Trap snaps in court during trial

A registrar was slightly injured in court when a gin trap went off while it was being measured as part of a witness’ evidence in an SPCA animal welfare prosecution.

Christchurch District Court Judge David Saunders asked for four of the traps – produced as exhibits during the one-day trial – to be measured in court by an expert witness because the exact measurements were not part of the evidence.

The odd scene took place while a Casebrook man who protected his plants by setting gin traps – removing the foot of a pukeko – was on trial.

Four gin traps were set in court and measured by the trap expert to establish that two of them were over the legal size of 105mm.

During the measuring, one of the traps sprung closed unexpectedly, slightly hitting the finger of a registrar who was helping with the measurements. The registrar expected she might end up bruised.

The case led to a day-long trial in the Christchurch District Court where Judge David Saunders convicted 60-year-old Graham Clifford Witty for breaching the Animal Welfare Act by using illegal traps.

Witty denied the charge at the judge-alone trial, calling evidence from a neighbour that Witty had fenced an area and set the traps as a last resort to prevent animals such as pukekos from damaging a belt of trees he was trying to establish. Witty had been concerned when a pukeko’s foot had been found in a trap.

SPCA prosecutor Guy Carter said an Order in Council in 2007 banned gin traps where the diameter of the jaws was greater than 10.5cm when they were set open.

Traps were found along a stream-line on Witty’s property in 2017 and in a shed on the property, and an expert witness said some were larger than the legal limit.

Witty questioned witnesses about whether the traps were found on a 1m strip of Crown land along the Styx Stream near Highsted Road, or on his property, but Mr Carter said the SPCA’s view was that it was immaterial whether they were used on the Crown easement or on adjacent property – the traps were illegal.

A City Care worker told of hearing the commotion of a bird in distress when a crew was tidying vegetation along the Styx Stream – a box drain – in June 2017. He saw a pukeko “flapping around, with its leg stuck in a trap”.

When the workers opened the trap, the pukeko flew away but its foot fell off.

The crew then reported the traps to their supervisor. They sprung the traps with a stick, but council staff found them set again next day, and sprung them again. They checked on Google about the rules on gin traps and then referred the case to the Ministry of Primary Industries.

The SPCA then became involved and executed a search warrant on Witty’s property where they took the traps. He was not at home but several more traps were found in a shed. One contained a shrivelled-up leg from an animal. The type of animal could not be identified but it was a long-boned leg with claws – possibly a possum or a cat.

In a phone interview, Witty told SPCA inspector Samantha Cairns that he had set the leg-hold traps “to catch whatever was eating my plants”.

Trap expert with Land Care Research at Lincoln, Bruce Warburton, told the court he had examined the traps found at Witty’s property. When he examined and measured them they were all long-spring traps up to 11cm across the jaws. Their use had been prohibited because of the injuries they caused to animals.

Judge Saunders said the SPCA had proved the charge. He accepted that Witty, who defended himself at the trial, had been upset by the SPCA executing a search warrant and entering his property.

Witty said his planting was now well established.

He also told the judge: “I did keep an eye out for the pukeko. He was doing well for three months but I haven’t seen him since. I used to call him Hoppy.” He was often seen on the neighbour’s property.

Judge Saunders convicted Witty and ordered him to come up for sentence within a year if called upon – a suspended sentence – but ordered him to pay $500 towards the SPCA’s cost of prosecution.