Imagine if someone invaded your home, tore you away from your family, drove you hundreds of miles away and then let you go. You don’t know where you are, and you’re desperate to get back home. You’re surrounded by hundreds of strangers, all as confused as you are. You’re scared and hungry and must fight to stay alive through all weather extremes. Some of the others succumb to exhaustion or starvation. Some are killed by hunters or predators. It may sound like a plot twist from The Hunger Games, but it’s real.
This is the fate of birds who are forced to fly for their lives in the abusive and often illegal pastime known as pigeon racing. That the victims of this cruel sport are animals and not humans should not make their suffering any less appalling.
PETA recently completed a 15-month undercover investigation into some of the largest pigeon-racing operations in the U.S. PETA’s investigators documented massive casualties of birds during races and training, rampant “culling” (killing), abusive training and racing methods and illegal interstate gambling.
In many of the races—which can be up to 600 miles long—more than 60 percent of the birds become lost or die along the way. Because these birds were raised in captivity and cannot fend for themselves in the wild, those who don’t make it home will likely starve to death. Pigeon racers even have a name for races that are particularly lethal: “smash races.”
During one race in Queens, for example, only four out of 213 birds ever returned. Out of nearly 2,300 baby birds shipped to the Phoenix area for training for the 2011 American Racing Pigeon Union Convention Race, only 827 survived to race day. Of those, only 487 birds had completed the 325-mile race by nightfall.
Pigeons are among the most maligned urban wildlife, yet they are complex and fascinating birds. Their hearing and vision are both excellent and have been used to save lives in wartime and to help find sailors lost at sea.
A study released in December showed that pigeons can learn abstract numerical rules—something that until recently, we thought only humans and other primates could do. They are also loyal mates and doting parents. Both parents share in the care and nurturing of their hatchlings. Pigeon racers exploit these qualities by separating birds from their mates and babies so that they will race their hearts out, frantic to get home. After the racing season is over, the babies—no longer of any use to the racers—are often killed.
One racer told PETA’s investigators that the “first thing you have to learn” in pigeon racing is “how to kill pigeons.” Another recommended killing these gentle birds by drowning them, pulling their heads off or squeezing their breasts so tightly that they suffocate. Any bird who isn’t considered fast enough or isn’t wanted for breeding is killed.
Like other forms of animal exploitation, pigeon racing is driven by money. PETA penetrated racing organizations in which a quarter of a million dollars is bet on a single race. Pigeon racing generates an estimated $15 million a year in illegal gambling proceeds and involves felony gambling, racketeering and tax evasion. Not surprisingly, the high stakes lead to cheating. Some racers administer performance-enhancing drugs—including steroids and morphine—to their birds. One racer even admitted that he kills hawks—federally protected birds—because they prey upon his pigeons and then disposes of their bodies.
Pigeons are rock doves, a symbol of peace, and they deserve to be left in peace. PETA is calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate and prosecute unlawful pigeon-racing operations. The rest of us should shun this cruel sport. Animals should not have to pay with their lives for someone’s sick idea of entertainment.