THE BLOG
04/08/2014 07:53 BST | Updated 04/10/2014 06:59 BST

Let's Honour All War Veterans

Growing up in Belgium I was regularly reminded of the sacrifices made and lives lost during World War I - which began 100 years ago - and I am grateful that they are being remembered and honoured this week. Millions were killed and maimed in this conflict. Among the victims, let us not forget pigeons, who, today, are subjected to the same perilous journey across the English Channel but for nothing more than money and recreation.

Countless brave birds served and died with our Allied forces. They crossed battle lines and helped influence key battle decisions by delivering vital messages. These intelligent, gentle birds were the first recipients of the Dickin Medal - animals' Victoria Cross - for contributing to the rescue of thousands of human aviators.

Yet as the decades have passed, the very real contributions that pigeons made to the war effort have been forgotten. Instead of being given the respect they deserve, today they are being hurt and killed in tragic, pointless races throughout Europe that would be analogous to making grandchildren of war veterans storm the beach facing live ammunition or run through minefields in Normandy. The death toll is staggering.

PETA US investigated multiple races across Europe and gained access to all major British pigeon-racing organisations. Everywhere they turned, the findings were the same - most birds who are entered into pigeon races never make it home. Many die in storms. They die from exhaustion, drowning or collisions with buildings or power lines that cut them to the bone. Some succumb to starvation or predation.

In gruelling cross-Channel races, pigeons are crammed into cages containing 20 birds or more and are transported for up to seven days to release sites throughout Europe. The biggest danger that these birds face is crossing the Channel, which can be 150 miles wide at some points. The birds, exhausted and disoriented, face an endless body of water with no sign of land. They must battle relentless winds and rapidly changing weather conditions. Those who become too tired to continue have no place to land except on the water.

During The Queen's Jubilee Trophy Race on 15 June, more than 8,443 birds - many not even a year old - were released from Fougères, France, to make their way back to their lofts on the other side of the Channel. Only 1,697 made it home.

After this race, Les Parkinson, who runs a UK pigeon-racing website called Elimar Pigeon Services, acknowledged, "We were talking down the club and one of our senior members who does not forget much said that this is the worst season he can remember".

There is little doubt about the fate of the missing birds. They are not having a holiday somewhere in Normandy. And they are not living with wild flocks. The death rate is so high that the Channel is often referred to as the "graveyard". Particularly lethal races are called "disaster" or "smash" races.

Like other forms of animal exploitation, pigeon racing is driven by money. Millions of pounds are bet on these races every year - often illegally - and pigeons who do not win races or breed successfully are usually killed by suffocation, drowning or cervical dislocation (neck-breaking).

PETA's video shows one man killing a pigeon with his bare hands. He leaves the bird, wings still flapping, to die slowly in an empty feedbag. Pigeons would naturally live approximately 20 years, but in pigeon racing, most birds don't survive more than a few years.

These lovely little birds mate for life and are devoted parents - traits that pigeon racers exploit by separating birds from their mates (a cruel practice known as "widowhood") and from their young so that they will race their hearts out to get home. Before the races, some fanciers even place plastic "dummy eggs" beneath the hens, with live worms or live flies inside, to trick them into thinking that they have eggs about to hatch.

In Britain, we have so many things we can be proud of, and our respect for animals is one of them. For anyone with a heart, the mistreatment of these brave, gentle birds is an affront to national pride. I believe we have a moral obligation to recognise all those who have made sacrifices in service to our country. Please join me in appealing to Minister Lord De Mauley to take action to stop the carnage of cross-Channel pigeon racing.