October 30th, 2013 by Anja Heister
Elizabeth and Me
A Life-Changing Encounter with Elizabeth, the Pine Marten
By Anja Heister,Director of the Wild and Free-Habitats Campaign
Although expert at swiftly maneuvering between trees, over rocks and fallen trees, she had no knowledge of the tragedy about to befall her. An unknown and inescapable danger was lurking in that part of the woods where her parents had taught her to look for squirrels, her favorite meal.
Picking up an interesting smell, Elizabeth followed the wafting scent of rotting flesh that became more irresistible the closer she moved to a large fir. The winter had been extremely cold and had made it difficult to find food to still her hunger.
Excitedly, she climbed up the tree and elegantly balanced along a thick branch – the smell promised a delicious and a much-needed meal! She had reached the end of the limb when the most horrible thing happened— in a split-second her right front paw got caught in a steel-jaw foothold trap.
The trap held her in its merciless grip, and there was no escape for the terrified being. Instead, there was shock, sheer incomprehensible pain as her desperate cry echoed unheard through the woods. Elizabeth tried to keep her balance on the tree limb, but the pain was so overwhelming and she was so scared that she fell…
two, three or four days later…
My partner Dave, his son Brett and I were cross-country skiing up a road through the woods on this winter day, when something dark between the trees caught our attention.
From a distance, it almost looked like an animal dangling from a branch of a tree. No, it must be a trick of light, an illusion. Little did we know that we were just about to become part of a forest-dweller’s painful drama, or that we would change her otherwise certain fate of dying in a trap or being clubbed to death by the returning trapper into a chance for survival, a chance for life.
When we reached the site, we saw the unimaginable – a young pine marten was hanging from a branch, her right front foot caught in a foothold trap! The trap had fallen off the branch and the animal was dangling with her foot caught in the trap at the end of a chain. She looked like the victim of a lynching, her body lifeless, and her head fallen to the side onto her shoulder – the wind was the only force moving the trapped animal’s body slightly in the cold winter breeze.
With what seemed a last effort of will, she lifted her head when she heard us approaching as we stared at her in disbelief and shock. She had a scared look in her eyes, then her head fell back on her shoulder again – she was exhausted from the pain and suffering she must have endured. How long had she been hanging there?
Without hesitation, Dave took off his coat and gently wrapped it around the pine marten, while Brett and I tried to pull the chain from the stake nailed on the trunk of the tree. It took us several minutes while Dave held the animal close to his body and kept talking in a low voice to the animal to reassure her of our intention to help. She didn’t move. Had she understood?
Once the chain was broken lose, we gently placed her on the snow on the ground. She still did not move! Frantically, and fearing that she might have died, we moved quickly trying to get the trap that was embedded in her fur off her damaged foot.
After five minutes of working in silence with tears running down our cheeks, the trap was off. We lifted the jacket a bit and stepped back to give that tortured little animal some space, and to let her know that she was safe now. She still was motionless. Slowly, we pulled the jacket away from her entire body.
Suddenly, she was on her feet and fled from us! After a few meters though, her gait became a limp and she dragged her foot, injured by the trap, through the snow.
Then, to our surprise, when she was safely about 30 meters away she stopped, turned around and looked at us. Her shining stare met our teary eyes, and our souls met. It was a moment when our hearts connected, and we knew and felt with all our heightened senses that this was a major and life-changing moment for us.
I believe that although this pine marten had experienced great pain and suffering, and had nearly lost her life to a human, she nevertheless was taking the time to thank us when she stopped like that, and looked back at us.
The image of Elizabeth hanging by her front paw in the middle of the woods, perhaps for several days and nights, is forever burned onto my mind. But just like my fellow German Johann Wolfgang von Goethe so clearly stated, “Knowledge without action is meaningless.”
She can’t know it, but the experience I shared in the winter woods with Elizabeth has propelled me to fight the battle against fur trapping in Montana and wherever I find it. Thank you for your courage and your inspiration, my little friend.
This story is the experience of one individual. We must each follow our own conscience if and when compassion conflicts with local law.