The stage was set Monday in the House for final passage of the long-awaited, furiously lobbied bill to end live pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania – legislation first introduced in the General Assembly in the 1880s.
The Senate had passed the bill overwhelmingly. Animal advocates felt they had a comfortable margin of support in the House to send the bill to Gov. Corbett's desk. The governor said he would sign the legislation.
For Heidi Prescott, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States, a victory in her 27-year battle to stop the slaughter of pigeons for sport appeared within reach.
"After such a landslide victory in the Pennsylvania Senate, animal lovers and groups across Pennsylvania believed an end to cruel live pigeon shoots was finally in sight after decades of working to end this barbaric contests. said Prescott.
But as the clock ticked toward the end of the legislature's 2013-2014 session, hopes began to evaporate. At 3:30p.m. House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) called a meeting of the chamber's powerful Rules Committee which determines which bills get to the floor for a vote.
On one side of the packed conference room National Rifle Association lobbyist hovered over the shoulders of lawmakers seated at the table. On the other side, representatives of the Humane Society of the United States and other anti-pigeon shoot advocates looked on.
An aide read the list of bills on the agenda. House Bill 1750, which was amended to include language to make pigeon shoots illegal in Pennsylvania – along with banning the sale of dogs and cats for human consumption - was not on it.
After more than an hour of debate on other bills, the committee broke and headed for the House floor. Turzai brushed past reporters asking what happened to the pigeon bill without a word and raced down the hall, pausing once to say "no comment." When asked if he would call another Rules Committee meeting before day's end, he said. "Maybe."
But it was not to be. With lawmakers hustling to finish the agenda ahead of a memorial service for a late Senator, time ran out.
That means pro-pigeon forces will have to start the process all over again next year. The NRA meanwhile issued an announcement claiming victory for quashing a “misguided” bill.
But it was the closest animal advocates had come yet in the nearly 30 years since the first pigeon shoot bill of the modern era was introduced. The Senate on Thursday had overwhelmingly approved the bill 36-12 with no lawmakers from the southeast voting against it.
With a vote anticipated on Monday, the NRA and humane groups launched an all out lobbying effort across the state over the weekend.
Anne Irwin, director of the Bucks County SPCA and vice president of the 64-member Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies, sent out pleas for support and wrote to critics suggesting it was an effort by out-of-state groups that the quest to end pigeon shoots had been a goal of humane societies in Pennsylvania since the late 1800s.
The Federation of Humane Societies put ending pigeon shoots at the top of its agenda in its founding year in 1906. The Women’s Humane Society of Bensalem, home to the Philadelphia Gun Club, which still holds regular shoots at its Delaware River location, fought to win passage of a bill making shoots illegal in 1883.
This time Women's Humane sent out 15,000 emails seeking support for the current bill.
The NRA turned to its allies - the hunting dog groups and AKC dog breeders' groups. (Both groups in 2008 opposed efforts to create more humane conditions for dogs in commercial breeding kennels that would become the the state’s landmark dog law.)
At the 11th hour the Pennsylvania Federation of Dog Clubs issued their statement of opposition. In a letter to House leaders the dog club group said it saw no evidence of dog and cat consumption and "questioned the real motivation for HB 1750."
"The animal radicals are very adept at using incrementalism to get what they want, and we are very concerned that is truly the motivation behind HB1750," wrote federation president Darin Cox, a Dauphin County dog breeder.
In fact, the Pennsylvania SPCA in the last five years, raided Asian-run kennels in Philadelphia raising Jindo dogs for consumption, but were unable to prosecute because there is no law against eating dog meat. (A Jindo dog rescued from a meat market in South Korea was on hand to help lobby for the bill on Monday.) Irwin wrote to Cox and others that a furrier in Bucks County had advertised that he would purchase pelts of "house cats" on his price list.
The NRA's lobbying arm announced Tuesday it was pleased to report that "after much hard work, House Bill 1750, misguided legislation being pushed by the Humane Society of the United States, died in the House Rules Committee and is no longer a threat this year to the age-old tradition of organized bird shoots."
The NRA's Pennsylvania lobbyist John Hohenwater, in an interview, defended pigeon shoots as a tradition practiced around the world and accused supporters of the bill as trying to end all hunting in Pennsylvania.
"With the people driving the bus on this we know what the end game is, when it comes to hunting," said Hohenwater, who when asked said he had never attended a pigeon shoot. "At the end of the day the House realized it's not about pigeons it's bigger than that."
Prescott called that argument “ridiculous.”
The NRA completely misrepresents its own membership with its bizarre claims. Most hunters in Pennsylvania would never participate in such an unsporting and unethical activity.”
On Tuesday Turzai’s spokesman, Steve Miskin, would say only that the pigeon bill "hadn't come up and the clock ran out,” despite the fact the majority leader controls the calendar.
When pressed on this point, Miskin said the bill had not been 'vetted.”
Rep. John Maher, a Republican also from Allegheny County, had introduced the pigeon bill a year earlier and similar versions of that bill have existed on the House calendar for 14 sessions – and that’s just in the final quarter of the 20th century until today.
A top GOP source later said the bill was buried because the bill came up for a vote "too close to the election" and lawmakers were concerned about the fallout over their votes from the gun lobby and the animal advocates.
That was no measure of comfort for Prescott who vowed to fight on when the new legislative session starts in January.
"Tens of thousands of animals will suffer because this bill was not allowed to the go to the floor for a vote,” said Prescott. “ Majority Leader Turzai has betrayed the Pennsylvania animal community who fought so hard for this bill. It deserved a vote. Looking forward – we will never give up.”