It may seem benign, but don't believe it. Pigeon racing is a deadly 'sporting' hobby in Britain, a way to have a flutter or win a modest purse, while in many other countries it is an industry. PETA affiliates recently released the findings of undercover investigations in both the US and the UK, during which investigators documented massive casualties and disappearances of birds before, during and after races as well as dirty little practices, such as "widowhood", which exploits the loving and faithful nature of these gentle birds, as I will explain in a minute.
Illusions are worth shattering when they involve cruelty. It comes as a shock to many to learn that hundreds of thousands of pigeons are tossed into the air even when storms are predicted along their flight paths, and the fact that many will perish is well known to the racers. The birds, many of whom have been separated from their eggs or chicks and from their life mates, must fly vast distances to return home to their loved ones and nesting duties. In many of the races - which can be marathons of hundreds of miles - some 60% to 75% of the birds become lost or die along the way (in one race last year, the kind called a "smash race", the mortality rate was near 90%). Pigeons die in storms and from exhaustion, disorientation, predation, collisions with power lines and drowning in the English Channel when they are released from Guernsey, Jersey, France, Belgium and Spain. Coming from the continent, they have often had to overcome mountainous terrain and weather before reaching the shore and facing an even more daunting stretch of water with no land in sight, something many have never encountered before.
Countless others simply die with their breast bones protruding like the hulls of ships, a sign of starvation. Raised in cages, birds can't just fly off and join a wild flock. They don't know how to fend for themselves, being utterly ill equipped to find or recognise alien food sources or cope with predators.
When the racing enthusiasts protest that it isn't that bleak, you might remind them that PETA US investigators recorded top racers referring to the Channel as a "pigeon graveyard". Or mention that in one race last year held by the National Flying Club - the UK's largest pigeon-racing club - 5,560 young British birds, most under a year old, taken on what itself was a frightening lorry ride to France, were released and expected to cross the Channel. Only 622 were reported back. Four birds from Queen Elizabeth's own loft were among the missing, believed dead.
Like all activities that exploit animals, pigeon racing revolves around money and the ability to shut one's eyes to causing others needless suffering, disregarding their feelings as if they were robots or toys. Last month, the Oklahoma City district attorney charged three race organisers - including the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union - with felony commercial gambling and conspiracy to violate the state's anti-commercial gambling act. In Britain, gambling licenses are often not even applied for, and money winnings may or may not be reported as income.
We all know that pigeons serving with the Royal Air Force during World War II were given awards for delivering messages that led to the rescue of British aviators and more. But that distinguished record, which should rightly allow pigeons to retire in peacetime, instead is exploited by pigeon racers who trade on the pigeons' service and force the birds to fly in races of up to 900 miles, all for the sake of a bet of a few pounds.
Pigeons are intelligent and personable birds. Harvard psychologists determined that pigeons can identify people not only by how they look but also by how they behave, and researchers found that pigeons can quite easily learn to recognise each of the 26 letters of the English alphabet.
Pigeon parents are devoted to their young, taking turns on the nest. Racers exploit these nurturing qualities through what they call "widowhood" techniques: separating birds from their mates, eggs and nestlings so that they will race back to their family with every ounce of strength they can muster and despite their fear of large bodies of water.
A pigeon used for racing is only as valued as his or her wins. Investigators found thousands of pigeons crammed into filthy cages and documented rampant killing ("culling") of unwanted racing pigeons at the end of the season. One American racer told PETA US' investigators what you can see in pigeon racing manuals both here and there, i.e., that the first thing to learn in pigeon racing is how to kill pigeons. These gentle birds are commonly killed by drowning them in a bucket, pulling their heads off or squeezing their breasts so tightly that they suffocate. PETA US' undercover video shows one man clumsily killing a pigeon with his bare hands. He leaves the bird, her wings still flapping, to die slowly, bleeding and suffocating in an empty feedbag. A pigeon's natural lifespan is 20 years, but in pigeon racing, very few make it to the age of four.
Whether one is prejudiced against them or enamoured of them, pigeons deserve respect and to be left in peace. Pigeon racing is a low and dirty - and I believe often criminal - little pseudo-sport.