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The Making of a Pigeon Activist

by Walter Brasch

Fund for Animals website
(AR) -- Heidi Prescott's been lied to and cursed at; handcuffed, arrested, and jailed. Supporters of the annual Labor Day Hegins pigeon shoot in rural Schuylkill County, Pa., have shoved her, hit her, pinched her, body-slammed her against a car, and ground their boot-clad feet onto her sneakered-feet. The 5-foot-8 inch, 140-pound pacifist never resisted.

The more radical members of the National Rifle Association are convinced she's on a crusade to end what they believe are their 2nd Amendment rights to kill animals. The leadership, and at least a third of the state legislature are convinced she's a dangerous pest that must not be merely shooed away, but destroyed; in the halls of the state capitol, some have even raised their arms and pretended to shoot rifles at her. Most, however, respect her as one of the better lobbyists they ever encountered, even if she raises issues they wish they didn't have to face.

Indiana state Rep. Sara Steelman says she's "very good, very professional. She cares deeply, unlike many lobbyists who are just hired guns, but she doesn't become angry or emotional." Her agenda is always the same--protect all life, especially that of animals.

As national director of the Fund for Animals, Heidi Prescott leads a professional staff of 34 and more than 200,000 supporters who oppose animal cruelty and trophy hunting. They have stopped the killing of mountain lions in California, bison and grizzly bears in Montana, and black bears in Florida. But, Prescott's most militant campaign has been against pigeon shoots.

"I felt compassionate about the pigeons because people didn't care, believing they are only rats with wings," says Prescott, who emphasizes her battles are not only to save animal life, but "to stop the brutality and senselessness." Each pigeon shoot, she says, "teaches our children that violence is acceptable."

At Hegins, the largest and most notorious of the shoots, about 200 pretend-sportsmen stand 20 yards away from cages, then shoot the birds as they are released one at a time. Most birds are shot within five to ten feet of the cages; many are shot while on the ground or standing on the cages. Last year, about 5,500 pigeons were released during the all-day carnage, with about 5,000 kills.

But the kills aren't immediate. About 3,500 pigeons are merely wounded. The "kill" occurs when "trapper boys," some as young as eight years old, stuff the birds into sacks, take them into sheds, wring their necks, stomp on their bodies, then dump them, some still alive, into large barrels. About 700 wounded birds lie on the shooting fields untreated as many as 24 hours to die a lingering and painful death.

The shoot's organizers forbid volunteers to pick up wounded birds unless the birds are outside the shooting ranges, even if there is no shooting at the time, or everyone has left. Two years ago, the Fund for Animals, with a mobile veterinarian hospital, was able to rescue only about 150 birds. Fewer than 500 birds escape.

Taunting animal rights activists by ripping apart live birds
For most of the past decade, pigeon shoot spectators continually taunted animal rights activists by ripping apart live birds; many even paraded around the grounds with pigeons stuck onto picnic forks. Hunters, most of whom abide by codes of ethics and decency, are embarrassed by what happens in Hegins in the name of sports hunting.

Former State Sen. Roy Afflerbach, a hunter for 45 years who says he respects what Prescott is trying to do, calls pigeon shoots "barbaric, inhumane and inappropriate in civilized society."

Most states specifically ban such events. The contestants, several thousand spectators, the leadership of the state legislature, and Gov. Tom Ridge call it either "a local issue" or "sport." ]

But animal cruelty -- as the Fund and Prescott see the shoots -- is a statewide issue, and the International Olympic Committee hasn't recognized pigeon shooting as a sport since its one-time appearance in the 1900 Olympics, cancelling it solely because of its cruelty.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agrees. In a landmark decision this August, the Court, overturning a decision from Schuylkill County's Common Pleas court, vividly described the painful deaths of thousands of animals, then ruled that not only do SPCA officers have statewide police powers to cite meet organizers for cruelty, but that SPCA officers have legal standing to seek court orders to stop such events.

"There are no human words to describe how I felt when I heard the decision," says Prescott who began crying, "and it was uncontrollable sobbing with happiness that no more birds would be slaughtered." Her father, too, shed tears of joy when he heard. "I didn't expect that from my father," says Prescott. "I had never seen him cry before."

In response to the Court's ruling, Hegins' Labor Day Committee cancelled this year's shoot, the first cancellation since the killings began in 1933. However, in one of the more outrageous statements it ever issued, it claimed it did so because "We are not willing to subject our townspeople to additional violence and terrorism by a group of out-of-state individuals who feel they are morally superior to our local citizens."

The Committee claims it took care of the birds "until they get shot," and that the pigeon shoot is really a "charity," meant to raise funds for the town park. But one year when Prescott offered to buy the association new traps and clay pigeons if they would stop killing animals, they declined.

How Heidi became an activist
Originally from Buffalo, N. Y., Prescott went to Pennsylvania's Edinboro University because of its strength in both art and psychology programs. She focused her college studies upon issues of domestic abuse at a time when there were few programs to assist victims of domestic violence.

"There's more public awareness now," says Prescott, "but 20 years ago, it was difficult to get protection from abuse orders; judges just didn't take these cases seriously." Her father, a Methodist minister who became a counselor, "instilled an intense sense of justice in me," says Prescott who was a social activist long before attending college.

Following graduation, she continued her career as a professional artist, but a year later found herself compelled to do more than mix pigments and apply them to canvas.

"It was one of those fluke things," she says. Her husband had brought home a woodpecker he found in the street in the middle of winter. "It looked like she had been hit by a truck, but there was no blood," says Prescott who frantically called everyone she could think of to help, then realized what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.

As a child, she says, she had always loved animals, even once furiously breaking her younger brother's toy rocket when he tried launching a baby toad. But it was "that incredible struggle for life" of the woodpecker who died while she was trying to find help that led her to become a certified wildlife rehabilitator.

"The artist came from within," she says, "but this was a much stronger drive." A year after college, she moved to the Washington, D.C., area.

Within three years, Prescott became more active, more militant. "It made sense to go after the core of the problem instead of saving the life of each and every animal," she says. Her "turning point" was seeing an autopsy of a morning dove "that had no meat on her; I didn't understand why anyone would kill such a beautiful bird."

In 1989, three years after rescuing her first animals, Prescott went into a Maryland game area, rustled leaves to alert deer that hunters were nearby, and tried to convince those hunters that killing -- whether of humans or animals -- was morally wrong.

For that sin, she was arrested, fined $500, then jailed for 13 days for contempt when she refused to pay. It was American justice's way of saying it wouldn't tolerate anyone who wants to save the lives of 200 million birds and animals killed every year for "sport."

In a statement to the Court, Prescott explained her philosophy of life. "I did not physically strike, obstruct, yell at, or insult any of the hunters with whom I communicated," she said, without bitterness, but with determination.

"I simply exercised my First Amendment right to voice my objection to the cruelties of sport hunting and my right to walk on public lands." Even in jail she continued protesting social injustice, eventually forcing the warden to change dietary policies to allow prisoners to be served vegetarian meals for reasons other than religious or health.

Arrested when she picked up a wounded pigeon
Later that year, she began working for the Fund for Animals, founded in 1967 by nationally-known journalist and TV critic Cleveland Amory to "promote the rights of all animals, wild and domestic, through legislation, litigation, education, and direct action." Five years later, Prescott became national director. By then, she had already been involved in protests for more than five years.

In Strausstown, she was arrested when she picked up a wounded pigeon. In Pikeville, she was arrested for walking across the street to hand a press release to reporter.

But it was in Hegins that she and the Fund brought international attention to mankind's cruelty. She twice served 15 days in the Schuylkill County jail for trespassing and for theft and receipt of stolen property -- she picked up wounded birds from the shooting fields. She could have paid the $500 fine, but chose jail because "I wasn't about to give that county even one dollar!"

At first, the media editorialized that the pigeon shoots would have died a natural death had the Fund not organized massive protests, thus bringing even more attention to the shoots.

"Pigeon shoots go on all over the state, even without public attention," says Prescott, calmly pointing out, "it has nothing to do with how much money they made or didn't make, but in how they raised that money."

The confrontational protests, with dozens of the 1,300 protestors picketing, running onto the fields, and chaining themselves to fences, may have been necessary to force the media, often driven by conflict, to cover the event. By the late 1990's, the state's newspapers -- even the ones which originally denounced the Fund's tactics and supported hunter rights -- were editorializing against the pigeon shoots.

Later tactics included passive civil disobedience and intensive rescue efforts. "We wanted to turn attention back to the birds and away from the confrontation," says Prescott. She says the media "were focusing on the clash, and not upon the cruelty."

Two years ago, the Fund stopped attending the Hegins shoot, concentrating its Labor Day presence to informational picketing at the state's tourism rest stops.

"We made mistakes along the way," she acknowledges, "but if one thing didn't work, we tried something else."

Full-page newspaper ads and graphic videotape
Among long-term campaigns have been court petitions and an extensive and decade-long lobbying of the legislature which, even with innumerable blocks established by the Republican leadership, is now almost evenly split on whether to ban pigeon shoots.

In a brilliantly-conceived public education campaign that included full-page newspaper ads and graphic videotape, grounded by extensive investigations, research, and documentation, the Fund explained not only why such shoots must be banned, but the costs to the taxpayers for them to continue. A Fund-organized Hollywood boycott included actors Alec Baldwin and Alicia Silverstone and director Oliver Stone, among dozens of other celebrities.

Although the Labor Day Committee cancelled the shoot this year, there are still battles that will be fought. The Hegins organizers may hold a shoot next year. Other shoots are planned in Pikeville and Strausstown in Berks County, Erdmans in Dauphin County, and in Montgomery County.

With most states outlawing pigeon shoots, or having animal cruelty statutes covering such activities, Prescott says "It's finally time for the Pennsylvania legislature to stop playing politics and permanently stop this cruelty."

This Labor Day, for the first time in more than a decade, Prescott won't be protesting. She may stay at home reading, or even go to a local club to do some West Coast swing, two of her favorite ways to relax. Then, again, she may even take up the Labor Day Committee's informal suggestion to participate in a dunking booth to raise money for the town park. She says she would willingly help raise funds for a good cause, "just as long as there's no violence and the animals are protected."

In more than a decade of protest, she says her only regret "is that Cleveland didn't live to see the end of the pigeon shoot." Cleveland Amory, who had watched two Labor Day slaughters, died last October. But his ideals are being carried forth through the unselfish determination of the Fund for Animals professional staff, several hundred thousand volunteers, and Heidi Prescott who realizes that before humans can be at peace with themselves, they must first be at peace with all life.

Walter Brasch, an award-winning former newspaper reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University

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Albion Monitor September 6, 1999 (

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