In 2011, an Indiana Dept. of Natural Resources’ (IDNR) employee’s body-crushing (conibear) fur trap killed Melodie Liddle’s beloved dog, Copper at Versailles State Park. The deadly device, situated 15’ feet from a paved roadway, was just one of dozens of traps scattered throughout Versailles and potentially hundreds of traps hidden within Indiana State Parks by commercial fur trappers. IDNR deliberately concealed all commercial fur trapping activity from the public.
IDNR personnel repeatedly dodged Melodie’s attempts to discuss the agency’s trapping policy in the aftermath of Copper’s tragic death. When a call from the agency finally did arrive, it did not come from state park personnel or law enforcement, but rather IDNR’s Director of Communications who tape recorded the conversation without Melodie’s knowledge. The Communications Director offered no assurance that steps would be implemented to prevent future trapping deaths. In fact, three weeks after Melodie buried her dog, IDNR issued yet another “Emergency Rule” to enable more commercial fur trapping on Park properties.
Deadly devices have no legitimate purpose on public park land
Conibear traps are inherently dangerous and are used with the sole intent to kill. They do so violently and indiscriminately.
Shattered by her loss and frustrated by IDNR’s indifference, Melodie sought legal remedy for the agency’s reckless disregard of public safety.
Melodie’s Tort Claim Prevails against IDNR
In June 2017, Marion County Superior Court decided Melodie’s hard fought case in her favor, finding IDNR negligent for failing to warn state park patrons that their employee was maintaining deadly wildlife traps. While a victory acknowledging IDNR’s negligence is a critical step towards justice for Copper and Melodie Liddle, the consequences of this ruling are meager and fail to prohibit future commercial fur trapping activities on state park properties or promote transparency within an agency that customarily operates in the dark.
To address the insufficiency of the trial court’s remedy, the Center for Wildlife Ethics (CWE) filed an appeal with the Indiana Appellate Court on Melodie’s behalf.
Melodie’s devastating loss, was further compounded by the agency’s duplicity and relentless victim blaming.
Immediately following Copper’s death, IDNR worked to disguise commercial fur trapping as a public service needed for managing “nuisance” wildlife in the parks. The agency, unable to provide any evidence of a “nuisance” animal problem in Indiana State Parks, even went so far as to tout an alleged “nuisance wildlife program”. IDNR’s Director of Communications admitted, when confronted by CWE, there was no such program.
IDNR worked to deflect the blame for Copper’s death onto Melodie. Baseless accusations were raised in the media about whether her dogs were properly leashed, despite the evidence that proved they were. IDNR also raised issues regarding the trap’s location, suggesting that it was planted securely in an inaccessible location and off-limits to the public, which is untrue.
IDNR later argued in court that Melodie was contributorily negligent for Copper’s death. According to IDNR, park patrons who pay to visit state parks cannot venture down a 15-foot trail (created by the trapper himself) to a shallow creek so dogs can get a quick drink of water.
The trial court rightfully rejected this ridiculous notion. The court also agreed with Melodie that no reasonable person could have anticipated the reckless disregard of public safety demonstrated by IDNR. Nor would anyone reasonably expect to encounter an illegal, deadly device on state park land hidden by the Park’s so-called security officer.
The Legal Remedy is inadequate
Melodie suffered real, tangible damage. The law (and society) recognizes her tragedy as a tort, yet the courts offer very little in the form of any real remedy.
Tort law is meant to make an injured party whole, yet the ruling in this case contradicts this reasonable and essential objective. According to an earlier trial court ruling, Melodie is entitled to nothing more than “fair market value” or essentially, a replacement dog.
In Melodie’s case, “fair market” valuation is fundamentally flawed. There is no “market value” for a senior, mixed-breed dog who was rescued from a neglectful situation and beloved by Melodie for nearly 10 years. Copper was not a commercial animal with any inherent market value. She was never within the stream of commerce, nor could she ever be.
Copper and Melodie treasured a bond built on loyalty, and emotional and physical comfort. Copper’s value stems from this mutual affection and devotion. A “replacement” is inadequate when the loss suffered is another living being whose value is derived solely from a sentimental bond and shared life experiences.
“Fair market value” analysis is complicated by internal contradictions. External transactions (food, housing, veterinary care, etc.) are a natural consequence of the human-animal bond and are routinely acknowledged by the law, yet the intrinsic value of special, cherished relationships is often deemed nominal at best.
Equally notable, there’s nothing “fair” about a damage award that fails to acknowledge the horror Melodie experienced while wrestling frantically to free her dog from IDNR’s deadly wildlife trap.
Melodie is uniquely situated to legally challenge IDNR
Legal standing (the right to sue) is often an unsurmountable hurdle for individuals seeking a legal remedy to harmful and/or illegal agency actions. Lacking an injury-in-fact, conscientious citizens are typically unable to avail themselves of judicial intervention. The average citizen is muted.
Clearly, Melodie has suffered an injury – one proximately caused by IDNR’s shocking negligence. Her loss, or the “nexus” to the agency’s actions, uniquely qualifies Melodie to challenge IDNR’s statutory authority to permit commercial fur trappers to maintain deadly traps on Indiana State Park properties, and personally profit while doing so.
Given the strict standing requirements imposed by courts, Melodie may be the only person who could legally challenge IDNR on its reckless conduct and policies.
An appeal is critical to achieving meaningful change
While the trial court’s recent decision rightfully held that IDNR’s actions were negligent, this ruling simply creates an illusion of justice. A 2016 court order foreclosed Melodie’s opportunity to hold IDNR accountable in any meaningful sense.
The court never ruled on the legitimacy of IDNR’s commercial fur trapping activities. Although IDNR stopped using the “Emergency Rule” after 2013, there is no evidence that commercial fur trapping and the sale of pelts is not on-going. More importantly, nothing in the trial court’s Order prevents IDNR from allowing this to happen again.
Granted, a sentimental damage award and a legal prohibition to IDNR’s reckless behavior can never make Melodie “whole” given the horror she and Copper endured. But, a strong message can be sent that this level of negligence is indefensible and will not be tolerated. Thus the purpose of Melodie’s appeal.