My entire family loved being in the park, including our canine family members. Whenever the weather allowed, I brought my dogs, Copper and Pirty, to Versailles State Park: a serene environment, especially in the winter when the park is less crowded.
December 16, 2011 was an unseasonably nice day in Southeast Indiana and that day the “kids” and I took a rather long walk in Versailles. The dogs began to pant so I followed them down a visible path just off the roadway, until we reached the water where they started drinking and sniffing around. After a couple minutes, I turned around with both leashed dogs to head back up to the road when Copper started shrieking. By the time I had turned around completely, she was pulling herself out of a wooden box built into the embankment at the water’s edge. Copper flailed around in the creek, twisting in an effort to break free of something.
Rushing to Copper’s aid, I noticed something metal clamped onto her shoulders and neck area. Panicked by the realization that this was a wildlife trap, I frantically searched for a lever or anything that could release the trap. All attempts to free her were futile. After several minutes, Copper lifelessly collapsed.
I continued to struggle with the trap hoping that Copper’s lack of movement would allow me to finally remove it. Despite my desperate screams for help, no one could hear me, and help never arrived. I tried phoning for assistance but there was no cell phone coverage on the path. I ran up to the road but was still unable to get a signal. Realizing the dogs and I were alone, I returned to Copper and again struggled with the trap, but to no avail.
Confused and shaken, I grabbed Pirty’s leash and walked about one-quarter mile back to my car. A wave of unimaginable sorrow washed over me. Not only had my dog so needlessly died, but it had happened right in my arms. After about fifteen minutes of sobbing, it dawned on me to call a neighbor who had previous trapping experience to see if he could help me free Copper from the trap. Thankfully, my phone worked and Gene answered my call, but it took several minutes before I was calm enough to explain to him what had happened.
About fifteen minutes later, Gene met me at my car and then followed me back to the creek. Gene immediately went over to Copper, removed her collar and the leash, and started to work to get the trap off. After a couple minutes, while Gene continued to work on the trap, I left to find the park officials and notify them that someone hid a trap in their park and it killed my dog.
Once at the Gate House, I was led back outside to talk to park personnel. After hearing what happened, the property manager, visibly surprised (yet annoyed) by the news, pointed to his assistant, muttered a few words, and the two got into a truck and slowly began following me back to Copper and the trap site.
When we arrived, the manager observed that Gene had moved Copper’s body to the back of his truck.
“Was the dog on a leash?” the manager asked me.
“Yes, she was on a leash,” I answered, “But why does that matter?”
He ignored my question completely. “Where’s the trap?” he uttered.
I proceeded to take him down the short path between the road and the creek and pointed to the trap near the cubby where Gene had left it. The manager gathered the trap and handed it to his assistant who had remained silent the entire time. He then stepped into the creek and picked up the leash. It dangled above the water as he snapped, “This is why the dog got caught in the trap,” and, rather than hand the leash to me, he dropped it back into the creek.
Shocked and in disbelief of Copper’s indefensible death and the park personnel’s blatant indifference to the situation, I returned to the truck where Copper laid lifeless and cried – all the while, repeatedly asking why a lethal trap would be hidden in a public park. Initially, the manager ignored my questions, but then finally responded that they “have to keep the raccoon population down” at the campgrounds.
This got my attention and obviously, Gene’s as well: “So, wait a minute, you’re responsible for the trap?!” Gene heatedly inquired.
The more the park manager said, the more surreal the discussion became. He confirmed, with an unsettling nonchalance that state officials deliberately sanctioned the scattering of hidden traps throughout the park and intentionally opted not to warn visitors. This reckless disregard for public safety was justified out of some ridiculous concern that people might steal the traps. The park manager remained callous and insensitive; never offering a kind word, gesture, apology, or a reasonable explanation for the tragedy that had just been inflicted on my family.
There was nothing left to do. Reeling from the shock of it all, Gene and I both left the park. Once Gene and Copper arrived at my house, I again examined Copper for any signs of life. Looking back, this impulse could have been triggered by my training as a respiratory therapist, or perhaps it served to provide a much-needed moment of pause and a final good-bye. It also enabled me to gather myself for the dreaded phone calls to unsuspecting loved ones for whom the grief would start afresh. After which came the gloomy task of burying my beloved family pet.
The agency responsible for the trapping program in Indiana’s state parks, Department of Natural Resources, recklessly disregarded public safety, refusing to take steps that might prevent this foreseeable—if not inevitable—tragedy. In the years since Copper’s death, I have been involved in a legal action against the agency, seeking some degree of accountability. Over the next few months, the Center for Wildlife Ethics will publish a multi-part series highlighting the key events in the litigation and public policy impact of each event. The series will explain how, through the blatant manipulation of the law and the public’s trust, the State of Indiana hopes to immunize itself from all liability.
Every word of this series is dedicated to Copper.