by Walter Brasch
Pennsylvanians can still butcher, braise, and broil their pet cats and dogs because a murky mixture of politics has left a critical bill on the table in the state senate.
Residents may also continue to use cats, dogs, and other animals as targets for what some erroneously call “sporting events.”
Although there are no documented cases of cats and dogs being thrown into the air at these shoots, there is a long history in Pennsylvania of pigeon shoots. Pennsylvania is the only state where such shoots occur legally. The remaining shoots are in the southeastern part of the state, in Berks and Bucks counties near Philadelphia. However, this past week, an undercover investigator for SHARK, an animal rights group, documented a pigeon shoot in Oklahoma to provide campaign funds for Sen. James Inhofe (R). About 1,000 pigeons, according to SHARK, were thrown into the air a few yards from the shooters.
In Pennsylvania, scared and undernourished birds are placed into cages, and then launched about 30 yards in front of people with 12-gauge shotguns. Most birds, as many as 5,000 at an all-day shoot, are hit standing on their cages, on the ground, or flying erratically just a few feet from the people who pretend to be sportsmen. About 70 percent of all birds are wounded, according to Heidi Prescott, senior vice-president of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who for 25 years has been documenting and leading the effort to pass legislation to end pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania. If the birds are wounded on the killing fields, trapper boys and girls, most in their early teens, some of them younger, grab the birds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, or throw them live into barrels to suffocate. Birds that fall outside the shooting club’s property are left to die long and horrible deaths. There is no food or commercial value of a pigeon killed at one of the shoots.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Game Commission says pigeon shoots are not “fair chase hunting.” The International Olympic Committee declared pigeon shoots aren’t a sport, and banned it after the 1900 Olympics because of its cruelty to animals.
But, the Pennsylvania Senate still hasn’t taken HB1750 off the table for discussion. Any senator may request the Senate to suspend the rules to allow a bill come off the table; none have.
The House passed the original bill, sponsored by Rep. John Maher (R), 201–0, in November 2013.
It was amended in the Senate, with Maher’s approval, to ban pigeon shoots under Title 18, which includes animal cruelty statutes. Although butchering and selling cats and dogs would be a first degree misdemeanor, carrying a fine of $1,000–$10,000 and a maximum prison term of five years, pigeon shoot violations would be only a summary offense, carrying a maximum $300 fine and/or three months jail sentence, and only for those operating the shoot. That bill was approved in the Republican-led Judiciary Committee, 10–4, on June 26. In the next two days, it passed two of the required three readings in the full Senate, but was tabled, July 8, when the Senate recessed for more than two months. The bill was not placed on the voting calendar when the Senate reconvened for five days between Sept. 15 and Sept. 24. The Senate is again in recess and will reconvene for two to four days, beginning Oct. 6 before going on recess until after the Nov. 4 election.
One of the four who voted against the bill in the judiciary committee was Joseph B. Scarnati III (R), the Senate president pro tempore. In his past two elections, Scranati received $5,275 from the NRA PAC, and $1,000 from the Flyers Victory Fund; the Victory Fund was established to support pigeon shoots. However, Scarnati didn’t influence if the bill was to be voted upon by the full Senate, says Kate Eckhart, Scarnati’s communications and legislative affairs assistant. The senator who does influence what bills go on the calendar is Dominic Pileggi (R), the majority leader. Pileggi had voted for the bill when it was in Judiciary Committee. However, Pileggi doesn’t put a bill on the calendar until the Republican caucus discusses it.
Republican caucus leader is Sen. John Gordner (R), who also voted against the bill in committee. However, Gorder says he voted against the bill on procedural grounds. The amendment, says Todd Roup, Gordner’s chief of staff, “was slipped onto the committee’s calendar at the last minute without required notice.”
Gregg Warner, the Judiciary Committee’s legal counsel, disagrees. “We notify members of the committee what bills will be on the agenda on Thursdays or Fridays the week before [a Tuesday meeting],” says Warner, “and then distribute summaries of the bills a day before.” Amendments are often distributed on Mondays before scheduled Tuesday meetings.
“Once there is enough support in the caucus,” says Roup, the bill will go back to Pileggi. The person responsible for counting votes is Sen. Patrick Browne, Republican minority whip. Because caucus discussions are secret, neither Browne nor Gordner will reveal if the bill was discussed. Gordner, however, will vote for the bill if it gets to the floor for a third reading, says Roup.
Josh Funk, deputy general counsel of the Senate Republican caucus, says there are two tests as to whether a bill is placed onto the calendar to be voted upon by the full Senate. The first test is if a majority in the caucus wants it. The second test, says Funk, is that, “It is not Sen. Pileggi’s policy to put bills up for a vote if the end result will be that they fail to receive 26 votes,” a Senate majority.” However, in the final two days before the Senate recessed this past week, Pileggi did place two bills onto the calendar that failed, by wide margins, to get 26 votes. Nevertheless, a policy that severely restricts open debate, with most discussions and decisions made in secret, significantly reduces the rights of the public to learn how their elected representatives think about a particular issue; the policy could violate Section 702 of the state’s Sunshine Act that declares, “The General Assembly finds that the right of the public to be present at all meetings of agencies and to witness the deliberation, policy formulation and decision making of agencies is vital to the enhancement and proper functioning of the democratic process and that secrecy in public affairs undermines the faith of the public in government and the public's effectiveness in fulfilling its role in a democratic society.”
Although there may not be enough votes in the Republican caucus, there are more than enough votes to pass the bill in the Senate. In addition to 24 co-sponsors, an informal tally shows at least a half-dozen other senators will support the bill.
This is also bill the public supports. A statewide survey by Mason-Dixon Polling and Research a year ago revealed not only do more than three-fourths of all Pennsylvanians want to see legislation to ban live pigeon shoots, only 16 percent of Pennsylvanians oppose such a ban. More than four-fifths of all Pennsylvanians say live pigeon shoots are animal cruelty. The bill is supported by the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the ASPCA, and the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies. Most Pennsylvania newspapers have editorialized against pigeon shoots.
So, why wasn’t the bill brought up for a third reading before the Senate adjourned in July? And why is it still on the table?
The answer is enmeshed in a web of politics. Fearing an NRA backlash, and perhaps not wishing to alienate any voters less than six weeks before an election, the Senate may have stalled the vote because of an intense lobbying effort by the NRA. On the day before the Judiciary Committee was scheduled to hear the bill for the first time, the Institute for Legislative Action, NRA’s lobbying arm, sent urgent alerts to Pennsylvania members and the legislature. The NRA leadership opposes bans on pigeon shoots, believing that to ban animal cruelty is the “slippery slope” to banning guns.
“That’s completely nonsense,” says Roy Afflerbach, a lifelong hunter, and former state senator and Allentown mayor.
Many in the Legislature cower in fear at receiving less than an “A+” rating from the NRA. In the Senate Judiciary committee, Sen. Richard Alloway (R), a long-time hunter and a vigorous gun-rights advocate, called pigeon shooting a “blood sport.” After an attack by the NRA, he said, “I find it laughable that my friends [at the NRA] would somehow label me anti-Second Amendment.” Sen. Daylin Leach (D), vice-chair of the judiciary committee, doesn’t worry about the NRA rating. “Pigeon shoots, says Leach, “are a barbaric relic of a long-ago past. Hunters are ashamed of it, and it’s time to stop the gratuitous cruelty that pigeon shoots represent.”
The NRA alert called pigeon shooters “law-abiding, ethical shooting enthusiasts.” However, undercover investigators have observed a large part of the lure of pigeon shoots is illegal gambling on how many birds each shooter will wound or kill. The alert also told legislators that opposition “does not come from within the Commonwealth, but from the outside,” targeting the Humane Society of the United States as the leader of the “animal ‘rights’ extremist groups.” However, the NRA is as much an “outside organization as HSUS; its headquarters is in Fairfax, Va.. Both NRA and HSUS have Pennsylvania field offices. All Pennsylvania humane organizations support HB1750. Humane PA PAC, which opposes the pigeon shoot, has 32,000 members, most of them Pennsylvanians.
There is another political land mine for the bill. Even if the Senate passes the bill, the House of Representatives, which had passed the bill without the pigeon shoot amendment, is a far more conservative body, and could likely hold up passage of the bill.
The last free-standing vote in the House occurred in 1994. Although the vote was 99–93 to ban the shoots, a majority of 102 votes was required. Later bills were scuttled, usually by leadership of both political parties.
Four years after the House failed to pass legislation to ban pigeon shoots, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Hegins Pigeon Shoot, held on public property, was not only cruel “but moronic.” The organizers grudgingly disbanded the annual Labor Day event, held from 1934 to 1998. The Court’s opinion did not extend to shoots at private clubs, all of which draw many of the participants and spectators from New Jersey, and are held in secret.
“The tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who have contacted their legislators, year after year, for decades, deserve a vote,” says Heidi Prescott. If the bill is brought to a vote, “it will pass,” she says.
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning journalist, has been covering Pennsylvania pigeon shoots for more than 20 years. He is a former newspaper and magazine reporter and editor, and the author of 20 books. His current book is Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the politics and economics behind fracking, and its impact on health, agriculture, and the environment. The book also investigates fracking’s effects upon animals.]