Is Pigeon Racing A Sport, Or Animal Cruelty?


Tom Strato
Tom Strato, from Staten Island, N.Y., releasing a racing homer pigeon in his backyard. (Photo by Benedict Moran/CNS)

Tom Strato, a 39-year veteran of the New York City Police Department, walked into his backyard pigeon coop on Staten Island, N.Y., and reached for a white racing homer tagged RBC-548.  A relative of the pigeon had brought him second place at a competition last year.  He held it tight to prevent it from flying off, and the bird nuzzled his chest.

He wiped his thumb on the loft’s wall and collected a layer of “pigeon powder,” a white sediment that is released from the birds’ wings and shows they are healthy, he said.  Strato reached down and dragged his hand through a bucket of dried corn pellets, grains, Canadian peas and flax seed — the pricey meal he feeds his 70-plus pigeons every day.

The sport “gives you enormous responsibility,” Strato said.  While some animal activists say pigeon racing is cruel, he credits it with keeping him out of trouble as a teenager in 1950s Brooklyn.  “For a young kid, it’s the greatest thing,” he said, and released the bird into the air.

Like other pigeon racing enthusiasts across the country, Strato has been on the defensive since the animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) began campaigning to prevent the airing of a new reality show featuring pigeons racing, saying the sport is inhumane.  But breeders say such criticism is for the birds – and that racing is a fun sport like any other and can be a valuable educational tool to teach kids such things as responsibility.  Many hope the new show will shed light on the positive aspects of the ancient practice.

Long before pigeon racing became a sport, the birds were a widely used communication tool around the world.  Reuters News Agency, for instance, operated a live telex service using homing pigeons.  They were also extensively used by the European and American military during the World Wars.

The first official pigeon race took place in the United States in the 1880s.  And up until the 1950s, it remained a popular sport, until gradually declining in the face of more modern forms of entertainment.

The sport lives on in races each weekend across the country, with a select but growing group of enthusiasts.  In a typical competition, pigeons compete to be the fastest one to return home from the race start, traveling between 40 to 60 mph, for up to 600 miles.  Most races award a few hundred or thousand dollars, though a top national contest, the Snowbird Classic, will dish out a grand prize of $25,000 for 2010.
Seeking to show the “intensely competitive and bizarrely fascinating world of pigeon racing” and once again bring the tradition into the public eye, Animal Planet will soon begin filming a reality TV show on races in Brooklyn, N.Y.  The show will star none other than boxer Mike Tyson, who is a racer himself.

In response, PETA announced a campaign to prevent the show from airing, saying the sport is cruel to animals because it forces birds to race home to their mates in bad weather and risk being killed by natural predators.  PETA also says the series will encourage a slew of copy-cat racers who are ill-prepared to care for the birds. 
“When pigeons are used in these races, the birds aren’t voluntarily participating in this,” said Lisa Watney, a spokesperson for PETA.  “It’s not a

A pigeon loft in Staten Island, N.Y. (Photo by Benedict Moran/CNS)
A pigeon loft in Staten Island, N.Y. (Photo by Benedict Moran/CNS)

romantic sport — it’s a pastime that costs birds their lives.”

But racers say PETA is wrong, arguing that such misconceptions denigrate a worthy sport.

“There is always an assumption of the negative, like we are doing it just for the money,” said Deone Roberts, sports development manager for the American Racing Pigeon Union, out of Oklahoma City.

Vitamins, food and shelter for the birds can cost thousands of dollars per year, far exceeding most prize money, she said.  So most racers do it for the simple pleasure of breeding and racing the birds.
“The people who do it for a hobby really get off on the birds,” she said.

As proof of its value, Roberts said many schools have incorporated pigeon racing into their educational programs. 
“Kids just relate better to the animal, so it opens up the way for other learning, across the curriculum,” Roberts said.

Such is the philosophy of Ron Shumaker, a seventh-grade teacher in Enterprise, Miss., who uses his birds to teach children in grades four through six.  A racer himself, he received funding from a local power company to introduce racing at six schools in the state.  Students help feed, water and maintain the birds, and not only race them, but also use the animals in classroom activities.

How exactly do the birds help him teach math?

“If the birds were released at 8:15 in the morning, and they arrived at 8:55, then I ask my kids to give me that in yards per minute,” Shumaker said. “Rate is a mathematical formula – it makes no difference how you learn it.”

The same goes for biology.

And then there’s history.

One lesson involved the tale of a plucky pigeon called Cher Ami.  Ami saved the lives of more than 200 soldiers in the U.S. Army’s 77th Division after it had fallen behind enemy lines and was being accidentally bombed by allied forces in World War I, according to Andrew D. Blechman, the author of “Pigeons: The Fascinating Saga of the World’s Most Revered and Reviled Bird.”  After its death, the bird was stuffed and is displayed at the Smithsonian Institute.

As to the effect the Animal Planet show might have on pigeon racing, many racers are optimistic.

“It will really show how much fanciers love their birds, and it will show the depth of the sport and hobby,” said Chris Ferrante, who runs a pigeon racing Web site out of Brooklyn.  “There is no promotion like a prime-time show.”

Source: Columbia News Service / Author Benedict Moran

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39 thoughts on “Is Pigeon Racing A Sport, Or Animal Cruelty?

  1. Racing Pigeons is a sport, such as Horse, Dog, Olympics, Boston Marithon Racing & Etc.
    Except our sport allows the bird to choose where wants to be where he wants to fly. When released he chooses to come home. Just try taking a Ferrel Pigeon 100 miles away from home and see what happens, he also makes a chose, unlike any other athlete except human.
    PETA says birds dye trying to get home and this is true. The thing PETA does not understand is because we take such good care and we keep our birds so secure from preditors we aleminate mother nature. Birds can live to be as old as 15 years old – this would never happen in the wild. So we actually extend the birds life and make it very much more apt to live a good wholesome and long life in our care. I have a breeder cock in my loft who has never flown in his life. He broke a wing while in the nest bowl but the kids loved him so we kept him. Last season in the Hall of Fame race he had offspring who finished 3rd, 13th, & 25th in the respected races. PETA is wrong – bad wrong.
    The avg. life of a pigeon in my loft is much longer than in the wild.

  2. I think it is time we all “hobbyist” unite. They separate and attack one group at a time. I don’t understand all the concerns of “gun” people, but identify with the bit by bit eroding of liberty of the citizen. “They” know better and must impose their will on others? You don’t know how to spend the money you have earned. Politicians take it and redistribute the way they think it should have gone in the first place. Pigeons today, dogs, cats, whatever, tomorrow?

  3. Oh hell no!!! To me any fancier around this earth cares and race his or her racing pigeon with the greatest care and love for their pigeons. As me I fork out more money, love, care than as for my family. Well I know its the wrong way around but this is what I do. My wife is in it too so is both of our sons. Visser Family affair. So animals in general is put here on earth by GOD so that we can enjoy them, live off them and further more they can take care of themselves, on land, in the sea and in the air. Cruel?!!! No way. Most racing pigeon lofts I’ve seen is luxurious and beautiful on the inside and outside. In many cases better than what our houses is on the inside and outside. To those who think racing your pigeons is cruel, think again. You can get sued and court mar shelled by some one who just had it about your anti mouth.

    1. How is pigeon racing more cruel than horse racing???? In horse racing the horses are being struck with a stick to go faster. PETA needs to do more research on our sport before they start making decisions to fight for an animal that does not need fighing for.

  4. PETA doesn’t know much about pigeon racing. They don’t know how much LOVE that a fancier give to this pigeon. If they only understand the feeling of being a fancier/racer, then they cant say that this is cruelty. Im from Philippines, I love My pigeons, looking to enter in racing someday…

  5. I’m not shure about how PETA analyze this topics but certainly needs to be more efficient about it. Racing pigeons are domesticated animals, that usually are under a lot of pressure (artificial selection) but also under a lot of care (food, medication, etc). If cruelty for PETA is the possibility of being eaten by a hawk, then, PETA must demand nature, and predators to, because they are cruelty. Of course pigeons aren’t voluntarily participating in races, but I don know if cows, pigs and chickens are voluntarily participating as human food, and dogs and cats as pets, and so on. I’m a pigeon racer, but also I studied biology and I’m a school teacher, so don’t tell me this is cruelty…

  6. Pigeon racing is a fantastic hobby,, how can anyone think any different, our pigeons are better fed and get the best tonics than I will ever have, I am def coming back as a pigeon in my next life. lol

  7. Is it cruel to control wild animals? Is it cruel to control and >>>make<<< humans race for our own personal purpose, love and pleasure ?

  8. Pigeon racing is and isn’t cruel. I believe it is cruel when the birds are sometimes released in poor weather and also when, as in parts of the British Isles, they race across two wide channels of open ocean in longer distance races.
    It isn’t cruel in that they are well fed,watered, housed, exercised and medicated so that they are in the best possible health.
    Do PETA not realise that even at home they are the object of birds of prey?

    1. How about Bass Straight ? the distance of water between the state of Tasmania & the nearest mainland state Victoria, Australia??? makes the English channel look like a creek !!! & then there is the Derby Aroona !

  9. this for the activists against our great sport.
    go look at the amount of good this sport has brought to the table before condemning it. A sport that has kept wild kids off the streets.A sport that has taught discipline and commitment to unruly members of communitys.Its not only these people the eduction
    given! This is a sport with endless opportunities from jobs and money to social upliftment,education,discipline.

    So how can we be crule to or birds if they do so much for us.I could go on for hours! Just becareful trying to break down a sport that has so much to offer world wide.

  10. Pigeon fanciers are the real animal lovers as we care for the birds keeping them heathy spendy money etc. The birds race home for the love of there home and the fancier so how can that be cruel. Those people need to get a grip they do more harm then good.

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