HARRISBURG, Pa.—There is a remote possibility that Pennsylvania will finally ban the cruel practice of live pigeon shoots when the state Senate reconvenes in September. Pennsylvania is the last state where pigeon shoots are legally held.
Rep. John Maher had written an amendment to an animal cruelty bill that would ban the killing, serving, and eating of dogs and cats. The amendment to ban pigeon shoots was sponsored in the Senate by Stewart J. Greenleaf, the committee chair, and Richard Alloway, a life-long hunter.
The Judiciary Committee voted 10-4 to send the bill to the full Senate. Voting to send the bill to the Senate were all five Democrats and five of the nine Republicans. Voting against the bill to ban killing and eating dogs and cats, and to ban pigeon shoots, were Republican senators John H. Eichelberger Jr., John R. Gordner, Gene Yaw, and Joseph B. Scarnati III, the Senate president pro tempore. Gordner later claimed he voted against the bill because he objected to how the amendment was added at the “last minute.” However, the amendment, following long-time Senate rules that have applied to legislation for decades, had been circulated to members at least 24 hours before the vote. In the committee meeting, Gordner did not speak out about what he considered to be a problem with “last minute” amendments, and quietly voted “no” on a voice vote.
The vote to advance the bill came following a furious last-minute lobbying effort by the NRA, which has consistently supported pigeon shoots. The leadership, as opposed to most of the membership, wrongly believes that banning animal cruelty by guns is a “slippery slope” that not only violates the Second Amendment but will lead to gun control bans.
“The Judiciary Committee took the first step to ending this horrifying and cruel practice,” says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who has been campaigning to end this practice for almost three decades. “The public favors replacing live pigeons as targets with clay pigeons,” says Prescott, who does not oppose trap or skeet shoots.
Following a second reading, the bill was scheduled for a vote, June 29, but was delayed because the Senate was still grappling with the 2014-2015 budget bills, due by July 1. Even if the Senate does vote to ban pigeon shoots, the bill is likely to have significant opposition in the House, which is far more rural and conservative. Pennsylvania, even though it is in the industrial North, is known to be an NRA-friendly state.
However, more than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see an end to pigeon shoots, according to a statewide survey by the independent Mason-Dixon Polling and Research Co. About four-fifth of all residents say the practice is animal cruelty.
Organizers of this blood sport place pigeons—many of them emaciated—into small cages, and place people with 12-gauge shotguns only about 20 yards away. The spring-loaded traps open, and the shooters open fire. Most of the birds are shot standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from those who pretend they are sportsmen.
Even at close range, the shooters don’t kill the birds. About three-fourths of them suffer a lingering death, according to data compiled by the HSUS. If the birds fall within the shooting range, teenagers will get the birds, wring their necks or use scissors to behead them, stomp on their bodies, and usually stuff them into a barrel; some of the birds will slowly die from asphyxiation in the barrel.
The teenagers and the clubs that sponsor the shoots consider the birds to be litter. Birds that do not fall on the shooting fields will fly into rivers, streams, and private property, to die a lingering and painful death. Most cannot be saved by HSUS animal rescue staff.
At some of the shoots, as many as 5,000 birds will be killed or wounded. The remaining shoots, all in southeastern Pennsylvania, are also marked by an excess of drinking and illegal gambling, none of which is enforced by state police.
Shoot organizers have also been accused, but never brought to trial, for assault and threats against civil protestors from SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness), humane societies, and others. DAs in Berks and Bucks counties, adjacent to Philadelphia, have refused to pursue citations filed by humane police officers, who have charged individuals with animal cruelty.
Pigeon shooting, despite what the NRA and the shoot organizers claim, is not a sport. The only time it was considered a sport was in the 1900 Olympics. Following that competition, the International Olympic Committee declared pigeon shooting was animal cruelty, and banned it from the Olympics.
Most hunters agree that organized pigeon shoots are a scar upon legitimate hunting. The Pennsylvania Game Commission declared pigeon shoots not to be fair-chase hunting. The birds cannot be used for meat, nor are their feathers useful for commercial enterprise.
For more than three decades, leaders of the Pennsylvania legislature, most of whom have received funds from the NRA political action committee, have blocked passage of previous bills to ban pigeon shoots. Tom Corbett, in his successful campaign for governor in 2010, received $4,500 in direct contributions and almost $390,000 in in-kind contributions from the NRA Political Victory Fund. The last time a free-standing vote came up was in the House in 1989.
In addition to the Humane Society of the United States and SHARK, both of which the NRA calls radical extremist organizations, supporting the end of pigeon shoots are the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, and the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has been covering pigeon shoots for more than 20 years. He is the author of 20 books, the most recent, Fracking Pennsylvania.