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Fair Or Foul? Pigeon Shoots Ruffle Feathers In Pennsylvania

A sportsman participates in a pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania in 2009. Animal-rights activists want to ban the tradition in the state.
The Humane Society of the United States
A sportsman participates in a pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania in 2009. Animal-rights activists want to ban the tradition in the state.

Animal-rights activists are hoping for change in Pennsylvania, where they're fighting to end a tradition: live pigeon shoots. At the events, shooters compete to hit birds that are launched into the air.

Elissa Katz remembers feeling helpless at the site of a pigeon shoot, with feathers flying through the air and wounded birds falling to the ground. "They flutter up in the air as they are sprung from boxes. Shooters have shotguns, they are at fairly close range, and they blast away at the birds," she says.

Like other pigeon-shoot opponents, Katz calls the practice "cruel." She's helped rescue wounded birds. As president of the political action committee Humane PA, Katz is pushing Pennsylvania lawmakers to stop the shoots.

In the other camp are pigeon-shoot supporters, like hunter Bob Tobash. He helped run a Pennsylvania pigeon shoot that was shut down after opponents' protests. "You enjoy it — the same thing as hunting a rabbit or a pheasant. When you capture the game that you're looking for, it's a good feeling, that you accomplish what you were trying to do," he says.

Not all hunters agree. Frank Nassetta made up his mind against pigeon shoots after attending one. "It was just one of the most dismal things I'd ever done," he says. "I felt absolutely nothing sporting about it. It just seemed to be an obscene little adventure. ... There was no challenge."

Heidi Prescott is senior vice president for campaigns and outreach for the Humane Society of the United States, which opposes the practice. "Pennsylvania is unique in that it openly and regularly holds these shoots. They've been outlawed since before the 1900s in states like New York and Colorado," she says.

Prescott says Pennsylvania needs to catch up with other states.

"Fourteen states have laws that make it explicitly illegal. Eight states have either an attorney general opinion or a court opinion that pigeon shoots are illegal or violate the cruelty statute," she says.

Prescott says 22 more states have cruelty codes that the society believes prevent live pigeon shoots.

Pennsylvania's pigeon shoot debate is playing out while gun laws are also discussed across the country.

Some fear the push to end pigeon shoots represents a slippery slope. Among them is Jack Walters, the president of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's League, which covers the Pittsburgh area. He calls "legislation" a dangerous thing.

"If they say you can't bring birds in to shoot, that's a foot in the door. As we all know, if government gets their foot in the door, they keep on movin' in," he says. "It's just a scary thing. Shouldn't approve anything that will restrict the sportsmen's rights."

For decades, the Pennsylvania Legislature has failed to act on bills to stop the shoots. But pigeon shoot opponents say support is growing, with more co-sponsors being added every year.

Copyright 2013 WHYY

Elizabeth Fiedler