When animal welfare groups release video depicting horrendous conditions and mistreatment of animals at a slaughterhouse or a puppy mill, often the operators charge that the video was doctored or fake.
Such is the case at Pennsylvania pigeon shoots, the activity, now conducted only at private hunting clubs, that the NRA defends as a "proud hunting tradition" and animal activists call a brutal blood bath.
(I explain the debate over the shoots and the cruelty issue in my story in today's Inquirer.)
Last week though I was invited by the animal welfare group SHark (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness) to one of the few remaining pigeon shoot sites in Pennsylvania and see for myself.
I watched for hours as a dozen or so men positioned in a large circle fired hundreds of rounds aiming at scores of birds as they were periodically flushed from inside a "tower," a plywood box on a wagon bed in the center of the field.
The birds, many of them a brilliant white, others various shades of grey, went straight up. Dazed and confused, they flew in circles above the box as the men opened fire from every direction.
For a few minutes it sounded like a war zone. Lead shot rained down on a public trail abutting the property where members of SHark were documenting the event with high tech camera equipment.
Usually at a pigeon shoot birds are launched from battery-operated boxes to be shot at close range. There is wagering and prizes for the shooters who hit the most birds inside a 30 meter circle. It's hard to imagine how anyone could "win" a tower shoot because it would be impossible to determine who hit which bird.
The shooting went on for four hours. A couple on horseback rode by and asked what was going on. "That's disgusting and nauseating," said Michelle Gross, of Northampton, before galloping off. A hiker said he thought they were shooting clay pigeons and registered his disapproval when he found out they were real birds.
At the end, when all the cages of birds were emptied, the men and teenagers formed a line to drive out the wounded birds. Dozens of injured pigeons clustered together in a small opening in the field. The men threw rocks to force them from the tall grass. Some grabbed birds off the ground and punted them like footballs. Others threw birds unable to fly into the air and shot them at a few feet, as they exploded in a mass of feathers. (All of this is documented in the video below.)
Hunters say the most humane way to "dispatch" a wounded bird is to break its neck. I saw no one breaking any bird's neck that day. The shooters slammed them to the ground, whacked them against their boot heels, stomped on them. A teenager appeared to delight in the killing, laughing as he twisted his leg to smash birds into the ground.
When it was over the SHark members gathered up nine wounded birds that clung to tree limbs and landed on the ground in the surrounding area. One bird huddled in a cardboard box was an unusual dark grey with a brilliant white streak down its wing. SHark founder Steve Hindi told me he believes the white pigeons shot that day were bred for the shoots by Amish farmers. The wounded birds were taken to a wildlife rehabilitator for care. The mortality rate from gunshot is high. As of yesterday four survived.