explode sodium cyanide capsules when triggered by a wild animal – or the snout of a curious family pet.
The McCurtains, like many other families, were never informed that such deadly devices were placed so close to their home in grass near the edge of a pond where their young son kicks his soccer ball and their daughter catches turtles.
The traps, set on communal property owned by the neighborhood association, were meant to kill an infestation of nutria, rat-like pests that pose no danger to people but can be harmful to the environment. The only warning sign was a small placard in the grass that identified the device as government property and cautioned against tampering with it. The neighborhood association told the McCurtains it never would have approved such traps had it known they were so deadly.
“It’s unconscionable that anybody with an ounce of common sense would set these traps in an area frequented by the public and their pets,” said Brooks Fahy, executive director of Predator Defense, a national watchdog group that advocates non-lethal predator control.
The M-44’s intended targets are coyotes that kill or harass livestock primarily in the western states, where Wildlife Services is most active and critical to farmers protecting their livestock.
But, like Maggie, there often are unintended victims — like a puppy belonging to J.D. and Angel Walker of Santa Anna, Texas.
In February 2011, the couple’s 18-month-old pit bill was killed when it sniffed and pulled on a meat-scented M-44 placed about 900 feet from its home.