They are a ubiquitous and often an irksome part of suburban life in New Jersey, known for carrying rabies and tearing through garbage.
Now raccoons are at the center of a legal battle between animal rights activists and state regulators, one that may soon head to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
At issue is a Christie administration policy that allows the use of a controversial trap that led to the capture and killing of thousands of raccoons by fur trappers earlier this year.
The case hinges on whether “enclosed foothold traps” approved for use last year by the New Jersey Fish and Game Council are similar enough to steel-jaw traps that were banned 32 years ago by lawmakers because they were considered “inhumane and cruel.”
The new traps will be used again when raccoon season begins on Tuesday after an appellate panel sided with Fish and Game last month, saying there was enough of a difference in the two traps to uphold the policy. A coalition of animal rights and environmental groups will appeal the decision to the state high court this month, their lawyer said.
The traps are very effective. Used for the first time during the previous raccoon trapping season from last November through this past March, the traps helped catch 12,600 raccoons — a 77 percent increase from the year before and the most in 25 years, according to state trapping data.
Enclosed foothold traps act similar to a mouse trap with a steel bar in a baited, two-inch-wide cylinder snapping down on a raccoon or opossums’ paw.
Opponents say they are essentially the same as the illegal jaw traps because they are excruciatingly painful to the animals that are caught in them.
“These traps snap on the animal just like the old ones did, and they suffer for days until the trapper comes around,” said Dante DiPirro, a lawyer representing the coalition. “It causes the same exact kind of cruelty that the legislation intended to prohibit.”
Supporters of the trapping policy say the devices are more humane than the steel-jaw traps and are small enough to prevent dogs from being caught. They also argue that it will help contain a growing raccoon population.
“We are the most densely populated state, and we have some of the most densely populated pockets of wildlife,” said Ed Markowski, legislative coordinator for the New Jersey Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs. “When you put those together, you have a chance of some unpopular interactions.”
Trappers say their activities are more than just a money-making venture, where pelts sell for about $15 each.
They are preserving a heritage, they say, that goes back to the earliest days of North American settlements and is often passed down through generations.