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]