In April 2012, PETA released a 15-month undercover investigation—spanning five states—into some of the largest pigeon-racing operations in the U.S. PETA documented massive casualties of birds during races and training, discovered rampant killing of unwanted birds and abusive training and racing methods and exposed a multimillion-dollar illegal gambling industry.
PETA’s investigators found that in many races, which can be as long as 600 miles, more than 60 percent of the birds get lost or die as a result of extreme weather, predators, electrical lines, hunters, or exhaustion. Races that are particularly fatal—where only a minuscule percentage of birds makes it home—are referred to as “smash races.” In one such race in Queens, New York, only four out of 213 birds returned. At the 2011 American Racing Pigeon Union Convention, only 827 out of the original 2,294 birds survived training flights, only 487 of whom completed the 325-mile race by nightfall.
Birds who aren’t considered fast enough and aren’t wanted for breeding are typically “culled”— killed by suffocation, drowning, neck-breaking, gassing, or decapitation. PETA documented one world-renowned racer as he admitted that he generally has to buy 12 pigeons for breeding before he finds one he can use in his loft and just kills the others and their offspring. Another racer told investigators that when starting out in pigeon racing, “The first thing you have to learn—how to kill pigeons.”
Like cockfighting and dogfighting, pigeon racing is all about gambling. PETA penetrated racing organizations in which a quarter of a million dollars is bet on a single race and discovered that pigeon racing generates an estimated $15 million a year in illegal gambling proceeds and involves felony violations of federal gambling, racketeering, and tax-evasion laws. The high stakes also lead some flyers to cheat: Investigators found that several racers’ birds tested positive for illegal performance-enhancing drugs, and one racer admitted to shooting federally protected raptors.