Dave Comroe stepped to the firing line, raised his 12-gauge Browning over and under shotgun, aimed and fired. Before him, a pigeon fell, moments after being released from a box less than 20 yards away. About 25 times that day Comroe fired, hitting about three-fourths of the birds. He was 16 at the time.
“It’s not easy to shoot them,” he says, explaining, “there’s some talent involved. When a live pigeon is released, you have no idea where it’s going.”
Where it’s going is usually no more than five to ten feet from its cage. Many are shot on the ground or while standing on top of the cages, stunned by the noise, unable to fly because of being malnourished, dehydrated, and confined to a small space for hours, often days.
Nevertheless, even with “expert” shooters on the line, only about one-fifth of the pigeons are killed outright, according to Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States. About a tenth of the birds usually escape. But about two-thirds are wounded.
“There really isn’t much you can do for a wounded pigeon except put it out of its misery,” says Comroe. Prior to an order in 2002 by the Court of Common Pleas in Berks County, most of the wounded were picked up by trapper boys and girls, some as young as eight-years-old, who killed the birds by stomping on their bodies, hitting them against structures, stuffing them into sacks, and dumping them, some still breathing, into large barrels. Some also wrung the birds’ necks or ripped them from their bodies. Since that order, the “trappers” now are at least 18-years-old and have gone “high-tech”; they now use garden shears to sever a bird’s head.
Trappers can’t get all of the birds. Hundreds at a large shoot will fly to surrounding areas and remain untreated as long as several days to die a painful death, says Johnna Seeton, Humane Society police officer. Pigeon shoot organisers do their best to keep observers from the scene, and don’t allow volunteers to pick up and treat wounded birds unless they fly off the property, even if there’s no shooting at the time. “We have only been able to rescue a few birds,” says Seeton.
Dave Comroe, now 32-years-old, had begun hunting when he was 12-years-old. That first year he killed his only deer. Although he has been deer hunting many times, he says he has “only taken a shot once.” He has gone pheasant and dove hunting about a half dozen times.
“Fathers take their sons out,” he says, noting that hunting is “a “bonding experience.” That “bonding” continued through his teens and early 20s when he went to pigeon shoots. “I went as a spectator,” he says, “and to hang out with my friends”. He was 14 when he attended his first pigeon shoot, and remembers he didn’t compete until a year or two later. Comroe says he competed in five shoots, “but attended 10 or 12 overall,” including two or three at Hegins.
That shoot, at one time the largest and most controversial in the nation, brought as many as 250 shooters and as many as 10,000 spectators, from animal rights activists to neo-Nazis and skinheads, to the community park every Labor Day. The organisers claimed they only wanted to raise money for the town park. But they refused an offer by the Fund for Animals, which later merged into the Humane Society, to buy traps, clay pigeons, and ammunition for a non-violent event. Confrontational protests, begun in 1991 under the direction of the Fund for Animals, were abandoned two years later in favour of a large-scale animal rescue operation. Each Labor Day, more than 5,000 birds were killed and thrown away.
The organisers of the Hegins shoot finally cancelled the contests in 1999, 66 years after they began. It had nothing to do with a realisation that killing domesticated pigeons is cruel. It had everything to do with a unanimous ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that humane society officers could arrest participants and organisers under state anti-cruelty charges.
Comroe, a Syracuse graduate and instruction technology specialist, is pleasant, soft-spoken, and definitely not violent. Some who attend pigeon shoots aren’t. Heidi Prescott, who has been to more than 50 shoots, has seen “Children ripping the heads off live birds or throwing them into the air like footballs, adults cheering and laughing when crippled birds flop up and down in pain, and spectators parading around the park with pigeons’ heads mounted on plastic forks.”
It’s hard to reconcile the compassion seen in Comroe’s eyes with the reality that he calls pigeon shooting a sport. “There’s no pretence about it,” says Comroe, “It isn’t hunting. It’s a sport.”