“Libre’s Law,” without prohibiting pigeon shoots, exempts “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited” from criminal prosecution
HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania––Why did the Humane Society of the U.S. and Humane Pennsylvania not tell the world that they won passage of a much touted new Pennsylvania state humane law at the cost of accepting language, reportedly dictated by the National Rifle Association, which appears to explicitly legalize pigeon shoots?
HSUS, Humane Pennsylvania, and the bill author, Montgomery County state representative Todd Stephens, all told ANIMALS 24-7 that the NRA-mandated language does not do what it seems to say in plain English that it does.
How is an exemption not an exemption?
But only a successful prosecution of a pigeon shooter under Pennsylvania cruelty law as it now stands could demonstrate that they are correct.
The most publicized gain for animals under Pennsylvania Act 10, introduced by Stephens as HB 1238, is the ability to prosecute cruelty as a felony even for first offenses.
But the cruelty case tracking web site Pet-Abuse.com identifies fewer than 260 total prosecuted crimes against animals in Pennsylvania since 1997: an average of 13 a year.
Even if Pet-Abuse.com somehow misses 90% of the cases actually prosecuted, the numbers of cases prosecuted per year would still be low compared to numbers of pigeons shot at some individual Pennsylvania shooting events.
More pigeons victimized than all animal species covered by the law combined
Extreme animal neglect cases, to be sure, may involve hundreds or even thousands of victims. The record number of animal victims in a Pennsylvania case was more than 7,000, in the 1964 prosecution of laboratory animal dealer John Dieroff. Dieroff escaped with a fine of just $67.
But even if prosecuted cruelty cases in Pennsylvania involve an average of upward of 100 animals each, which the Pet-Abuse.com data suggests is unlikely, pigeon shoots typically involve many hundreds of one of the most intelligent animal species known to science being trapped; held captive under questionable conditions for days or even weeks; transported; shot, and frequently only wounded, left with broken wings and other injuries to die slowly from dehydration, starvation, and exposure.
Documented by SHARK
All of this has been extensively documented––in Pennsylvania, the only state where pigeon shoots are still often held––by the Chicago-based organization Showing Animal Respect & Kindness, beginning in 1991.
“Some shoots only have a handful of shooters; others will go on for days. Same with wounding rates,” SHARK spokesperson Stu Chaifetz told ANIMALS 24-7. “Someone who is a bad shooter will wound and miss birds, while someone who has been doing this for a long time will kill most of the birds. The range would be from a couple of hundred birds for a small shoot to more than a thousand if there are multiple shooting areas in operation. That’s per day.”
Fewer shoots & shooters
SHARK founder Steve Hindi affirmed Chaifetz’s assessment of the numbers of animals killed and injured at Pennsylvania pigeon shoots. Hindi added that even as participation in pigeon shooting has declined markedly since SHARK began identifying and exposing the shooters, the numbers of pigeons shot at by each remaining shooter appears to have increased.
“I’m not sure that the club shoots with maybe a dozen shooters now are killing fewer pigeons than when they had 100 shooters,” Hindi said. “But there are fewer shoots held, and fewer shooters at each shoot, every year.”
Dubbed Libre’s Law, after a Boston terrier puppy who survived a severe cruelty case, Pennsylvania Act 10 was signed into law with great fanfare by Governor Tom Wolf on June 28, 2017.
Wolf and bill author Stephens, who holds an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association, emphasized provisions of Act 10 including mandatory forfeiture of animals involved in abuse cases upon conviction of the abuser, language pertaining to prolonged dog tethering, some increased protection for horses, and language granting immunity from retaliatory lawsuits to veterinarians, veterinarian technicians, and humane society police officers who report cruelty to animals in good faith
“Libre dipped his paw print in paint and stamped it on the bill, too,” exulted Mike Markarian president of the Humane Legislative Fund arm of HSUS.
Celebrating “victory” after exempting most of the victims
“Pennsylvania had previously been one of only three states in the nation (with Iowa and Mississippi) that did not punish extreme and malicious acts of animal cruelty as a felony on the first offense,” Markarian wrote.
“This is a major victory and the most comprehensive animal protection package in state history,” claimed Markarian––except that it appears to have excluded from legal protection the animals most often egregiously abused in Pennsylvania. Such protection previously existed, at least on paper, even if not enforced.
National Rifle Association
The bill passed in 2017 as “Libre’s Law” was introduced in 2016.
“State rep. says NRA held up vote on Libre’s Law, anti-cruelty package, to save live pigeon shoots,” headlined Lancaster Online staff writer Tom Knapp on October 27, 2016, in explaining what became of the bill then.
“As I understand it, the NRA insisted on language that they believed — and I’m not sure I agree with them — would have affected live pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania,” Pennsylvania House Rules Committee member Mike Sturla told Knapp.
Summarized Knapp, who represents Lancaster County, “Lobbyists for the NRA held up the bill,” until ‘language was changed’ to make ‘explicit that pigeon shoots would still be legal,’ Sturla said.”
HB 1238, as introduced by Stephens in 2017, added to the 2016 bill this wording:
- 5561. Nonapplicability of subchapter.
(a) Game law.–This subchapter shall not apply to, interfere with or hinder any activity which is authorized or permitted under 34 Pa.C.S. (relating to game) or the regulations promulgated under those laws…
(5) Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter.
Since pigeon shoots are “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter,” pigeon shoots appear to have been explicitly legalized by exempting them from prosecution.
“Does not change legality”
Insisted Stephens to ANIMALS 24-7, “The bill was not intended to nor does it change the legality of pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania according to our attorneys and attorneys for the various stakeholders involved.”
But that would appear to be true only if one believed that pigeon shoots were already legal, and could not have been criminally prosecuted under the previous Pennsylvania law.
A July 1999 Pennsylvania Supreme court verdict that pigeon shoot promoters and participants may be charged with cruelty halted the last public pigeon shoot in the state, held on Labor Day for 65 years in Hegins, a small town north of Harrisburg.
Pigeon shoots since then have been held only at closed private venues, albeit that SHARK has been able to videotape many of them using “high-pods,” long distance lenses, and cameras mounted on drone aircraft.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court in January 2004 refused to hear an appeal of a 2002 ruling by the Superior Court of Berks County that pigeon shoots held at private gun clubs do not violate state anti-cruelty law if “reasonable efforts” are made to minimize the resultant animal suffering.
But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court sidestep did not repeal or amend the state humane law as it stood in 1999. The exemption for “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter” does.
Stephens told ANIMALS 24-7 that he “maintained” the previous language “describing what constituted animal cruelty,” except that “under the new law if the animal suffers bodily injury, it’s now a misdemeanor of the second degree and if the animal dies it’s a felony of the third degree. Therefore, if it [pigeon shooting] was illegal under the previous law it would be prohibited under this subchapter and then the exception does not apply.”
If exemption is inapplicable, why did NRA demand it?
But if the exemption for “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter” is inapplicable to pigeon shoots, why did the NRA insist upon it, and why did Stephens include it?
Said Stephens, “There are a ton of shooting activities that don’t involve animals at all,” a sidestep since the Pennsylvania humane law by definition applies only to activities that do involve animals, “and there are shooting activities that involve animals that are also governed by other codes such as the Game Code,” for which there is a separate exemption.
“Again,” Stephens insisted, “this bill was not intended to, nor did it, change the state of the law in PA on pigeon shoots.”
So, again, why the exemption for “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter”?
ANIMALS 24-7 found record of only one “shooting activity” other than a pigeon shoot having been recommended for prosecution in Pennsylvania in at least the past 25 years. In that case, the Elstonville Sportsmen’s Association on March 9, 2007 pleaded “no contest” to eight cruelty counts brought against the club for hosting a live turkey shoot in Rapho Township on September 9, 2006.
The “no contest” plea acknowledged the facts of the case, including an agreement to pay all fines, without admitting guilt.
Farm Sanctuary of Pennsylvania humane officer Keith Mohler testified from first-hand observation that “The archers fired at turkeys mounted on hay bales. The turkeys were hit with body shots. They squawked and cried out. They were not killed instantly. If you drew blood, you won the turkey.”
1887-1891 court fight
This was apparently the first and to date the only live bird shoot in Pennsylvania stopped by law enforcement since 1887, when Women’s Humane Society and American Anti-Vivisection Society founder Caroline Earle White (1833-1916) successfully prosecuted Philadelphia Gun Club pigeon shooter A. Nelson Lewis. Convicted of cruelty in January 1890, Lewis appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which overturned the ruling in 1891 by finding pigeon shoots to be a form of hunting and pigeons to be game animals.
Points out Chaifetz, “Today pigeons are neither game animals nor regulated as a hunted species,” as spelled out in a June 15, 2012 opinion from Chad R. Eyler, chief of the special permits enforcement division of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Wildlife Protection.
“Pigeons are not ‘game birds'”
Explained Eyler, “Pigeons are not listed in the definition of ‘game birds’” enforced by the Pennsylvania Game Commission, “and they are not designated by the commission, thus, by statute, the Pennsylvania Game Commission has no legal authority to regulate any issue involving pigeons.”
As Eyler outlined, under Pennsylvania law as it stood before the passage of “Libre’s Law,” the exemption granted to “any activity which is authorized or permitted under 34 Pa.C.S. (relating to game) or the regulations promulgated under those laws” would not have protected pigeon shoots because the Pennsylvania Game Commission claims “no legal authority” over them.
Basis of legal reasoning changed
If the Pennsylvania Game Commission no longer has the ”legal authority to regulate any issue involving pigeons,” the legal reasoning no longer stands that overturned the conviction of pigeon shooter A. Nelson Lewis in 1891 and led to the 2002 ruling by the Superior Court of Berks County that allowed pigeon shoots held at private gun clubs to continue.
This is why the NRA wanted the exemption for “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter” of Pennsylvania humane law.
And the upper echelon at the Humane Society of the U.S. should well know that, including HSUS president Wayne Pacelle, Humane Society Legislative Fund president Markarian, and Heidi Prescott, the HSUS senior director of campaigns.
“Island of cruelty”
All three, as then-employees of The Fund for Animals, helped to lead demonstrations against the Fred C. Coleman pigeon shoot held annually on Labor Day in Hegins, Pennsylvania from 1935 to 1999.
Prescott in 1991 became the first of eventually many protesters who jumped over barricades and ran in front of the shooters to rescue wounded pigeons.
Pacelle in 1991 told Daniel Chu of People magazine that Pennsylvania is “an island of cruelty” for tolerating pigeon shoots, then legal in only three states and within a year, in only two states, after SHARK persuaded Illinois to enforce existing law that prohibited them.
Blogged Pacelle as recently as June 30, 2014, “Can you imagine that there is still controversy anywhere about whether it’s right to ban these spectacles of cruelty? A spectacle that causes obvious pain and suffering to animals. A spectacle that cannot be called hunting because there is no licensing, hunting season, no bag limits, and no consumption of the animals shot?
Witnessing the cruelty of pigeon shoots changed the life” of Heidi Prescott,” Pacelle continued. “At her first shoot, it didn’t take her long to come across a wounded bird who had been suffering for hours and was gasping for breath. The bird’s injuries were so severe that she helped to humanely euthanize the animal. She says that after this experience, she made a pledge to campaign against pigeon shoots until they were ended for good.”
Affirmed Prescott in June 2017 to PhillyVoice staff writer John Kopp, “Pigeon shooting is one of the most cruel activities – for no purpose whatsoever – that I’ve ever seen,” Prescott said. “It’s right along the lines of cockfighting or dogfighting.”
“Maintains the status quo”
Yet, claimed Prescott in a written statement forward to ANIMALS 24-7 by HSUS publicist Anna West, “An exemption drafted by the bill sponsor maintains the current status quo on pigeon shoots under the state’s cruelty law. The exemption has no clear substantive impact on the arguments that could be invoked in court if the issue is taken up at some point in the future,” argued Prescott, though the phrase “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter”––and the NRA insistence that it be included––clearly imply otherwise.
“Because the courts have refused to address the issue statewide, we continue to push for a freestanding bill to ban live pigeon shoots, SB 612,” Prescott said.
Trashed by the NRA
SB 612, however, has been stuck in the Pennsylvania house judiciary committee since April 2017, with no votes on it held, scheduled, or likely.
Explained Kopp, “In 2000, the Pennsylvania House voted against an amendment that would have banned pigeon shoots. Similar legislation would not be introduced [again] for another six years. And another floor vote would not occur until October 2014. That’s when opponents of pigeon shoots came the closest to gaining a law banning the practice.
“The state Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation that not only prohibited pigeon shoots,” Kopp recounted, “but also banned the sale of dogs and cats for human consumption,” something that has never happened in Pennsylvania, but was included in the bill to give lawmakers political cover for endorsing it, against NRA opposition.
“Former Governor Tom Corbett pledged to sign the bill,” Kopp continued. “But it died in the House when the Rules Committee declined to bring it up for a vote. It turned out that the Pennsylvania Flyers Victory Fund, a lobby for pigeon shooters that was backed by the National Rifle Association, had donated $1,000 to 17 members of the committee and $3,000 to Representative Mike Turzai, then the House majority leader.”
Stephens, the author of HB 1238, was in the Pennsylvania House at the time, but was not a Rules Committee member.
E-mailed Humane Pennsylvania president Karel Minor to ANIMALS 24-7, “Since pigeon shoots have been widely––if incorrectly––considered to be allowable and requiring a legislative remedy to bring them to an end, opposing a bill which contained so many long time desired goals because it excluded pigeon shoots was not a decision we felt prudent.
“Since the existing law has not been successfully used to prosecute a shoot,” Minor contended, “this exemption is not standing in the way of successful prosecutions, since none are occurring. In the counties where shoots occur, District Attorneys have actively quashed prosecutions on any grounds, including in Berks County by Humane Pennsylvania, regardless of current law.
“Our organization continues to believe pigeon shoots to be illegal under current law,” Minor said, regardless of the exemption added for “Shooting activities not otherwise prohibited under this subchapter,” as they do not fall under the exemptions of pest control, Pennsylvania or Federal game code, self-defense, or normal agricultural practice.”
Why Humane Pennsylvania accepted the exemption
But did Humane Pennsylvania agree to bill wording which might sacrifice thousands of pigeons per year, and apparently end any hope of successfully prosecuting pigeon shooters under existing law, in order to win concessions likely to help much smaller numbers of other animals?
“We decided,” said Minor, “after consulting with and hearing from our constituents and supporters, that we would not allow one issue to deprive cats, dogs, horses, veterinarians, humane police officers, and the general public from sweeping new protections.”
Not mentioned: successful felony prosecutions of people who individually harm cats, dogs, and horses would punish the offenders, after the fact.
Successfully prosecuting pigeon shooters would end pigeon shooting.