Is pigeon racing cruel?

Role players in the sport cannot agree on this question, resulting in a looming court case that may spell the end of pigeon racing in South Africa.

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In last week’s issue, I described how a case had been filed in the South Gauteng High Court against the Transvaal Racing Pigeon Federation (TRPF) by a Johannesburg pigeon fancier.

As a result, a task team will be set up to investigate cruelty to racing pigeons and will make recommendations on how to remedy the situation. The application has been filed in terms of the Animals Protection Act No. 71 of 1962, and the plaintiff asks that:

  • TRPF events of more than 850km (which includes the dreaded Leeu Gamka and Matjiesfontein races) be scrapped.
  • Racing pigeons not be liberated in a race of more than 600km if rain, hail, mist or dust storms are expected.
  • Pigeons not be released into headwinds above 30km/h or in temperatures exceeding 26°C.

The TRPF’s position
During a recent TRPF council meeting, the chairperson added the deciding vote in favour of the marathon Leeu Gamka (938km) and Matjiesfontein (1 035km) races. This decision may only be challenged during the AGM in May 2012.

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Returns from these two races are poor, as thousands of pigeons simply cannot cope with the October heat and generally adverse conditions encountered over the Karoo. But the TRPF seems to be trying to prove that the majority of its members support these marathon events.

In this instance, however, the term “majority” is misleading, as about 50% of the members do not support these events! Surely a judge will question this situation. Certainly, it seems that the relationship between TRPF’s management and members needs to be reviewed and ethics reintroduced.

When this is achieved, we’ll hopefully see an end to the practice of a few people-pleasers casting a vote that goes against their better judgement and their love for racing pigeons.

A weak defence
One of the defences in the federation’s lengthy argument is that racing pigeons are not as fragile as one might think, and are able to face the elements and survive even in races that last three to four days.

It’s an argument that fails to counter the simple fact that only a fraction of the pigeons liberated actually return from these marathons – and many of the late arrivals never fully recover. It also fails to consider that racing pigeons are domesticated animals kept in a comfortable, protected environment in a home loft.

They are not practised at fending for themselves when unexpectedly faced with harsh conditions. These include dehydration, prolonged stress and continuous exposure, for hour after hour, to sun, wind and rain. The result may be the onset of one or more dangerous physiological conditions: muscle cramps, tissue damage, heart failure or kidney damage. It’s hardly surprising, therefore, that so many of these birds die an unpleasant death.

The TRPF also fails to account adequately for the vast numbers of missing pigeons. According to the federation, these birds are apparently out there somewhere, “fending for themselves”. Apart from the occasional missing pigeon found in a barn somewhere or on a boat many kilometres offshore, the majority of these birds have simply vanished, never to be seen again.

As mentioned in last week’s article, “Pigeons have rights too”, the fact that some fanciers allegedly use these events to get rid of inferior racers also needs to be addressed.

Double trouble
Within the racing pigeon fraternity, a stray pigeon is considered double trouble. Fearing disease, most fanciers won’t allow a stray to enter their lofts. If it persists in hanging around they’ll kill it – which is illegal, of course.

There are a few Good Samaritan fanciers who keep a separate “sick bay” in their loft for strays, and will make an effort to trace the owner while nursing the bird back into condition. Other fanciers may feed a stray for a few days before setting it free, or road-train it with their own flock in the hope that it will head for its home loft.

Over the past 10 years, more than 100 000 racing pigeons have gone missing in race competitions in South Africa. Why they disappeared remains a mystery. It is claimed that sunspots and cellphone masts interfere with racers’ orientation abilities, but more research is needed to confirm this theory. And, of course, any hint of cruelty needs to be stamped out.

Readers are invited to email an opinion in response to this article to [email protected].