Stories We Will Still Have to Write in 2012

 

by WALTER and ROSEMARY BRASCH

 

In January 2009, with a new president about to be inaugurated, we wrote a column about the stories we preferred not having to write, but knew we would. Three years later, we are still writing about those problems; three years from now, we’ll still be writing about them.

We had wanted the U.S. Department of the Interior to stop the government-approved slaughter of wild horses and burros in the southwest, but were disappointed that the cattle industry used its money and influence to shelter politicians from Americans who asked for compassion and understanding of  breeds that roamed freely long before the nation’s “Manifest Destiny.”

We wanted to see the federal government protect wolves, foxes, and coyotes, none of whom attack humans, have no food or commercial value, but are major players in environmental balance. But, we knew that the hunting industry would prevail since they see these canines only as competition.

We wanted to see the Pennsylvania legislature stand up for what is right and courageously end the cruelty of pigeon shoots. But, a pack of cowards left Pennsylvania as the only state where pigeon shoots, with their illegal gambling, are actively held.

For what seems to be decades, we have written against racism and bigotry. But many politicians still believe that gays deserve few, if any, rights; that all Muslims are enemy terrorists; and publicly lie that Voter ID is a way to protect the integrity of the electoral process, while knowing it would disenfranchise thousands of poor and minority citizens.

We will continue to write about the destruction of the environment and of ways people are trying to save it. Environmental concern is greater than a decade ago, but so is the ignorant prattling of those who believe global warming is a hoax, and mistakenly believe that the benefits of natural gas fracking, with well-paying jobs in a depressed economy, far outweigh the environmental, health, and safety problems they cause.

We will continue to write against government corruption, bailouts, tax advantages for the rich and their corporations, governmental waste, and corporate greed. They will continue to exist because millionaire legislators will continue to protect those who contribute to political campaigns. Nevertheless, we will continue to speak out against politicians who have sacrificed the lower- and middle-classes in order to protect the one percent.

We will continue to write about the effects of laying off long-time employees and of outsourcing jobs to “maximize profits.” Until Americans realize that “cheaper” doesn’t necessarily mean “better,” we’ll continue to explain why exploitation knows no geographical boundaries.

The working class successfully launched major counter-attacks against seemingly-entrenched anti-labor politicians in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states. But these battles will be as long and as bitter as the politicians who deny the rights of workers. We will continue to speak out for worker rights, better working conditions, and benefits at least equal to their managers. We don’t expect anything to change in 2012, but we are still hopeful that a minority of business owners who already respect the worker will influence the rest.

There are still those who believe education is best served by programs manacled by teaching-to-the-test mentality, and are more than willing to sacrifice quality for numbers. We will continue to write about problems in the nation’s educational system, especially the failure to encourage intellectual curiosity and respect for the tenets of academic integrity.

Against great opposition, the President and Congress passed sweeping health care reform. But, certain members of Congress, all of whom have better health care than most Americans, have proclaimed they will dismantle the program they derisively call “Obamacare.”

During this new year, we will still be writing about the unemployed, the homeless, those without adequate health coverage—and against the political lunatics who continue to deny Americans the basics of human life, essentials that most civilized countries already give their citizens.

We had written forcefully against the previous president and vice-president when they strapped on their six-shooters and sent the nation into war in a country that posed no threat to us, while failing to adequately attack a country that housed the core of the al-Qaeda movement. We wrote about the Administration’s failure to provide adequate protection for the soldiers they sent into war or adequate and sustained mental and medical care when they returned home. The War in Iraq is now over, but the war in Afghanistan continues. The reminder of these wars will last as long as there are hospitals and cemeteries.

We had written dozens of stories against the Bush–Cheney Administration’s belief in the use of torture and why it thought it was necessary to shred parts of the Constitution. We had hoped that a new president, a professor of Constitutional law, would stop the attack upon our freedoms and rights. But the PATRIOT Act was extended, and new legislation was enacted that reduces the rights and freedoms of all citizens. At all levels of government, Constitutional violations still exist, and a new year won’t change our determination to bring to light these violations wherever and whenever they occur.

The hope we and this nation had for change we could believe in, and which we still hope will not die, has been minced by the reality of petty politics, with the “Party of No” and its raucous Teabagger mutation blocking social change for America’s improvement. We can hope that the man we elected will realize that compromise works only when the opposition isn’t entrenched in a never-ending priority not of improving the country, but of keeping him from a second term. Perhaps now, three years after his inauguration, President Obama will disregard the disloyal opposition and unleash the fire and truth we saw in the year before his election, and will speak out even more forcefully for the principles we believed when we, as a nation, gave him the largest vote total of any president in history.

We really want to be able to write columns about Americans who take care of each other, about leaders who concentrate upon fixing the social problems. But we know that’s only an ethereal ideal.  So, we’ll just have to hope that the waters of social justice wear down, however slowly, the jagged rocks of haughty resistance.

 [Dr. Walter Brasch is an award-winning social issues columnist, former newspaper investigative reporter and editor, and journalism professor. His latest book is Before the First Snow, a social issues mystery novel. Rosemary Brasch is a former secretary, Red Cross national disaster family services specialist, labor activist, and university instructor of labor studies.]

 

 

 

Pennsylvania Legislators Shoot Down Pigeons—Again

 

by WALTER BRASCH 

 

If the first year gross anatomy class at the Penn State Hershey medical school needs spare body parts to study, they can visit the cloak room of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. That’s where most of the legislators left their spines.

The House voted 124–69, Dec. 13, to send an animal welfare bill back to committee, in this case the Gaming Oversight Committee. The bill, SB 71, would have banned simulcasting of greyhound races from other states. Pennsylvania had banned greyhound racing in 2004. Among several of the current bill’s amendments were ones that would also have banned the sale of cat and dog meat, increased penalties for releasing exotic animals, and stopped the cruelty of live pigeon shoots.

It’s the pigeon shoot amendment, sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R-Allegheny), that caused legislators to hide beneath their desks, apparently in fear of the poop from the NRA, which lobbied extensively against ending pigeon shoots. The unrelenting NRA message irrationally claimed that banning pigeon shoots is the first step to banning guns. The NRA even called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) a radical animal rights group. The House action leaves Pennsylvania as the only state where pretend hunters, most of them from New Jersey and surrounding states where pigeon shoots are illegal, to come to Pennsylvania and kill caged birds launched in front of spectators and the shooters.

Most pigeon shoots are held in Berks County in southeastern Pennsylvania, with one in the nearby suburban Philadelphia area. Scared and undernourished birds are placed into small cages, and then released about 20 yards in front of people with 12-gauge shotguns. Most birds, as many as 5,000 at an all-day shoot, are hit standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from the people who pretend to be sportsmen. Even standing only feet from their kill, the shooters aren’t as good as they think they are. About 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to Heidi Prescott, HSUS senior vice-president, who for about 25 years has been documenting and leading the effort to pass legislation to finally end pigeon shoots in the state.

 Birds that fall outside the shooting club’s property are left to die long and horrible deaths. If the birds are wounded on the killing fields, trapper boys and girls, most in their early teens, some of them younger, grab the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, or throw them live into barrels to suffocate. There is no food or commercial value of a pigeon killed at one of the shoots.

The lure of pigeon shoots, in addition to what the participants must think is a wanton sense of fulfillment, is gambling, illegal under Pennsylvania law but not enforced by the Pennsylvania State Police.

The International Olympic Committee banned the so-called sport after the 1900 Olympics because of its cruelty to animals. Most hunters, as well as the Pennsylvania Game Commission, say that pigeon shoots aren’t “fair chase hunting.” Almost every daily newspaper in the state and dozens of organizations, from the Council of Churches to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, oppose this form of animal cruelty.

On the floor of the House, Rep. Rosita C. Youngblood (D-Philadelphia), usually a supporter of animal rights issues, spoke out against voting on the bill, and asked other Democrats to go along with her. Youngblood is minority chair of the Gaming Oversight committee.

Youngblood’s chief of staff, Bill Thomas, emphasizes that Youngblood’s only concern was to protect the integrity of the legislative process. Although some members truly believed they voted to recommit the bill for procedural reasons, most members were just simply afraid to vote on the bill. Voting to recommit the bill were 52 Democrats, many of them opposed to pigeon shoots; 35 voted to keep it on the floor for debate. Among Republicans, the vote was 72–34 to send the bill to committee.

 

The Arguments

Germaneness: The Republican leadership had determined that all amendments to bills  in the current legislative session must be germane to the bill. “You can’t hijack a bill,” many in the House, including key Democrats, claimed as the major reason they voted against SB71.

However, the Republicans, with a majority in the House and able to block any bill in committee that didn’t meet their strict political agenda, raised “germaneness” to a level never before seen in the House. For decades, Democrats and Republicans attached completely unrelated amendments to bills. Even during this session, the Republicans, in violation of their own “rules,” attached amendments to allow school vouchers onto several bills, many that had nothing to do with education. But, the Greyhound racing bill was considered under both gambling and animal cruelty concerns. Thus, the amendment to ban pigeon shoots could also be considered to be an animal cruelty amendment and not subject to the Judiciary Committee, where it was likely to die.

 

Separate bill. Several legislators believed the attempt to stop pigeon shoots should have been its own bill, not tacked onto another bill.

However, only twice have bills about pigeon shoots come to the floor of the House. Most proposed legislation had been buried in committees or blocked by House leadership, both Democrat and Republican, most of whom received support and funding from the NRA, gun owner groups, and their political action committees (PACs). In 1989, the Pennsylvania House had defeated a bill to ban pigeon shoots, 66–126. By 1994, three years after the first large scale protest, the House voted 99–93 in favor of an amendment to ban pigeon shoots, but fell short of the 102 votes needed for passage.

 

The bill would duplicate or repeal a recently-signed law:

 Rep. Curt Schroeder (R-Chester Co.), chair of the Gaming Oversight committee, sponsored the House version of the Senate’s bill. If it was truly an unnecessary bill, he or the leadership could have previously sent it to committee for reworking or killed it. According to sources close to the leadership, despite his concern for animal welfare, Schroeder was not pleased about the amendments tacked onto his bill.

 

Short time to accomplish much: Several Democrats believed that by spending extraordinary time on the bill, necessary legislation would not be brought to the floor and the Republicans could then blame the Democrats for blocking key legislation.

However, both parties already knew how they would vote for redistricting (the Republicans had gerrymandered the state to protect certain districts), school vouchers, and other proposed legislation.  Further, the Republican leadership could have blocked putting the Greyhound bill into the agenda or placed it at the end of other bills. Even on the floor of the House, the leadership could have shut down debate at any time. Thus, the Democrats’ argument about “only four days left” is blunted by the Republicans’ own actions. During 2011, the House met only 54 days when the vote on SB 71 was taken. If the House was so concerned about having only four days left in the year to discuss and vote upon critical issues, it could have added days to the work week or increased hours while in session. Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny), to his credit, wanted a vote, although he personally opposed the pigeon shoot amendment. “Let’s put this issue to rest,” he told the members. Taking the time to debate the bill, says Bill Thomas, “wasted taxpayer money and time.” However, “the amount of time spent avoiding the bill,” counters Prescott, “wastes far more time and resources than voting on it.”

 

Nevertheless, no matter what the arguments, sending the bill to committee was a good way to avoid having to deal with a highly controversial issue. It allowed many legislators to pretend to their constituents that they still believe in animal welfare, while avoiding getting blow-back from the NRA or its supporters. Conversely, it allowed many of those who wanted to keep pigeon shoots to avoid a debate and subsequent vote, allowing continued support from pro-gun constituents who accept the NRA non-logic, while not offending constituents who believe in animal welfare.

Whatever their reasons, the failure of the many of the state’s representatives to stand up for their convictions probably caused legislation to ban this form of animal cruelty to be as dead during this session as the pigeons whose necks are wrung by teenagers who finish the kill by people who think they’re sportsmen but are little more than juveniles disguised in the bodies of adults.

            [Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated social issues columnist, former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, whose specialties included public affairs/investigative reporting. He is professor emeritus of journalism. Dr. Brasch’s latest novel is Before the First Snow, a story of the counterculture and set in rural Pennsylvania.]

 

 

 

Squabbling Over the Pigeon Bill: Pennsylvania Legislature In Battle Over Pigeons

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 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.

    [Dr. Brasch attended and reported on five pigeon shoots. An award-winning syndicated columnist, he is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush (November 2007), available through amazon.com and other bookstores. You may contact Brasch at brasch@bloomu.edu or through his website at: www.walterbrasch.com.]

There's more...

SHAMELESS: DA Refuses to Prosecute Animal Cruelty Case; Pennsylvania Only State to Permit Live Pigeon Shoots

by Walter Brasch

 A Pennsylvania district attorney took campaign funds from an organization which promotes killing live pigeons in contests, and then refused to allow the prosecution of animal cruelty charges against a gun club that hosts pigeon shooting contests.

 DA John T. Adams of Berks County accepted $500 campaign contributions from the Flyers Victory Fund in August 2008 and August 2009, according to campaign finance reports issued by both the Pennsylvania Department of State and the Berks County Registrar of Voters.

Johnna Seeton, a certified humane society police officer for the Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network (PLAN), says she documented what she believed were acts of animal cruelty at a pigeon shoot on Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009, sponsored by the Pike Township Sportsman’s Association near Oley, about 55 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Seeton had gone to the shoot, but had to watch the killings from public roads and driveways of nearby residents who had given her permission.

           Typically, at a pigeon shoot, one bird is confined to a small box about 25–30 yards in front of the firing line. The birds are released from the spring-loaded boxes known as "traps," and the shooter fires at five separately released birds in five separate rounds, as if firing at clay pigeons in a trap or skeet shoot. Each shooter tries to kill a total of 25 birds, each falling within a designated circle, for a perfect score. The birds, when first released from the boxes, are often dazed and confused, sometimes by lack of adequate nutrition or confinement in small cages before the shoot and within the closed box during the shoot. As many as three-fourths of all birds, according to investigators from the Humane Society of the United States, are not killed instantly, but are wounded, usually to die slow and painful deaths. At the Pikeville shoot were two separate fields, each with nine boxes that were refilled during the day. About 1,000–1,500 birds became targets. At the "state shoot" on Feb. 20 and 21, about 75–90 persons fired shotgun pellets at about 5,000 birds that were released from 27 boxes on three separate shooting fields.

           The wounded or dead birds are picked up by trapper boys and girls, usually 12–16 years old, put into nets and taken to a shed, where their heads are cut off with shears. Sometimes, the trappers just wring their necks, sometimes hours after the bird is wounded. Even then, many live long enough to suffocate from being thrown into barrels. The carcasses are usually thrown into the garbage. Although most pigeon shooters claim they are ridding the state of "vermin," calling them "winged rats," the reality is that most of the birds are raised to be shot, captured, or brought in from out of state specifically for the shoots. The largest broker for pigeon shoots lives in Strausstown, Pa., about 30 miles northwest of Oley.

 The shooters, who must be at least 12 years old, pay entry fees; many of them place illegal side bets. Drinking is common at pigeon shoots. 

 Pennsylvania is the only state where live pigeon shoots are still openly practiced. "Live pigeon shoots are similar to cockfighting or dog fighting, where it is largely an underground circuit of the same people who follow it around," says Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the 11.6 million member Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). The Pennsylvania Council of Churches, in opposing pigeon shoots, declared, "[T]he use of live animals for target practice in a contest does not honor the integrity of God's good creation."

 Johnna Seeton says she returned to the Pike Township site two days after the pigeon shoot, and found live wounded birds, which she took to a veterinarian for treatment. “Some had to be euthanized because of extensive injuries,” she says. Necropsies showed that pellets had hit vital organs, but the birds lived, often in extreme pain, for as many as two days. Birds that fall outside club property typically die from the pellets hitting vital organs, broken bones, internal hemorrhaging, nerve damage, or from infection, starvation, dehydration, or external parasite attacks. Seeton says she was able to rescue some because they fell onto public property. She had no legal authority to rescue the dying birds on the club’s private property.

           Seeton had filed three separate animal cruelty citations with District Judge Victor Frederick IV on Dec. 10, 2009, against the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association, charging it with animal cruelty. Four days later, she says Adams called her, said that he reviewed the charges, and said he would not allow her to prosecute the case, nor would he allow anyone else to prosecute the case.

           In a 20 minute conversation, the DA demanded Seeton withdraw charges, citing what he believed were court precedents that would prohibit the filing of charges against organizers of pigeon shoots. Gordon Einhorn, Harrisburg, attorney, for the Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network, then contacted Adams to try to understand why the DA wouldn't allow the complaint, and to explain Pennsylvania law and relevant precedent. "It was somewhat of a heated discussion," says Einhorn.

           Adams says the law "is quite specific that pigeon shoots do not constitute cruelty to animals and that organizers of pigeon shoots do not have to have a veterinarian to care for wounded birds."  Adams, who is not a hunter, says he has no position about pigeon shoots, but that, "Although I sympathize with [those who oppose the pigeon shoots], their anger is misplaced; they must contact the Legislature" for recourse. Adams says his office can "only enforce the law; we cannot make it." Adams, says Seeton, said that his decision not to allow prosecution and allow the court or a jury to determine the merits of the case, was final. “I wasn’t challenging the legality of pigeon shoots,” says Seeton, “only the animal cruelty for allowing wounded birds to die slow painful deaths.” On Jan. 13, 2010, in response to Adams' demands, DJ Victor Frederick refused to allow Seeton to proceed with her charges. He withdrew the charges in front of an assistant district attorney.

           To support his refusal to allow prosecution of the animal cruelty complaint, Adams cites a decision in the Berks County Court of Common Pleas in April 2002 [Seeton v. Pike Township Sportsmen's Association], which he says established that pigeon shoots are legal, and that recourse is through legislation. However, the ruling by Common Pleas Court Judge Scott E. Lash wasn't a decision, but only a judicial memorandum to a motion for a preliminary injunction, and was not based upon evidence presented in trial. The Memorandum was the result of an appeal of a decision two months earlier. The opinion by Judge Lash was rendered before the Plaintiff had the opportunity to conduct discovery, present evidence, and examine witnesses. Because the case is still pending, and never received a final judgment, it cannot be used as legal precedent, says Einhorn. In that Memorandum, Judge Lash, who several times referred to any individual shooting at birds in a pigeon shoot as a "sportsman," determined that there was no intent to wound birds and, thus, not a violation of the state law. He cited an 1891 case [Commonwealth v. Lewis] in which the appellant judge ruled that "the defendant has merely been punished for want of skill" by only wounding, not killing, pigeons at a shoot at the Philadelphia Gun Club in Eddington, Bucks County. That appeal had reversed a trial court case four years earlier, in which Judge Harman Yerkes had called pigeon shooting "cruel and barbarous" and a violation of animal abuse statute. However, in that reversal, the presiding judge ruled that there was no animal cruelty because the wounded bird was immediately killed.

           An 1860 state law declared that animal cruelty is an "offense against public morals and decency." However, Adams claims that pigeon shoots do not constitute a violation of Title 18, section 5511(c), the Cruelty to Animals statute. That statute, within the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, states that a person  is guilty of animal cruelty if he or she "wantonly or cruelly ill treats, overloads, beats, otherwise abuses any animal, or neglects any animal as to which he has a duty of care, whether belonging to himself or otherwise, or abandons any animal, or deprives any animal of necessary sustenance, drink, shelter or veterinary care, or access to clean and sanitary shelter which will protect the animal against inclement weather and preserve the animal's body heat and keep it dry." Seeton says the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association violated several provisions of that statute. The penalty for animal cruelty, a summary offense, is a fine of $50–$750 and/or up to 90 days in jail.

           In 1980, the Court of Common Pleas for Monroe County ruled that persons are in violation of the animal cruelty statute if they fail to assist an animal when they "know or reasonably should know that [they have] conceivably injured [the animal." [Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Fabian]. In 1995, the Pennsylvania Superior Court determined that the manner in which injured pigeons are treated  could constitute a violation of the Animal Abuse law [Mohler v. Labor Day Committee]. A Pennsylvania Superior Court decision in 2003 established that persons violate the animal cruelty statute when they commit "acts or conduct which cause pain and suffering [including] acts of omission, neglect, and the like, whereby the same kind of suffering is caused or permitted [and are] done recklessly and without regard to the consequences." [Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. Simpson].

 Seeton's charges are that the birds are usually neglected and left wounded for long periods of time. Under existing animal cruelty law, says Einhorn, "it is clear that pigeons are covered." Nevertheless, Judge Lash in his Memorandum had determined, possibly against existing state law, that the presence of a veterinarian to treat wounded birds or to humanely euthanize those who had no hope of recovery was "impractical," "unworkable," and its cost was "prohibitive."

 The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in Hulsizer v. Labor Day Committee (1999), specifically noted that at the pigeon shoot in Hegins in Schuylkill County, at that time the largest in the nation, pigeons suffered slow and painful deaths and that severely wounded birds were not given veterinary care nor were euthanized in a humane method. The Court stated the Plaintiff's view that pigeon shoots are "cruel and moronic." The Court did not specifically rule that pigeon shoots were illegal. However, the Court set precedent by deciding that humane society officers had authority to pursue abuse charges against all state pigeon shoots.        

 Although the district attorney of Berks County refused to allow prosecution of animal cruelty charges, Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, whose jurisdiction includes the state capital of Harrisburg, had no similar problem with the intent of the state's animal cruelty laws. On March 11, in the court of District Justice Rebecca Margarum of Elizabethville, Seeton filed 23 separate charges against the Erdman Sportsmen's Association for a pigeon shoot on June 7, 2009. She cited violation of section 5511(c), the same section she used in her complaint against the Pikeville club. Marsico, says Seeton, "not only allowed the filing but also supported it."

           Over the past two decades, several bills to ban pigeon shoots have been written by state legislators; none have passed. The House of Representatives in 1994 voted 99–93 to ban the shoot, but needed 102 votes for passage. Several other attempts to ban pigeon shoots have been blocked by House or Senate leadership or were allowed to die in committees. Forty-seven current state senators and representatives, between 2004 and the end of 2009, received $45,685 in campaign funds from the Flyers Victory Fund and the NRA Political Victory Fund, according to records of the Pennsylvania Department of State. During those years, the Flyers and the NRA campaign committees donated a total of $62,394 to 64 candidates or legislators. Rep. John M. Perzel (R-Philadelphia), House speaker from April 2003 to January 2007, received $3,500 from the NRA Political Victory Fund in 2005 and 2006. The 14 current House and Senate leaders received $14,500. H. William DeWeese (D-Greene, and parts of Fayette and Washington counties) received $9,000 from the NRA Political Victory Fund; DeWeese was House speaker 1993–1994, Democratic leader 1995–2006 and majority leader, 2007–2008. Both Perzel and DeWeese have been instrumental in blocking legislation to prohibit live pigeon shoots.

           The current bills [H.R. 1411 and S.B. 843] are stalled in committee. Despite strong co-sponsor support, bills to ban live pigeon shoots have not received a vote in more than a decade, although leaders in both the House and the Senate have repeatedly promised to bring it to the floor. "This bill is an imaginary boogieman in the minds of a few legislators," says Heidi Prescott of the HSUS. She believes "no legislator is going to lose their job for voting to end a very cruel practice with only a handful of supporters." The cost to the Commonwealth, says Prescott "is probably a lot more to block the bill than to finally get rid of this very cruel, pitiless practice." Prescott has been personally active for more than 20 years in her opposition to what she calls "barbaric and cruel," but which crowds who attend pigeon shoots believe is "entertainment," and the shooters call a "sport."

           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.” Great Britain banned live pigeon shoots it in 1921, and most countries now ban the practice. Jerry Feaser, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, agrees that pigeon shooting isn't sport. Pigeon shoots, he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in December 2007, “are not what we would classify as fair-chase hunting,” nor are pigeons considered to be wild animals. In the Seeton v. Pike Township Sportsmen's Association case, the Court had thrown out the Defendant's argument that the "hunting exception" to the animal cruelty statute was an acceptable defense against animal cruelty. Four years later, in Covington Township v. Moscow Sportsmen's Club, the Court of Common Pleas for Lackawanna County granted a preliminary injunction requested by township officials, and reaffirmed the belief that pigeons are not "game birds," and did not fall within the hunting exception to the statute. Former State Sen. Roy Afflerbach, a lifelong sportsman who began hunting as a child, and who introduced the first Senate bill to prohibit live pigeon shoots, says “launching birds or animals from traps in front of awaiting shooters, who wound more animals than they kill, is not hunting; the hunters I know think it is nothing more than a slob blood-fest and a black eye to the image of hunting."

           There were about two dozen shoots since Sept. 5, 2009, at the Pikeville and Wing Pointe gun clubs in Berks County, and one at Erdman in Dauphin County, with one more scheduled for June 6. The Philadelphia Gun Club in Eddington (Bucks County) began hosting pigeon shoots again last year after township officials had issued a cease and desist order in May 2002, citing violations of both a township ordinance and the state law against cruelty to animals. However, in 2008, in violation of the cease and desist order, the Gun Club held another shoot. Wounded birds landed on neighbors' property or in the Delaware River. Charges were filed against Leo A. Holt, club president, but were withdrawn in March 2009 under a "gentleman's agreement" that the club would no long conduct pigeon shoots. The club has routinely violated that agreement. Holt, his brothers Thomas Jr. and Michael, their father, Thomas Sr., and Thomas Jr's wife, Angela, contributed $53,300 in campaign funds to members and candidates of the Legislature between 2004 and the end of 2009, including $16,500 to House Speaker John M. Perzel between 2005 and 2008, according to records of the Pennsylvania Department of State.

           There may be absolutely no cause-and-effect relationship between donations to Adams' campaign and his stand on permitting live pigeon shoots. However, animal cruelty will probably continue to be a part of the culture of Berks County, at least as long as John T. Adams is the DA.

           [Walter M. Brasch, Ph.D., is professor of mass communications and journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is an award-winning social issues columnist and the author of 17 books. He first began covering Pennsylvania's pigeon shoots in 1993. You may contact him through his website, www.walterbrasch.com]

 

 

 

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