It’s a trap.

No, literally, a conibear is a trap. Some of you may know this already; some may have seen the word conibear and not been sure what it referred to; some may not know the word at all. I learned first in my childhood that a conibear was a kind of trap, but I don’t think I ever saw one in person. I saw an illustration of one, a trap made of two rectangles hinged together and spring-loaded near the hinges so that, when released, they would part from one orientation and scissor through 90 degrees to snap together in the other orientation (oh, just find a picture). I decided that the conibear must be an old, traditional kind of trap, with an old, traditional kind of name, preferred by those who liked things in the original style. I guessed that they must be mainly for trapping rabbits, since conibear looks like a compound of cony (which is another word for ‘rabbit’) plus bear. And from that I guessed how it is pronounced.

More recently, I decided to look up the conibear and find out more about it. I discovered that I was mistaken about its origins, not quite right about its purpose, misled by its name, and a bit off on the pronunciation. It turns out that things that look plain and obvious from what you see are not always plain and obvious at all, and it’s easy to step into a trap, so to speak (or write). Now that I have known the real story for… (looks at watch)… um, at least a few hours, I feel I should enter it into the record here.

First, the conibear exists because its inventor was determined to make a humane trap. And it is humane, in the same general way as a guillotine is humane: minimal pain for maximum death. The conibear’s inventor was a trapper and had been appalled at the effects of leg-hold traps: animals would be caught in them in great pain for a long time and would sometimes even chew their legs off to escape. He wished them a quick death, and one that also wouldn’t look so nasty or cause damage to the pelt or loss of the furry critter altogether. (There was, of course, no question of just not trapping them.) He worked out, over a number of years, a design that, when an animal of the right size came to the trap the right way, would snap the critter’s neck or crush its torso and kill it more or less instantly.

However, a conibear has more room for error than a guillotine; perhaps we should say a it is humane like hanging. When hanging is done as designed, it snaps the neck and causes quick death, assuming you don’t count all that stuff leading up to the actual hanging; when it is not done as designed, you get that dance-on-a-rope stuff from the Western movies and even worse. And when the wrong animal (e.g., your pet) comes into a conibear, or the right (i.e., intended) animal comes in the wrong way, the death can be a bit more protracted. Quite a bit, at times.

Funny thing is, I grew up surrounded by traps closely related to the conibear and didn’t realize it. We lived in a country house where there were mice, so we had mousetraps. The principle is identical; the design is a bit simpler. The results are also analogous, at smaller scale.

But the conibear was inspired by something else you might find in the kitchen of a country house: a certain kind of eggbeater. The trap’s inventor tried a few versions with middling success, but came back to it decades later with further inspiration from embroidery hoops and at last made the version that became very quickly popular. He patented it in 1957, when he was 61 years old. Which means that it was not 20 years old when I first heard of it.

And why the name? I will tell you that the trap was not designed mainly for catching rabbits. Mink, yes, and foxes, and beavers – the sorts of furry creatures that a trapper would seek in the area where its inventor lived: Fort Smith, Northwest Territories, Canada (just off the northern boundary of Alberta; we could have driven there from where I lived in a day… an 18-hour day). The conibear trap got its name, indirectly, from a small place in Devon, England (which probably is named after conies, and maybe bears or maybe bearing them, but I can’t find the details on this one), and less indirectly from a family named after that place, one of whom was born in Plymouth, England, in 1896, moved to Canada in 1899 with his family, and ended up living in the Northwest Territories and making a good living guiding and running a hotel in the summer and trapping in the winter: Frank Ralph Conibear, inventor of the trap in question, who was still alive when I first heard of his device, as well as when this useful article on him was published (he died in 1988).

Since I already said I was wrong about how to say the name, and since I said my idea was based on cony, you may guess that my error was in how to say the vowels, and you will be right: it’s said like “con a bear,” not like “cony bear” as I had thought. And why is the name said like that? Well, why not? The word cony (which traces back to Latin cuniculus) originally rhymed with honey and money. But that sounded a bit… um, like a ruder word. So rabbit and bunny took over, and eventually people forgot the old way of saying cony and started saying it as we do now… when we say it at all.

And now you know just about all you con bear about this trap, I’m sure. And also about the importance of not assuming that what looks traditional really is traditional, and about more generally treading carefully, taking your time, and doing your diligence, lest you step into a trap – with crushing results.

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