A bill currently in committee at the state House of Representatives would make it illegal to use live birds or animals tethered or launched mechanically as targets for shooting.
Proponents of House Bill 2130 say it will end what they call the inherent cruelty of pigeon shoots, where gunslingers take aim at birds that are tied down or tossed up at competitions. They say that pigeon shoots inherently violate the hunters' ethos of fair chase. Those opposed to the bill, though, say it's just an attempt to poison public perception of hunting and advance an animal-rights agenda.
"Any normal person, including hunters, would look at an event like this and think it's horrifying. It's one step up from cockfighting or dog fighting," says Heidi Prescott, senior vice president for campaigns with the Humane Society of the United States, which has been working to push this and similar bills for years.
"I think [the bill] is trying to foster in the minds of the public an agenda that hunting is cruelty: the Bambi agenda," says Kim Stolfer, on the board of directors of the Allegheny County Sportsmen's Association. "It's not like we're lining the animals against the wall, Nazi-style, and executing them."
"It's the first step in an agenda that would prohibit all hunting," says National Rifle Association spokesperson Rachel Parsons. The NRA, Parsons says, has lobbyists in Pennsylvania working against the bill. "Pigeon shoots are a traditional sport in Pennsylvania and throughout the country and the world. These shoots have been happening in Pennsylvania for more than 100 years."
Stolfer praises the shoots as good clean fun, though he calls them "not my cup of tea." Stolfer also questions the need for such a bill at all, saying that pigeon shoots are rare. Prescott says there is a traveling circuit of shoots occurring every other weekend. City Paper obtained a flier for a shoot in August 2007, at the Strausstown Gun Club, near Reading.
The bill was introduced by Rep. Frank Shimkus (D-Lackawanna County). Shimkus has introduced bills to ban the shoots before. His interest in the issue began a decade ago when, as a TV reporter, he covered the now-ended annual Hegins shoot in Schuylkill County. But the bills have mostly languished in committee -- one came up for a vote in 1993, but fell three votes shy of passing.
The new bill, which moved into committee at the end of last year, is reworded. Instead of banning "live pigeon shoots," as a former version, HB 73, said, the new bill specifically prohibits the use of "live animals or fowl for targets ... launched ... with electronic or mechanical assistance or ... affixed to a rope, chain or other tethering device when presented to the shooter."
Despite what hunters say, Shimkus insists the bill is not anti-hunting. "This is not a hunters' thing. If people attach gun control [to the bill], I'll withdraw my support," he says. The bill's new language makes it clear, he says, that pigeon shoots don't qualify as hunting: The birds are presented to the participants instead of being tracked.
Shimkus says that the issue of live targets became a hot one again recently after a September 2007 turkey shoot at the Elstonville Sportsmen's Association in Lancaster County resulted in charges of animal cruelty. At that event, turkeys were bound to hay bales but their wings were free to flap around. Shooters took aim with bows and arrows, and drawing blood was considered victory. The shoot became news because an undercover Humane Society member was there and videotaped the contest. Turkey shoots would be included in the new legislation.
"People were outraged," he says. The Humane Society's Prescott says "in the hunting community, [Elstonville] was condemned."
"I'm not anti-gun, I'm not anti-hunting," Shimkus insists. "I'm anti-pigeon shoots."