Judge hears testimony in landmark pigeon cruelty case

The pigeons of Pennsylvania have finally had their day in court.

A Dauphin County district judge heard seven hours of testimony in an animal cruelty case against Erdman Sportsmen's Association Inc., a gun club that holds live pigeon shoots northeast of Harrisburg and Don Bailey, who provides pigeons for the contest.

Humane officer Johnna Seeton filed a total of 83 charges of animal cruelty for actions during pigeon shoots in 2009 and 2010.

"They are guilty of cruelty without a doubt," said attorney Andrea Pace, representing the Commonwealth. "We are not saying shoots are unlawful, the conduct around the shoots is unlawful. Legislation clearly states it's unlawful not to make a reasonable effort to collect wounded birds."

Steve Hindi, of the animal activist group SHARK,  who videotaped the events,  testified that he witnessed wounded birds flying into the woods beyond what is known as "the shooting circle" and saw no one try to find them. He also said he saw birds' heads and feet get caught in traps as they were being launched to be shot.

Seeton said she saw young boys with buckets gather live pigeons and throw them into barrels with live pigeons. She said she also saw boys drag wounded birds in a net and beat birds with buckets.

Testimony was not yet completed when the court closed at 4:30 p.m. at which point District Judge James Lenker determined to continue the hearing in April, Seeton said.

Seeton - who has been monitoring pigeon shoots and rescuing wounded birds for two decades -said last year that using children to dispose of wounded birds and the cruel treatment she witnessed are violations of a 1995 court order specifying that no children would be involved in disposal of pigeons and that any wounded birds be destroyed in a humane manner.

Seeton, a humane officer for the Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network, attempted to file similar charges against the Pike Township Sportsmen's Club in Berks County, but said District Attorney John Adams has denied her request. Humane officers  say they have had similar problems in Bucks County home of the Philadelphia Gun Club, where anti-cruelty advocates have criticized District  Attorney David Heckler for not prosecuting activities at pigeon shoots.  

Prosecutors contend that pigeon shoots are legal and say it's up to the legislature to decide otherwise. 

But Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico said Seeton is within her authority to file charges and therefore the court will decide the outcome.

"My thought process is that the judge will hear her charges and decide accordingly," Marsico said when the first round of charges were filed last year. "My office won't play any role in that."

The Erdman gun club in Elizabethville hosts semi-annual shoots in which participants compete to shoot live birds catapulted from boxes for prizes and money.

The Pennsylvania Legislative Animal Network, along with humane groups throughout the state and nation - most notably former game show host Bob Barker who kicked in $1 million for the cause - have urged the General Assembly to pass legislation banning pigeon shoots.

Blocked by the small, but well-connected pigeon shoot lobby and the National Rifle Assocation in the past, animal welfare advocates are trying again this session. A bill (SB 626)that would prohibit the use of live animals for block or trap shoots has been introduced by Sen. Pat Brown (R., Lehigh).

"Cruelty laws in Pennsylvania certainly apply to pigeon shoots, but because the shooters constantly flout them, law enforcement and district attorneys in the state have called for stronger guidance," said Heidi Prescott, a vice president for the Humane Society of the United States, who has fought to stop pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania since the early 1990s. "It is time for the Pennsylvania legislature to step in to finally pass a clear law to prohibit this cruel practice.”

Erdman is one of only three known venues that remain in Pennsylvania where pigeon shooting takes place. The others are Wing Point in Berks County and Philadelphia Gun Club. Pennsylvania is the last state to openly hold pigeon shoots.