Published March 17, 2013
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 bull was killed when it sniffed and pulled on a meat-scented M-44 placed about 900 feet from its home.
Kyle Traweek, the Wildlife Services employee who set the device, violated at least three M-44 restrictions set by the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Texas officials. In a June 6, 2012, letter reprimanding Traweek, the Texas Department of Agriculture said he broke EPA rules by placing the cyanide in an area where "exposure to the public and family and pets is probable."
Traweek is no longer employed by Wildlife Services, although his departure was not related to the incident in Texas, according to a spokeswoman with the Animal Plant and Health Inspection Service (APHIS), a division of the USDA that oversees the program.
It is difficult to verify the number of accidental killings of pets each year by Wildlife Services, in part because many go unrecorded, according to multiple sources.
A management source within the USDA claims Wildlife Services employees are told not to document the accidental killings of pets if it can be avoided.
"They are told to get rid of the leash and bury the dog," said the source, who spoke to FoxNews.com on condition of anonymity.
The source also alleged that in some instances in Arizona, California and Minnesota, the killings of pets are intentional – often with the knowledge, approval and encouragement of upper level Wildlife Services management.
"There have been cases of them shooting and killing dogs," the source said. "They’ll just claim it was feral, vicious or rabid. They think they can do anything they want."
In court documents obtained by FoxNews.com, Christopher Brennan, a California-based Wildlife Services employee, told a Mendocino County Superior Court judge that he has shot hundreds of "free-ranging" dogs who he claimed were preying on livestock. During the Sept. 1, 2009, hearing – involving a restraining order between Brennan and a neighbor – the judge asked Brennan how many dogs he has killed as a government trapper over the last 10 years.
"Probably close to 400," Brennan replied, according to the court transcript.
Carol Bannerman, an APHIS spokeswoman, confirmed Tuesday that Brennan is still employed as a "wildlife specialist" for the agency. Bannerman claimed Brennan works in an area where there is a large number of unleashed dogs that harass or kill livestock -- and said there is a "significant population" of privately owned guard dogs, mostly pit bulls, that are allegedly left to roam freely so they can protect illegal marijuana crops.
"None of the feral and free-ranging dogs lethally removed in California last year were non-targets," Bannerman said. "Some non-target dogs were trapped and released."
In January, a Wildlife Services employee was arrested in Arizona and charged with felony animal cruelty after allegedly using a government trap to capture a neighbor’s dog he deemed problematic. The employee, identified as Russell Files, set up the leg-hold device during work hours to trap the animal, which was covered in blood from trying to chew its way out of the device when police arrived on the scene. An APHIS official would not comment on whether Files is still working for the government, citing an ongoing investigation.
Wildlife Services described the overall harm to pets and non-target wildlife as “rare.”
"Wildlife Services provides expert federal leadership to responsibly manage one of our nation's most precious resources -- our wildlife," APHIS spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said in a statement. “We seek to resolve conflict between people and wildlife in the safest and most humane ways possible, with the least negative consequences to wildlife overall.”
The program said that accidental killings account for less than one percent of wildlife removed for damage concerns – and claimed that number is even lower for pets.
Wildlife Services, which has been in place since 1895, touts its mission as critical, priding itself on protecting the country’s agriculture and natural resources from destructive wildlife – damage that can be costly for landowners and businesses.
According to a 2010 report by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), U.S. farmers and ranchers spent $188 million during 2010 on non-lethal ways to protect their land and livestock. That number has declined from 2006, when NASS estimated annual investments in non-lethal methods to be at $199 million.
The USDA says that despite such investments, approximately 647,000 cattle, sheep and goat are killed by predators each year, resulting in an annual loss of more than $137 million. The lost animals do not include chickens and turkeys.
But Carson Barylak, federal policy adviser of the Animal Welfare Institute, is skeptical of the USDA’s statements. She said the danger posed by predatory animals is exaggerated.
"The very reports that Wildlife Services cite for these figures show that [attacks by wild predators have] a relatively small impact on the livestock industry. In the case of cattle, for instance, under a quarter of a percent of the nation’s stock was lost to predators in 2010 according to the program's records."
The exact number of pet animals and protected species killed over the years by the agency is one that will likely never be known.
A report by the Sacramento Bee, which investigated the program last year, claimed its employees have accidentally killed more than 50,000 non-target animals since 2000, including federally protected golden and bald eagles. The newspaper also reported that more than 1,100 dogs, including family pets, were destroyed by government traps or poison within those same years. Other known cases include serious injuries to pets that result in leg amputations, as well as harm to humans who come in contact with the cyanide.
Doug McKenna, a longtime criminal investigator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – a separate agency that falls under the Department of Interior – said he probed many killings of non-predatory and protected species by Wildlife Services over the years.
"The Bald Eagle is a scavenger bird, so of course if it flies down to investigate a carcass that is placed near a leg hold trap, it will get caught in it," he said. If the trap is not checked in a timely manner, the eagle is left to die. Such deaths are a violation of federal law, like the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, first passed in 1940.
McKenna said that in the case of M-44 cyanide devices, state governments must grant employees permission to place them as well as post warning signs for the public.
"Any access point into the property has to have signs that M-44’s are being used and it has to be in English and Spanish," he said.
For pet owners, seeking legal recourse against the government is a daunting and tedious process – requiring individuals to file a tort claim that typically results in families losing more money even if they win.
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"Most people do not pursue litigation when they realize the financial cost, the time involvement and the limit on recovery for damages being the actual value of their pet," said Oregon-based attorney Daniel Stotter, who handles many of these cases.
"The bottom line is that the federal government has limited liability in all lawsuits involving tort claims, damage to property or persons. You can sue the federal government for certain things, like negligence, but you cannot seek punitive damages," he said, adding that victims are responsible for covering their own legal fees.
“The government knows that when they injure or kill an animal, they're more likely to not have financial repercussions," he said.
For families like the McCurtains and Walkers, there is no price to be paid for the emotional toll of losing a pet.
"It is losing a member of the family," Angel Walker said. "You can’t really get past it."