Falling from the Sky: Confronting Pigeon Shoots (Again)
In the annals of animal protection, Labor Day became known not for the end of summer but for the violent end of hundreds of birds in Pennsylvania. The infamous annual pigeon shoot in the small town of Hegins became a symbol of gratuitous violence toward animals.
For those unfamiliar with pigeon shoots, they are spectacles of slaughter that involve the release of captive-raised birds in a confined space where people with guns line up like baseball players at bat to blast them out of the air within seconds of the disoriented birds trying to take flight. There's nothing "sporting" about it, and even some hunters have denounced the activity. Pennsylvania is the only state that still allows them.
Years of protests in the 1980s and 1990s, and exhaustive efforts to get the Pennsylvania legislature to act, resulted in the Hegins shoot being shut down in 1998. But the shoots continue elsewhere in the state, and a recent investigation had documented the ongoing cruelty.
Members of Showing Animals Respect and Kindness just released video footage from a recent Berks County shoot showing wounded pigeons being stomped and slammed to death, and struggling birds flopping in agony among their dead companions. It's customary for wounded birds who don't die immediately from the shotgun blast to be collected and killed by teenage boys and other onlookers using the crudest means possible. Injured birds who manage to escape outside the shoot property are left to die on their own. As many as 5,000 birds a day are killed at these shoots.
The Humane Society of the United States has been a longtime opponent of these spectacles, and they and other state humane advocates have lobbied tirelessly to pass legislation to ban them all, once and for all. They got a step closer last year with an amendment to S. B. 71 (which addressed other issues such as greyhound racing and the sale of dog and cat meat), but in the end the Pennsylvania House voted 124-69 last December to send the bill back to the Gaming Oversight Committee, where it will likely expire. And every time such legislation dies, so do more birds.
Efforts to enforce humane laws at the county levels have been repeatedly thwarted by the district attorneys in Bucks and Berks Counties. Just last month, a Commonwealth Court ruled against a state humane officer's efforts to bring animal cruelty charges against a Pike Township pigeon shoot. However, new efforts to stop the shoots center on the environmental pollution caused by birshot, casings and dead birds that fall into waterways near shoot sites - an assertion upheld by a judge just a few weeks ago.
When I lived in Delaware in the early 1990s, I attended protests in Hegins twice. The experience was surreal. Families with coolers and stadium blankets showed up with children in tow like they were attending just another picnic. They set up lawn chairs just outside the fenced-in area where the shooters waited in line with their shotguns while small wooden boxes were filled and refilled with pigeons who barely made it five feet into the air after release before loud shots shattered both the silence and the birds' bodies. Most birds fell dead, but those who were wounded were picked up by young boys who either broke their necks or tossed them into large metal barrels to suffocate. Activists were poised nearby to retrieve and treat wounded birds, who looked bloodied and dazed.
The whole thing was bizarre and disturbing. I saw a friend get badly roughed up by the police for speaking out to the crowd; I saw three robed Ku Klux Klan members parading through the mix of people, presumably drawn by the publicity; I saw children on their parents' laps watching all this; and of course I heard taunts from camo-clad participants who took unabashed pleasure in not just killing the birds but taunting those who wished to save them.
After all these years it's exhausting and frustrating to think that this weirdness still happens. Surely, we think, enough legislators in Pennsylvania will figure out that regardless of their stance on gun ownership in general and hunting in particular, this sort of thing has no place in modern society. Last year 19 state senators co-sponsored SB 626, a bill to specifically ban pigeon shoots, which passed the Senate Judiciary Committee but has not been brought to a vote by the full Senate. But apparently the National Rifle Association, which lobbies in support of the shoots, has as much power over Pennsylvania lawmakers as the pigeon shooters have over the doomed pigeons.
But pigeon shoot opponents will not give up. Technology is making it easier to document and publicize the cruelty, and the shooters cannot hide even behind the gates of their private gun clubs. This travesty may have gone on far too long, but it cannot go on much longer.
- Jill Howard Church
Published by admin on 10/12/2012 11:20:05