It’s a bit like an Olympic training camp. Only the athletes are pigeons.
The lofts at Birtsmorton in Worcestershire are clean and modern. The bleached-wood roost boxes might have come from the Ikea catalogue.
Bad experiences in Trafalgar Square had led me to foresee a flutter of mangy birds in a loft strewn with droppings.
These birds are glowing with health and their sawdust floor is cleaner than my local pub.
The white ones are almost loveable.
The birds are all being raised by a professional pigeon fancier and trained on behalf of their owners for the thrill of the race.
But this seemingly innocuous sport is heading for a shock; it has been condemned by the radical animal rights group Peta as fundamentally cruel.
I found this accusation hard to credit at first, until a casual chat with a colleague.
She told me this extraordinary story. She used to live next door to a pigeon fancier. One day his winged competitors returned from a race, but one refused to re-enter the loft; it perched on the house roof, out of reach of its owner who wanted to register its ID from the tag on its skinny leg.
A simple solution was at hand, in the shape of an air rifle. He shot the bird and collected its corpse to complete his race record.
“You made that up," I accused. “No I didn’t,” she replied.
So, back to Peta: This report does not investigate the many claims it has made about cruelty in pigeon racing.
Instead, it raises some of the intriguing ethical issues, which fall broadly into three categories.
The first is the shoot-bird-on-roof variety. Peta’s video appears to show secretly filmed video of owners performing a ruthless genetic winnowing, selecting slow-flying birds and snapping their necks before tossing them into the bin.
The official voices of pigeon racing make no attempt to defend any instances of prima facie cruelty. Stewart Wardrop, manager of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association (RPRA), told me any proven maltreatment should be punished.
“There are 43,000 registered pigeon fanciers. In 43,000 individuals, there will be people who do silly and stupid things but the vast majority of pigeon fanciers look after and take care of their animals – why wouldn’t they?”
Charge number two is that pigeon racing is inherently cruel because it involves inevitable deaths – especially during races across the English Channel.
The protestors say in some Channel races, 90% of birds have gone missing, with many presumed dead. Stewart Wardrop’s figures are more conservative: a bad race would not normally lose more than 75%, he says. Sometimes only a few percent might go astray.
“My personal view is 'no', I don’t believe it is cruel,” he says.
But cruelty to animals is a slippery notion. We breed pigs and kill them all; but we eat them and to many people that confers moral acceptability. Should there be different ethical criteria for animals in sport?
We have banned cock-fighting, bear-baiting and fox hunting with dogs. We still lose a few horses in the Grand National. It’s rare but it provokes an outcry when it happens.
However, there are thousands of birds in a big race, so losing 75% of them in some events is noteworthy, even if many people consider pigeons to be no better than flying rats.
And while we’re on the subject of rats, let’s get hypothetical for a moment.
Suppose you were breeding rats to race them. What’s an acceptable rate of collateral damage? 5%? 10%? That’s one for debate.
The next category of accusation has already caused marital conflict among some of my anthropomorphically inclined friends.
It concerns the relative fidelity of male and female pigeons, and a process known as “widowing.”
Now, the pigeon is a monogamous creature. In the early days in a loft, male and female individuals all claim their own box as territory. As romance blossoms, the birds form pairs and they move in together to share the same box, kissing each other in what is, even for a hard-bitten hack like myself, a heart-warming sight.
In an avian version of the ideal egalitarian marriage, both male and female sit on the nest and both feed the hatchlings with milk produced in their crop, a projection from the throat. And they stick together in their pigeon pair.
The pigeon’s fidelity can be exploited in a process known as widowing, or widowhood, in which the pairs are split up and one bird is taken away to race back to the loft.
As Stewart Wardrop explains it, in a sprint race the stronger male birds will surge back to their hen and particularly their territory. But if the male birds are taken farther afield, they’re often tempted by pastures new.
Now consider the attitude of the female birds: separate them from their cocks and they will fly determinedly back to their love over hill and high water. So it’s typically the females that are entered into the prestigious race back to the UK from Barcelona.
After struggling to cross the Pyrenees, many of them appear to have their fidelity rewarded with an exhausted watery end in the Channel.
“The Barcelona race – the long distance races – are the pinnacle of the pigeon racing sport,” the RPRA man tells me. “Those pigeons are very experienced pigeons.”
The Barcelona fliers are not exactly volunteers: “No. They’re not volunteers but they do enjoy pampered lives, though. The pigeon fancier carefully weighs up, and he will only send out, pigeons that he thinks have a genuine chance of coming back and performing for him. I wouldn’t mind being a pigeon.”
Stewart Wardrop says the whereabouts of the pigeons that don’t return is a mystery – perhaps many of them find new homes elsewhere. The association is hoping to learn more about this by fitting pigeons with tracking devices in a trial with two universities.
Jeremy Davies, who runs the Worcestershire training loft, agrees with him that widowing is acceptable.
“They are happy to race, you know,” he tells me. “You get a sense of feeling for the pigeon. If a pigeon is unhappy, it will sit there all glum. If it wasn’t happy, it would stay in Barcelona in the sun and wouldn’t come home!”
Both men consider the Peta allegations oddly misguided.
Ingrid Newkirk, founder of Peta, believe it’s the sport that is misguided: “Pigeons are bright, clever and we happened upon the fact that pigeon racing can be horribly cruel.
“The females have had their instincts manipulated to get back to their mate and their brood. Flying the Channel is a frightening prospect for them – and many of them will perish.
“The pigeon racers we filmed refer to the Channel as a death trap – the 'Bird-muda Triangle'. In World War II, they had to fly the Channel but they don’t have to die doing so now for a little bet.
“It's like saying I’ll wager you to see if your toddler gets to the other side of the road.”
So who will decide whether pigeon racing goes the same way as bear-baiting and cock-fighting? I contacted the RSPCA but they said it wasn’t really their territory.
It’s hard to know whether sufficient numbers of people care enough about pigeons for the protestors to make headway. The average age of a British pigeon-fancier is in the 60s. Perhaps the protesters should just bide their time.
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