Guest Author - Kimberly Weiss
I admit I know nothing about the sport of pigeon racing. As a bird watcher more than a bird hobbyist, I am always vaguely annoyed when I see a pigeon of any kind, racing or otherwise. I always wish it could be a more wild bird, something to add to my life list.
But most of the news in the bird world has been about just that this past week--pigeon racing. Specifically, pigeon racing with Mike Tyson.
It seems the heavyweight is going to have his own show on Animal Planet, where he is shown racing pigeons. Apparently, Tyson has owned pigeons for years, but has never raced them. PETA opposes the idea, claiming that pigeon racing is cruel to the birds.
When I heard the news about this show, the first thing I thought was, “Here’s a perfect example of what they call network decay on tvtropes.org. Why is a channel that used to dedicate itself to serious nature documentaries (with a few psychics thrown in for good measure, of course) now following around another questionable character? Isn’t it bad enough that A&E dropped ‘Pride and Prejudice’- miniseries to tag along with ‘Dog the Bounty Hunter’ or spy on the Gottis?”
But, returning my mind quickly to birds, where it belongs, I decided to investigate pigeon racing.
According to the American Racing Pigeon Union, pigeon racing is a “sport” that is fun for the entire family. They claim that they promote humane treatment for the birds, although I could not find any specific rules on their web site pertaining to the keeping or caring ot the animals. (That is not to say that they don’t have them, but they are not featured prominently). They do have a draft of a letter they sent to the FDA explaining why racing pigeons should be exempt from the Animal Welfare Act of 2004. Racing pigeons are excellent things because they have been used as messengers for many centuries, they say in this document. But they are not pets, and racing pigeon owners should not be held to the same standards as pet owners. The pigeon-racing club has a lobbyist in Washington to promote their pigeon causes, as well. (I wonder what the pigeons think of that new healthcare bill).
I was expecting to find an organized campaign against pigeon racing that predated the Tyson controversy of earlier this week. But I didn’t find much, outside of the quotes given by PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk. Newkirk’s objection, briefly summarized: in this sport, pigeons are released miles from home. They fly back (being homing pigeons and all that), but some don’t make it. They die in storms, and, according to Newkirk, if they lose their race, their owners wring their necks. Newkirk didn’t provide a definitive example of a real bird who was neck-wrung, so I don’t know if this is common, something that happens once in a while with especially cruel owners, or if happened only once or twice.
The Audubon Society has a problem with pigeon racing as well. It seems that there is a special type of pigeon called a “roller pigeon” that is causing problems. A regular racing pigeon just flies home after it is released; a roller pigeon rolls around in the sky. Where racing pigeons’ success depends on their flight time, like in track and field, a roller pigeon is judged on its acrobatics, like in gymnastics. Unfortunately, pigeons that twirl instead of fly make easy prey for whatever bird-eating raptor is in the area. This infuriates their owners. According to an article written by the society in 2008, roller-pigeon lovers killed over 1000 hawks in Los Angeles one year.
I don’t think Mike Tyson will be working with these special acrobatic pigeons, though. And I doubt Tyson would be stupid enough to wring a pigeon’s neck while the camera is on him, although you never know. He did almost bite Evander Holyfield’s ear off on camera.
But seriously. I confess, after doing research, I’m more confused than ever about this odd sport. I can’t fully believe the positive spin the racing association (or its lobbyists) puts on this hobby, but I also have to be skeptical towards the positions of the more extreme animal-rights activists, who would like to ban zoos, meat, and sometimes even pets.
I kind of hope the show does come on. I’m not a big Tyson fan, but I’m intrigued about the world of pigeon racing and would like to see a show about it. I just hope what I see doesn’t disgust or enrage me.