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Tyson ‘reality’ show won’t show real world of pigeon racing

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By Ingrid E. Newkirk

This is the photograph on the cover of PETA’s annual review. It shows how loving and devoted pigeons are. In fact, they could teach the “Moral Majority” a thing or two: They mate for life. Both parents share in the care and nurturing of their young―they are the symbols of peace, after all. Pigeons are smart and have complex social relationships. Their hearing and vision are both excellent, but they still flock in large numbers in order to help ward off predators. They are completely innocuous and enrich our mornings with their gentle cooing.

But pigeons are among the most maligned urban wildlife, and it’s hard to understand why anyone can find fault with these beautiful, fascinating birds. It’s not their fault that they were stolen from the cliffs of Europe and plunked down in the U.S. People trap them, poison them, and even force them into endurance races so that the humans involved can win prizes and purses―as Mike Tyson will be showcasing in an upcoming series on Animal Planet called Taking On Tyson.

Pigeons who are penned up for racing―on rooftops or in backyard coops, as viewers will witness in Taking On Tyson―are deliberately put at risk. Taken hundreds of miles from their pens, the birds often struggle to survive against all weather extremes and often fall prey to both wild predators like raptors and cruel humans who shoot or trap them. I once found a racing pigeon who had crossed the English Channel in a fierce storm, exhausted, no longer able to fly, and almost frozen on the ground. He had made it to land from his release point, but others can only have perished, never to see their mates again. And for what? For wagers, that’s what, and for trophies. Bets are usually placed on the outcome, which not only violates many state gambling laws but also can mean a grim fate for the “losers.” Since pride and profit are often the compelling factors in pigeon racing, owners have little use for pigeons who can’t or don’t win. “Wring his neck,” is what people so often hear when they report a starving or injured banded pigeon. So much for love and respect.

PETA has filed a complaint with the district attorney in Brooklyn, where  Taking On Tyson will be filmed, asserting that Tyson’s salary from the show is itself a monetary reward derived from racing animals, which is illegal in New York (with the unfortunate exception of horse racing).

Pigeons’ navigational abilities, which are largely dependent on keen vision and an exceptional memory for topographic details, are legendary. A 10-year study of pigeon flight patterns conducted at Oxford University found that the birds rely more on their knowledge of human transport routes than on their internal magnetic compasses. One behavioral psychologist who studies pigeons remarked, “Pigeons commit new images to memory at lightning speed. …They organize images of things into the same logical categories that human beings use when we conceptualize.”  

When not being used in races, pigeons live cooped up, sometimes hundreds in just a few barren cages. Instead of riding the air currents for pleasure or exploring grassy areas for morsels of food, birds are relegated to small wire-mesh worlds that may afford them little protection from the elements. Birds are given plastic eggs, a technique that tricks female birds into believing that they are nurturing a chick, on the theory that a distressed bird will race her heart out, going that much faster to get home to her egg.

There’s little doubt that Tyson’s show will have a 101 Dalmatians-type effect. Many of the boxer’s fans will casually acquire birds and then quickly tire of the idea. Animal Planet will be doing viewers and pigeons a terrible disservice if it airs this show, as it will sentence countless birds to life in a cramped cage and ultimately a bad end.

Pigeons bring beauty to our concrete jungles and demand so little in return. They deserve to be left in peace. Please let your thoughts be known.  

Ingrid E. Newkirk is the president and founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20036; PETA.org. Her latest book is The PETA Practical Guide to Animal Rights.

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Written by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals

March 25, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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