Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Extinction (the sad fate of the Passenger Pigeon)

Monday, September 01, 2008
The Patriot News

By the time they enter high school, most children have learned about the great bison herds of North America, and how men with guns brought these animals to the brink of extinction.

As students gain understanding of America's past, they are exposed to a second, even more troubling massacre. The passenger pigeon was once the most common bird on the continent, maybe in the world -- migrating in flocks that took days to pass overhead. Thanks to the unwavering zeal of shooters, the last known passenger pigeon, "Martha," died in Ohio on Sept. 1, 1914.

This condensed version of history, however, pulls up short after that, right where it counts.

Those responsible for the buffalo and passenger-pigeon massacres are portrayed as people who just didn't understand the power that humans could wield over nature. The tragic stories of these animals are chalked up as examples of ecological ignorance and unknowing people getting carried away with themselves. By this reckoning, we've learned the lessons of history. We're much more in tune with nature now.

But sadly there is more to it. These stories from our past are windows into something else, something darker in the human character. I'm speaking about bloodthirsty wantonness: The inexplicable lust to kill and kill and kill.

Unfortunately, the passage of time has not blunted this impulse in some of us.

Right here in 21st century Pennsylvania, gunfire rings out during the weekends from people engaged in orgies of killing that are even more gratuitous than the assaults on bison and passenger pigeon. That's right, not on the same epic scale but morally more repugnant. Back then, buffalo hides had economic value, at least. And passenger pigeons provided food, first to slaves and then to the underclass.

By contrast, today's pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania are without any purpose whatsoever. Nothing except competition killing for the sake of macabre trophy belt buckles.

These semi-tame pigeons are captured elsewhere, including the streets of New York. On any given Wednesday, they might be nibbling cracker crumbs out of grandma's hand in Central Park. Then they are trapped by a shadowy network of dealers and transported here. By Sunday, they could be stuffed into a box in front of shooter to be launched as living targets.

The "lucky" among these birds die swiftly. Their heads are snipped off by eager apprentices. The carcasses are discarded with the other garbage.

The less fortunate birds are wounded. They disappear into the trees and brush to suffer and die days later.

Don't be fooled by extremists who defend their blood-thirst as part of Pennsylvania's heritage. What grim heritage would that be? And if a zealot dares speak of "hunting" in the same breath as these shoots -- and sure enough, radicals like those of the National Rifle Association do -- please remind them that no traditional hunter kills for the sake of feeding garbage cans. No self-respecting hunter wounds animals and leaves them to die in the woods.

At The Humane Society of the United States we have a saying: Shooting pigeons and calling yourself a sportsman is like hiring an escort service and calling yourself a ladies' man.

THE GOOD NEWS is that we can end these savage displays of inhumanity. Ten years ago marked the end of the notorious Hegins pigeon shoot. Now a decade later, the Pennsylvania Legislature is considering catching up with the other 49 states in disallowing pigeon shoots. Let the shooters go play video games if they cannot find something constructive to do. The whole spectacle of pigeon shoots is just a ghoulish game anyway.

The trouble is, these few shooters and their extremist allies are a noisy bunch. To counter them, legislators need to hear that sensible voters are fed up. It is time for logic and decency to carry the day in the Capitol.

It requires not an iota of courage to shoot at a pigeon netted from the city park. It shouldn't require very much more for a legislator to decree that it's wrong to do so. A sensible law will send these contest kills into history's shameful dustbin along with stories of other human carnage against animals.

HEIDI PRESCOTT is senior vice president/campaigns for The Humane Society of the United States.

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