Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Despite Bad Rap Pennsylvania Pigeon Shoots Go On

Critics still take aim at Pa. pigeon shoots
Enthusiasts press on despite bad rap.

By Amy Worden
Inquirer Staff Writer

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PIKEVILLE, Pa. - At the cry of "Pull!" a pigeon is catapulted from a small spring-loaded metal box in the middle of a field at the Pike Township Sportsmen's Club. A shooter poised 30 yards away with a shotgun fires, sending the gray and white bird plummeting to the ground.
Over and over for two hours scores of live pigeons are launched into the air as shooters vie to kill the most birds and take home the prize money.

Some birds are killed instantly. Others land wounded, flapping helplessly on injured wings. The lucky ones escape and cluster in nearby trees and rooftops.

This is the scene at the Pike Township Sportsmen's Club, 56 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where Sunday pigeon shoots are a longtime tradition. Fewer than a half-dozen gun clubs - most of them in Berks County - still stage shoots in the state. Pennsylvania is one of two states where the events are legal, but the only one where the shoots are still being held.

Under fire from lawsuits, bad publicity and hostile legislation, the clubs operate in near secrecy. They do not advertise their shoots, nor are they open to the public. Efforts by a reporter to talk to participants at one recent pigeon shoot were rebuffed.

The Humane Society of the United States has been trying to end pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania since the mid-1980s. It has filed lawsuits on animal-cruelty allegations and pushed bills to ban the shoots in every legislative session without success.

The group argues the unregulated shoots are cruel because so many birds are slaughtered at close range and the injured suffer needlessly. The injured that fall inside the rings have their heads snapped off by ring crew members and those that fly away injured, critics say, languish in pain for hours or days before dying.

But they also contend that the shoots, like dog fights, are rife with other kinds of illegal activity occurring across multiple states in the region: trapping birds in New York City, transporting animals across state lines, tax fraud and gambling.

"Animal cruelty alone should be enough to shut down this practice, but there are many other compelling reasons as well," said Heidi Prescott, vice president for the Humane Society. "Our intelligence about the sordid and secretive pigeon-shoot circuit highlights the similarity to dogfighting and cockfighting in terms of the extent of gambling and illegal animal trafficking."
Officials at three gun clubs contacted by The Inquirer did not return calls seeking comment. An official reached at the Strausstown Gun Club, where pigeon shoots are held seven times a year, said he was not involved.

"I don't approve of them, but I don't condemn them," said Tom Leary, vice president of the club.

Don Bailey of Strausstown, who organizes shoots and provides pigeons at the Strausstown club and elsewhere, said he viewed the events as an effective way to get rid of vermin. "We kill pigeons," said Bailey. "What do you think they do when they poison birds in Philadelphia?"

Monitoring the Action

From her perch a few hundred yards away from the shooting rings, humane officer Johnna Seeton has a clear view of the action.
The retired teacher stands on a public road, dutifully recording on paper and with a video camera the license plates of participants, the numbers of birds used, and how the injured birds are treated before they are destroyed.
This has been Seeton's weekend routine for 20 years.
"I guess I'm obsessed," she said. "But I figure if I have the documentation, no one can say it's hearsay."

After each round, a flock of teenagers, called "trappers," is dispatched with sacks to pick up the injured and dead birds. They disappear into a small lean-to. Typically, the injured birds are disposed of by breaking their necks or ripping their heads off.

Seeton goes out to comb the countryside to try to rescue the wounded the next day. She has brought scores of badly injured birds to vets, where most are euthanized.

"I feel like I'm cleaning up their mess," Seeton said of the shoot organizers.

Bailey claims he picks up birds from the perimeter of the rings and disposes of them. Birds that go farther afield are "taken care of by hawks," he said.

Pigeon shoots have been held in Pennsylvania since before the Civil War. It was a notorious Schuylkill County shoot that put pigeon shooting on the national radar in the 1980s. The annual fund-raiser in the town of Hegins drew as many as 10,000 people to its Roman circus-like atmosphere.

Animal-welfare advocates set up triage tents for the wounded birds. In 1993, mounted state troopers wielding tear gas arrested 114 protesters.

In 1999, amid a court battle with an animal-rights group, the shoot was canceled by its organizers.

"Most people now think the shoots are over," Seeton said.

But they continue to be held almost every weekend from September through February in other Pennsylvania clubs. At least 22 shoots were held in the last year, according to a schedule assembled by the Humane Society.

It's unclear exactly where the pigeons come from.

The pigeon broker and shoot organizer Bailey told a New York Times reporter in 2004 that he paid farm boys to collect pigeons from barns, but that he had heard of people taking birds from the streets of Philadelphia and New York.

The Humane Society alleges a large number continue to be brought in from New York City, where residents have reported witnessing people throwing nets over pigeons and whisking them away in vehicles.

With the clubs on the defensive, access to their shoots has become limited.

At the Pike Township club, where roughly 20 shooters showed up on a recent Sunday morning, a cluster of participants turned their backs on a reporter trying to ask questions.

Participants pay high fees - at Strausstown they start at $270, plus $7 for practice pigeons - for purses as small as $20. At the big events, winners can take home as much as $4,000. But the Humane Society's Prescott believes those purses represent a fraction of the real stakes - tens of thousands of dollars wagered under the table - at some events.

Leary, of the Strausstown club, said that the shoots' attraction was "gambling pure and simple."

Is It Hunting?

Many hunters say pigeon shoots are cruel and not a legitimate form of hunting. Game Commission officials say that leaving behind a wounded animal violates the state game law.
The commission has not taken a position on the shoots or gotten involved because pigeons are not classified as wildlife, said spokesman Jerry Feaser.

But he said the pigeon shoots are "not what we would classify as fair-chase hunting."
David Kozloff, a Wyomissing lawyer who is representing the Pike Township club in a suit filed by Seeton, said he didn't see the difference between pigeon shoots and hunting in the field.
"Isn't the end result the same?" he said.

Sen. Patrick Browne (R., Lehigh), the sponsor of the latest version of the pigeon shoot bill, is still confident he has the support to pass the bill. (A companion bill has been introduced in the House.)

"I think in terms of the issue of a balance between the hunters and the cruelty to animals, this is something that breaches that," Browne said. "Traditional sportsmen find it offensive, and a large majority of Pennsylvanians agree."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or

Reference: Humane Society of Berks County

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

22 years ago ......

This article from The New York Times, was posted September 16 1986, that makes it almost 22 years old:

Stop the Labor Day Pigeon Slaughter
Published: September 16, 1986

To the Editor:

Thousands watched the massacre in Hegins, Pa., and young children were hired to wring the necks of ''downed'' pigeons showing any signs of life after being shot. Your report suggested that killing pigeons for such entertainment is as legal in Pennsylvania as baseball.

Not so. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a suit pending in the Schuylkill County Court of Common Pleas permanently to enjoin future shoots from taking place.

Our first attempt for a temporary restraining order before Labor Day was denied by a local judge on an interpretation of law that would have us believe that in Pennsylvania pigeons are not animals and therefore not covered by the state's animal anticruelty statute. We are confident that, after a full review, the court will conclude as our lawyers have that in Pennsylvania, as elsewhere, pigeons are protected by law from acts of cruelty. JOHN F. KULLBERG President, A.S.P.C.A. New York, Sept. 9, 1986


Now, look at this posting from the Humane Society, it is almost 5 months old:

Throwing Live Pigeon Shoots to the History Books

September 20, 2007

©Cape Wildlife Center/The HSUS
Wounded birds—alive and suffering—can be found in the area days after a pigeon shoot.
By Casey Pheiffer

A decade ago, Frank Andrews Shimkus was a broadcast journalist assigned to cover the notorious Hegins pigeon shoot. At the time, Shimkus was appalled at the unspeakable event, but he had little idea that a decade later he would be in a position to help end cruel live pigeon shoots.

As a direct repercussion of a lawsuit by The Fund for Animals, the Hegins shoot ended not long after Shimkus reported on it.

UPDATE 12/19/07
There are now two pigeon shoot bills: HB 2130 and SB 1150. Pennsylvanians, please ask your legislators to stop these cruel pigeon shoots.

But other shoots go on every fall and winter at private gun clubs in east-central Pennsylvania. And Frank Shimkus has not forgotten the pigeons or the cruelty inherent in these shoots. Today, he is a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the primary sponsor of HB 73, a cruelty bill to ban shooting competitions in the Keystone State where live animals are launched from traps or tethered.

Moving Toward a Ban

A failed attempt by an out-of-state group to hold a new shoot in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, last fall reinvigorated the effort to ban these absurd events. Before the planned shoot, the chairman of the township's board of supervisors declared that he would dig up the town's streets before he allowed this animal cruelty to take place within their community's borders.

The Shimkus bill, which has attracted 49 co-sponsors, appears to have enough support to pass when it comes to a floor vote, after which it would go to the Senate for action. Even diehard hunters in the legislature recognize that the time has come to ban live pigeons shoots.

HB 73 was referred to the Judiciary Committee on January 30 of this year, where it has languished for nearly nine months. One of the holdups is the involvement of the outnumbered Pennsylvania members of the National Rifle Association. Twice the pigeon shoot bill has been scheduled for consideration by the Committee, and twice the NRA has done its best to stall the bill, even though many hunters are embarrassed by the activity and would never participate in a live pigeon shoot.

But while the NRA has thrown up roadblocks, advocates representing The HSUS's half a million members in Pennsylvania are working to make sure this cruelty is finally stopped.

Suffering and Dying for Fun

Live pigeon shoots have nothing to do with traditional hunting. Stockpiled months before a shoot and kept in cramped wire cages, pigeons arrive at the shoots malnourished, dehydrated and disoriented. They are then released one at a time from boxes called "traps" to be shot from 30 yards away.

As many as 5,000 birds become living targets during a three-day shoot, with most of the birds wounded, rather than killed outright, and left to suffer before dying.

Humane Officer Johnna Seeton observes that, "As a Humane Society police officer for Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network, I go back one, three and five days after the pigeon shoots and document live wounded pigeons still in the area."

The Trend is Clear

In other states, with the assistance of local communities that want pigeon shoots out of their back yards, The Fund for Animals and The Humane Society of the United States have been the leaders in stopping illegal live pigeon shoots wherever they occur. After California residents contacted The Fund about a shoot in their area, the California Attorney General opined in 2000 that pigeon shoots violated the state's cruelty code.

Pennsylvania is the last frontier for these events, leading the few who want to participate in these cruel events to travel across state lines to the last shoots occurring in Pennsylvania. At recent competitions, HSUS observers reported that the majority of cars on the parking lot, apart from those of the gun club staff and volunteers, carry out-of-state tags.

"What kind of person," wondered one HSUS activist, "would drive hundreds of miles just to shoot captive birds? And what kind of organization would fight so hard to keep these things going?"

What You Can Do

If you live in Pennsylvania, please tell your legislators that you don't want your state to host these cruel events any longer.

Casey Pheiffer is Deputy Campaign Manager for The HSUS's Hunting Campaign.


What are people waiting for? 22 more years of pigeon massacre in Pennsylvania? Why does it take so long to protect helpless pigeons lives? Why is it taking the Humane Society so long to obtain a protection legislation passed? Why is the National Riffle Association so powerful as to stop a legislation for 22 years?Who owns these "private gun clubs" in Pa, maybe the NRA?
Why does not the Pennsylvania Attorney General follows example of California and inforce the law?