Fur coats fell out of fashion years ago in the United States. But foreign demand for luxury fur garments made from the pelts of American wildlife has surged in recent years, sparking a Gold Rush-like trapping boom across parts of rural America.

The activity is legal and regulated by state wildlife agencies. But it is carried out in ways that often inflict prolonged suffering to animals and capture many species by mistake.

In our latest investigation, Reveal found:

* Steel-jaw traps used to capture animals can be instruments of torture. Some animals break free by chewing or twisting off a paw or limb. Others freeze or starve to death in the time it takes a trapper to check his trap.

* Traps are no more selective than land mines. For trappers, bobcats are the top prize. But dozens of other species have been caught by mistake in traps over the past two decades, from federally protected bald and golden eagles to pet dogs and cats.

* Traps are prohibited in more than 80 nations. But in most U.S. states, they’re legal. Many animals are trapped on public land managed by federal agencies, including national wildlife refuges.

* Dispatching bobcats can be gruesome. No longer does death come with the sharp crack of a trapper’s bullet, which runs the risk of bloodstains, bullet damage and a lower pelt price. Now, many are strangled with a wire noose suspended from the end of a pole, a tactic that repulses veterinarians and even some trappers.

For trappers, the endeavor is a real-world time machine, a chance to revel in the outdoors and be part of a tradition that helped open the American West to development. Trapping, they say, is no less cruel than the natural world, where animals die of starvation, disease and predation. It does not threaten bobcats and other species with extinction. And it is the source of a renewable natural resource that has kept humankind warm for centuries: fur.

For the full story, read my  journey into the world of trapping and listen to the latest podcast. And watch me test the traps out.

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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.