ASPCA founder Henry Bergh hated pigeon shooters, except when he wanted something from them
Henry Bergh, who founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1866, might have perfectly understood Showing Animals Respect & Kindness founder Steve Hindi’s frustration, expressed on November 14, 2020 in his ANIMALS 24-7 guest column “Talk can’t stop pigeon-shooting psychopaths.”
Bergh felt much the same about pigeon shooters, and several times made efforts to stop pigeon shoots comparable to Hindi’s 30-year campaign against pigeon shooting wherever it occurs, from the Philadelphia Gun Club to Altus, Oklahoma, a community that can barely be found on a map.
On the other hand, Bergh might have drawn Hindi’s scathing denunciation for political deals which in effect threw pigeons out to be shot by the thousands for the next 150 years, to win marginally stronger ability to prosecute dogfighters.
“A few years ago,” recalled Hindi, “the Humane Society of the United States and the Federated Humane Societies of Pennsylvania, to secure a new humane law in Pennsylvania, gave pigeon shoots some legal cover they never had before. There was lots of money to be raised from the ‘success’ of a new humane law, so pigeons were thrown under the bus to keep the National Rifle Association quiet and agreeable.”
The “new humane law” that Hindi mentioned enabled felony prosecutions under circumstances which occur fewer than a dozen times per year in Pennsylvania, with fewer animal victims than birds are left wounded after a typical pigeon shoot.
Names, faces, & species have changed. The politics have not.
The names and faces have changed in the past 150 years of activism against pigeon shoots, and the targets today are rock doves netted in big cities rather than passenger pigeons, now extinct, who were trapped in rural areas.
However, as Henry Bergh biographer Ernest Freeberg details in A Traitor to His Species, the politics of the issue have scarcely changed at all.
Begins Freeberg, introducing the saga of Bergh and the pigeon shooters, which continued from 1869 until at least 1882, “James Gordon Bennett Jr., who inherited the New York Herald from his father, “was a notoriously strong-willed and self-indulgent playboy and avid sportsman,” who “patronized pigeon-shooting contests.”
Under Bennett, Freeberg notes, the New York Herald editorial page “sometimes clucked at the unsavory blood sports pursued by lowlife immigrants” such as the Irish-American gangster Kit Burns, whose tavern hosted nightly contests in which pit bulls killed rats and each other for the entertainment of gamblers..
But pigeon-shooting “enjoyed a different pedigree and the sanction of prestige,” Freeberg continues. “Along with fox hunts, which Bergh also despised, the shooting matches allowed wealthy American sportsmen to indulge in entertainments pursued by some of the British elite.”
Aligned with Bennett was fellow media magnate Robert Roosevelt, editor of The Citizen, and uncle of Theodore Roosevelt Jr., “the future president who would one day become America’s most famous protector and slayer of game animals,” Freeberg recounts.
Bergh “expected the elite to set a good example”
“While Bergh depicted the shooters as monstrous bullies mowing down the Lord’s favored symbol of peace, [Robert] Roosevelt and other upper-crust sporting men considered themselves manly defenders of America’s fast-vanishing wildlife,” because their private hunting estates offered protected habitat for their favored “game” species.
“The fault line that continues to divide many sport hunters from the opponents of animal cruelty first opened wide in this debate,” Freeberg mentions.
Bergh argued that the dogfighter Kit Burns and “arrogant millionaires like Roosevelt and James Gordon Bennett Jr. held the same view of animal cruelty: they professed to oppose every form of it but their own.
“As a member of the same class as Bennett and his sporting comrades,” Freeberg writes, Bergh “thought that the privilege enjoyed by these men only made their crime worse. He expected the elite to set a good example for the lower classes.”
Unfortunately, “Facing the scorn of powerful men with guns, Bergh flinched. Suspecting that few judges would find pigeon shooting cruel or cross the men who ruled New York,” Freeberg continues, “Robert Roosevelt taunted Bergh, daring him to arrest a trapshooter so that a test case might resolve the matter. The ASPCA board authorized Bergh to take up that challenge, but instead he withdrew. While insisting that pigeon shooting matches were cruel, Bergh conceded in a public letter that he had moved too far ahead of public opinion––a problem that had rarely slowed him down before. He agreed not to interfere, and only suggested that sportsmen should find an alternative, nonliving target to fire upon.”
Worse, Bergh compromised his opposition to pigeon shooting in writing, in what proved to be a particularly self-defeating manner.
“When a [pigeon shooting] tournament was held in early 1871,” Freeberg explains, “Bergh sent its promoter a letter assuring him that the ASPCA would not interfere ‘for the present.’ Rather pathetically, he asked only that his agent be allowed to help wring the necks of those birds wounded but not killed by a shot. Bergh planned to denounce the trap shoots in print and surveil the tournaments for signs of excess cruelty, hoping this strategy would gradually move public opinion his way.”
“The most extravagant shooting match of the age”
By December 1871, Bergh felt emboldened.
“When Bennett’s Herald announced in December 1871 that Jerome Park in the Bronx would host ‘the most extravagant shooting match of the age,’ Bergh sent a public warning that the event was illegal and that he intended to prosecute,” Freeberg writes. “Perhaps he drew fresh resolve from conversations with Horace B. Claflin, a wealthy merchant who served on the ASPCA board of directors.”
Claflin, “whose mansion adjoined the Jerome Park shooting grounds, offered grim first-hand testimony about the carnage produced by pigeon shoots,” recounts Freeberg. “On tournament days he found his lawn littered with mangled birds––some dead, others suffering. Claflin nursed some of them back to health and assured Bergh he would do all in his power to help put a stop to these events.”
Bergh finally raided a pigeon shoot in 1872
In January 1872, Bergh and an ASPCA deputy raided a pigeon shooting tournament organized by former minstrel singer Ira Paine at Fleetwood Park in the northern New York City suburb of Westchester.
“Bergh and his men broke up the contest, threatening the men with arrest,” Freeberg details. “In defiance, the shooters mocked Bergh and then released a couple of birds, tossing them up in the air and blasting them to the ground. Bergh picked up the maimed birds and held their quivering bodies up for the men to view. They accused him of cruelty for not wringing the birds’ necks at once.
“Though Bergh disrupted the match, he still hesitated to charge the men and initiate a test case that he expected to lose.”
Bennett then announced a pigeon shoot with a $2,000 prize, defended by “an injunction barring Bergh and his men from interfering,” continues Freeberg.
Bergh underestimated his support
“The powerful editors of the sporting papers,” backed by New York City mayor A. Oakley Hall, meanwhile “called for a change in the law to strip Bergh of his authority to call for the help of the police in enforcing the anticruelty law––the foundation of his power to act.”
But Bergh seems to have had much more public and political support than he realized.
“Ever since he had broken up Ira Paine’s tournament in the winter of 1872, a lawsuit had been winding forward,” Freeberg mentions, “in which the promoter demanded $1,000 in damages from Bergh to cover his financial losses.
“Bergh was probably as surprised as anyone when a judge [in 1874] dismissed Paine’s lawsuit, declaring pigeon shooting tournaments ‘clearly illegal’ under the anticruelty law. The court agreed with what Bergh had been saying from the start,” Freeberg summarizes, “that trapshooting amounted to ‘a needless mutilating and killing.’”
Of course the affluent and well-connected pigeon shooters were scarcely ready to give up. Instead, Bennett in 1875 promoted a pigeon shooting championship with a $10,000 prize.
This is when Bergh committed what was probably the most grievous blunder of his entire career in humane work.
Remained silent on amendment that exempted pigeon shoots
“Though Bergh’s campaign showed signs of success in court––and the court of public opinion––the cause suffered a major setback in the New York legislature in 1875,” Freeberg writes.
“Eager to pass a law that gave him more power to shut down working class sports such as dogfights and cockfighting,” Freeberg explains, “Bergh pushed for an amendment allowing his agents to seize any property used by promoters of these events. To win support for this measure,” which appears to have rarely if ever been used, “Bergh remained silent on another amendment, inserted at the request of wealthy sportsmen, that exempted pigeon shooting by ‘incorporated sportsmen’s clubs’ from the anticruelty law, as long as the shooters took precautions to ‘immediately kill’ birds only wounded by the shot,” as Bergh had conceded would be acceptable in his 1871 letter to the pigeon shoot promoter.
“Protected by this law, the bird shooting tournaments continued,” Freeberg sums up, “and Bergh would spend years pushing for a repeal, without success.”
Led to extinction of the passenger pigeon
Because Bergh had agreed to this catastrophic legislative compromise, Freeberg adds, “he had no legal right to intervene” when in 1881 the New York Sportsmen’s Association held a 10-day shooting tournament that annihilated more than 16,000 of the more than 20,000 passenger pigeons who were reportedly trapped for the event in Oklahoma.
This was the last great passenger pigeon flock ever seen.
Theodore Roosevelt Jr., the future president, was in 1882 elected to the New York State Assembly, and introduced a Bergh bill to ban pigeon shooting, but “failed even to get the ASPCA a hearing before the proposal was defeated,” Freeberg says.
And no, Bergh did not invent the “clay pigeon”
Bergh improbably blamed immigrants, who had no involvement in pigeon shooting and little political influence in Albany, the New York state capital, for his humiliating defeat.
Meanwhile, Freeberg finishes, “As market hunting and trapshooting wiped out the vast flocks of passenger pigeons,” whose abundance had fueled enthusiasm for pigeon shooting, “some shooting clubs looked for other wild birds to kill. House sparrows, purple martins, and even bats were tried.”
Many Bergh biographies previous to A Traitor to His Species erroneously credit to Bergh the invention of the “clay pigeon” that eventually replaced the use of passenger pigeons in trapshooting contests, at least until rock doves were substituted.
In truth, Bergh and the ASPCA merely offered cash prizes to anyone who might invent an artificial “pigeon” that trapshooters would prefer to live birds, with minimal success.
The “pigeon shooting psychopaths,” as Hindi calls them, have never voluntarily backed away from bloodshed, but might have been stopped 150 years earlier, had Bergh only stuck to his guns.