Politics and Animal Cruelty in Pennsylvania
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 cock 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.
“Although the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rightfully termed these shoots ‘cruel and moronic’ and allowed humane officers to prosecute participants for animal cruelty, this narrow procedural ruling did not stop live pigeon shoots,” says Prescott. The Humane Society, she says, “has tried in court to apply the cruelty law to shoots, but without success so far.”
Pallone says the bill, now with 51 co-sponsors, one-fourth of the House membership, an abnormally large number of co-sponsors for any piece of legislation, “is not a legislative priority.” Rep. William DeWeese (D-Waynesburg), majority floor leader, sets the legislative priority. According to insiders in the House, DeWeese, like Pallone, vigorously opposes legislation to ban the state’s pigeon shoots. Pallone claims that “it couldn’t be any further from the truth” that DeWeese is blocking the bill from coming to the floor and has influenced the subcommittee. DeWeese, who has been in the House 32 years, twice before voted against bills that would ban pigeon shoots.
Records filed with the Pennsylvania Department of State reveal that DeWeese’s campaign committees have accepted significant political contributions from organizations that oppose the ban on pigeon shooting. State records reveal that his committee has received $750 from the Flyers Victory Fund, the political action arm of the Pennsylvania Flyers Association, an organization of about 300 members who are dedicated to promoting live pigeon shoots. His campaign committees the past four years, according to Department of State records, have also received $6,500 in contributions from the NRA Political Victory Fund.
When Sen. Roy Afflerbach first introduced an amendment in 1998 to ban pigeon shooting, only about five senators supported it but, says Afllerbach, “the Senate has come a long way since then.” A poll of Senate committee members, conducted in February and March, revealed a majority of committee members, including both the committee chair and minority chair, support the bill. An informal and confidential poll of House committee members in March revealed that 14 of the 29-member House committee would probably vote for the bill; nine were undecided and only six were firmly opposed.
“It does not require any courage to shoot a pigeon launched from a box, and it shouldn’t require much more for a legislator to decree that it is wrong to do so,” says Prescott, who is acknowledged even by opponents as one of the most effective lobbyists in the state capitol. But, Prescott is facing a formidable opponent.
“Banning pigeon shoots would be a first step in advancing [the] agenda [of animal rights activists], and they won’t stop there,” wails an alarmist message on the NRA website. “It’s the first step in an agenda that would prohibit all hunting,” NRA spokesperson Rachel Parsons told the Pittsburgh City Paper in February.
“That’s a ridiculous argument, and nothing less than a scare tactic,” says Karel Minor, executive director of the Humane Society of Berks County, Pennsylvania. Roy Afflerbach, who grew up on a farm, says he hunted “from the time I was old enough to walk into the field.” He says, “We grew up with a reverence for life, and never shot anything that we couldn’t eat, that gave us sustenance for life.” Opposing pigeon shoots “is not a firearms or hunting issue, but an issue of violence and animal cruelty, the mass killing of animals and birds solely to award prizes,” says Afflerbach, now president of the Afflerbach Group after serving four years in the state House of Representatives, 12 years as a senator, and as Allentown mayor.
“Only the most extremist hunters would defend launching, shooting, and then dumping animals into a trash bag as hunting or as a sport,” says Heidi Prescott. Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, agrees. Pigeon shoots, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer, “are not what we would classify as fair-chase hunting.” Rep. Shimkus told the Scranton Times-Tribune, “I do not support gun control,” and vowed to “never allow this bill to go forward if it had to do with gun control.” The bill specifically excludes legitimate hunting activities.
Karel Minor says his organization became involved “because reasonable hunters,” including those on his board of directors, “deem pigeon shooting is so far out of the mainstream.” Reasonable hunters, he says, realize that “it’s cruelty in order to make money from shooting animals that are catapulted.”
If Pennsylvania hunters are really worried, says Heidi Prescott, “they can look at other big hunting states—like New York, Texas, Montana, West Virginia, and Michigan.” These states, says Prescott, “have outlawed captive bird shooting, but hunting continues unaffected.”
While the NRA is expending considerable time and resources to block the bills, most of the state’s sportsmen’s organizations, says Afflerbach, “recognize that this ‘sport’ is indefensible.” The 4,000-member Unified Sportsmen of Pennsylvania (USP) has not devoted resources to trying to quash the bills; only a one-line notice in a list of bills USP opposes indicates that organization opposes the ban on pigeon shoots.
There were about two dozen shoots during the past year at the Pikeville Gun Club, Strausstown Gun Club and Wing Pointe in Berks County, as well as one at Valley View in Schuylkill County and Erdman in Dauphin County. At each shoot, more than 1,000 pigeons are killed and thrown away.
Dave Comroe no longer goes to pigeon shoots. “It’s not too exciting for me,” he says. “It’s not something I’m interested in. It’s not my thing,” he says. His “thing” is competitive trapshooting. Comroe now kills inanimate clay pigeons made of tar and pitch, hitting about 96 percent from the 16 yard line, occasionally busting a perfect 100 to earn championships.
Heidi Prescott and the 11.6 million members of the Humane Society, about 7.3 million more than the NRA, wish the few hundred Pennsylvanians who are active pigeon shooters would follow Comroe’s example and stop participating in the cruelty of pigeon shoots—either voluntarily or by force of law.
WALTER BRASCH is the author of Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush.