by Walter Brasch
Dave Comroe stepped to the firing line, raised his 12-gauge Browning over and under shotgun, aimed and fired. Before him, a pigeon fell, moments after being released from a box less than 20 yards away. About 25 times that day Comroe fired, hitting about three-fourths of the birds. He was 16 at the time.
“It’s not easy to shoot them,” he says, explaining, “there’s some talent involved. When a live pigeon is released, you have no idea where it’s going.” Where it’s going is usually no more than five to ten feet from its cage. Many are shot on the ground or while standing on top of the cages, stunned by the noise, unable to fly because of being malnourished, dehydrated, and confined to a small space for hours, often days.
Nevertheless, even with “expert” shooters on the line, only about one-fifth of the pigeons are killed outright, according to Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States. About a tenth of the birds usually escape. But about two-thirds are wounded.
“There really isn’t much you can do for a wounded pigeon except put it out of its misery,” says Comroe. Prior to an order in 2002 by the Court of Common Pleas in Berks County, most of the wounded were picked up by trapper boys and girls, some as young as eight years old, who killed the birds by stomping on their bodies, hitting them against structures, stuffing them into sacks, and dumping them, some still breathing, into large barrels. Some also wrung the birds’ necks or ripped them from their bodies. Since that order, the “trappers” are at least 18 years old and have gone “high-tech”; they now use garden shears to sever a bird’s head.
Trappers can’t get all of the birds. Hundreds at a large shoot will fly to surrounding areas and remain untreated as long as several days to die a painful death, says Johnna Seeton, Humane Society police officer. Pigeon shoot organizers do their best to keep observers from the scene, and don’t allow volunteers to pick up and treat wounded birds unless they fly off the property, even if there’s no shooting at the time. “We have only been able to rescue a few birds,” says Seeton.
Dave Comroe, now 32 years old, had begun hunting when he was 12 years old. That first year he killed his only deer. Although he has been deer hunting many times, he says he has “only taken a shot once.” He has gone pheasant and dove hunting about a half dozen times.
“Fathers take their sons out,” he says, noting that hunting is “a “bonding experience.” That “bonding” continued through his teens and early 20s when he went to pigeon shoots. “I went as a spectator,” he says, “and to hang out with my friends.” He was 14 when he attended his first pigeon shoot, and remembers he didn’t compete until a year or two later. Comroe says he competed in five shoots, “but attended 10 or 12 overall,” including two or three at Hegins.
That shoot, at one time the largest and most controversial in the nation, brought as many as 250 shooters and as many as 10,000 spectators, from animal rights activists to neo-Nazis and skinheads, to the community park every Labor Day. The organizers claimed they only wanted to raise money for the town park. But they refused an offer by the Fund for Animals, which later merged into the Humane Society, to buy traps, clay pigeons, and ammunition for a non-violent event. Confrontational protests, begun in 1991 under the direction of the Fund for Animals, were abandoned two years later in favor of a large-scale animal rescue operation. Each Labor Day, more than 5,000 birds were killed and thrown away.
The organizers of the Hegins shoot finally cancelled the contests in 1999, 66 years after they began. It had nothing to do with a realization that killing domesticated pigeons is cruel. It had everything to do with a unanimous ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that humane society officers could arrest participants and organizers under state anti-cruelty charges.
Comroe, a Syracuse graduate and instruction technology specialist, is pleasant, soft-spoken, and definitely not violent. Some who attend pigeon shoots aren’t. Heidi Prescott, who has been to more than 50 shoots, has seen “Children ripping the heads off live birds or throwing them into the air like footballs, adults cheering and laughing when crippled birds flop up and down in pain, and spectators parading around the park with pigeons’ heads mounted on plastic forks.” It’s hard to reconcile the compassion seen in Comroe’s eyes with the reality that he calls pigeon shooting a sport. “There’s no pretense about it,” says Comroe, “It isn’t hunting. It’s a sport.” Pigeon shoots, claims the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, “are a traditional and international shooting sport.” But, killing trapped pigeons isn’t a sport, according to the International Olympic Committee which banned pigeon shooting after its only appearance in the 1900 Olympics. The reason why pigeon shooting isn’t recognized as a sport was best explained by the IOC. “It’s cruelty,” it said after thinking about the Olympics’ only bloody “sport.”
Sensitive to the public outrage, almost every shooter and the organizers of the gun clubs that sponsor the events refuse to talk to the public or the press. But, in private, the shooters claim not only are they sportsmen, but they hold a high moral code. The NRA claims the participants “are law-abiding, ethical shooting enthusiasts, hunters, and sportsmen.” However, there appears to be a different morality for pigeon shooters than allowed under state and federal laws. Like dog fights and co*k fights, participants and spectators make money not from the prizes, which are usually belt buckles, trophies, and purses that average $20–$100 per event, but from an extensive underground in gambling. Comroe acknowledges “a lot of money trades hands” at pigeon shoots. In addition to tax fraud, money is also made by the illegal capture, interstate transportation, and sale of pigeons, also a violation of federal laws.
Pennsylvania is the only state where people openly kill live pigeons in organized contests. Every other state, with the exception of Tennessee, which has no law against it but also no shoots, has either banned the practice by law or by court action, or it is covered under the state anti-cruelty statues. The actions of pigeon shoot organizers “is clearly animal cruelty, and the Pennsylvania legislature needs to finally address it,” says Johnna Seeton. Several bills have failed to gather majority support in either house of the Pennsylvania legislature.
Current bills in the state legislature not only ban shooting any captive bird at a trap or block shoot, they extends to a little-known practice of tying turkeys to hay bales and then shooting them, often with arrows. In the Senate, SB 1150, introduced by Patrick Browne (R-Lehigh Co.), has languished in committee since November. The Senate Judiciary committee was scheduled to vote on the bill in March, but pulled it to deal with an equally controversial gay marriage amendment. The pigeon shoot bill has not come up for a vote since.
The history in the House of Representatives to enact legislation has been more contentious. In 1994, the year after State Police arrested 114 persons at the Hegins pigeon shoot, the House of Representatives voted 99–93 to ban all pigeon shoots. Supporters, however, needed 102 votes, a majority, for passage. Subsequent bills have been blocked by the Republican leadership, aided by Democrats from the more rural parts of the state.
In the House, HB 2130, introduced by Rep. Frank Shimkus (D-Lackawanna), is also stalled in the Judiciary Committee. Rep. John Pallone (D-Armstrong), chair of the subcommittee on crime and corrections, said in February he would “convene hearings [on the bill] at the earliest convenience.” There have been no hearings. Pallone says he just doesn’t think a law is necessary, “because we do have animal laws relative to domestic and wild animals.” Heidi Prescott disagrees.