Steel-jaw traps work by slamming shut on the paw or leg of an animal and holding it until a trapper arrives. The devices are outlawed in more than 100 nations, but not in the U.S. Credit: Tom Knudson/Reveal

Iraq bans them. So do China, Somalia and Sudan.

But in the United States, steel-jaw traps are not only legal, they are the go-to tool for trappers who capture and kill millions of wild animals a year for the global fur market.

For years, wildlife advocates have struggled to determine how many nations ban the controversial, punishing devices. Estimates have ranged from about 50 to more than 88.

Now, thanks to a new analysis by the Law Library of Congress, they have an answer: more than 100.

Steel-jaw traps work by snapping shut on the leg of an animal, holding it until a trapper arrives, or until the animal dies or wrings its paw off. In the process, they can inflict pain and serious injury. That’s why many countries outlaw them. Earlier this year, we detailed the cruel and grisly toll of such devices in an in-depth story about bobcat trapping in America.

The new analysis is tedious but definitive. It identifies each country where traps are banned or restricted, along with a link to the law. On the list are several surprises, including China – a major market for U.S. trapped fur. Other trap-unfriendly nations include: Albania, Burkina Faso, Chad, Denmark, Ecuador, Gambia, Hungary, Israel, Japan, Kosovo, Lithuania, Mexico, Peru, Spain, Rwanda, Sweden and Uruguay.

Pressure for trap reform is growing in the U.S. Last year, a bill was introduced in Congress to ban trapping on national wildlife refuges. In California, officials voted last year to ban all commercial bobcat trapping. In other states, advocates are waging battles to outlaw trapping on public lands.

“We welcome this important new research,” said Cathy Liss, president of the Animal Welfare Institute, in a statement. “It provides clear evidence that the United States is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to legal restrictions on these cruel and nonselective traps.” 

Trap advocates say the steel-jaw devices are not as punishing as they’re made out to be and that trapping is part of America’s frontier heritage and should be preserved.

To see the traps in action, watch me test them out on household items here.

Tom Knudson can be reached at tknudson@cironline.org. Follow him on Twitter: @tomsplace.

Tom Knudson is a reporter for Reveal, covering the environment. He is the recipient of two Pulitzer Prizes and a 2004 award for global environmental reporting from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Reuters. Over the years, he has reported on a wide range of subjects, including the abuse of migrant forest workers in the American West, overfishing in Mexico's Sea of Cortez and the environmental degradation of California's Sierra Nevada mountain range. Knudson is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.