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
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
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
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
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 of and candidates for
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.
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.