By Maneka Gandhi
Last week the administration of Agra banned pigeon racing in the district. The administration of Lucknow followed soon after. These are very important landmark decisions.
Animal welfare people run into trouble with those who refuse to look at the reality of things and believe what they have been fed. One of these areas is animal racing for sport; and of that, pigeon racing.
The pigeon has been presented as an animated kite. Pigeon racing is passed off as a traditional sport – and only now, when the animal movement has picked up strength, through knowledge and the courage that comes with it, is the ugly truth coming to the surface.
Man likes to bet: whether with inanimate objects, like cards and dice, or human sports. It gives him an adrenalin rush. But traditional gaming can get boring, so he sets up new betting opportunities and these are usually animal based: dog fighting, dog racing, horse racing, cock fighting, pigeon racing, bulbul fighting, bull fighting, buffalo racing and even cockroach racing. Animals, who have not got a drop of vicious blood in them, are turned into killers and competitors and all of them die. Some are killed by their owners because they lose races, others die of wounds in these competitions.
Pigeon racing, or kabootarbaazi, is a sport of one society which believes that it was done by the Mughal rulers and it shows their past glory. The rest of India has paid little attention to it, thinking that it is a harmless game and that pigeons return home as they have an uncanny sense of what home is.
The homing pigeon sadly is a myth.
Is this a sport or hobby? For the birds, it is just torture. The birds are bred in tiny cages in dirty lofts, only to be taken out for training and racing. Paratyphoid, Canker, Coccidiosis, E-Coli, Ornithosis, Sour Crop, Diarrhoea and Newcastle disease are common, and sick birds are not treated but killed immediately. Crammed for days in appalling conditions before being forced to fly up to 1400 km, pigeons are subjected to horrific abuse. Their wings are clipped to keep them from escaping and tied together with safety pins. Each wire cage or cardboard carton is crammed with birds unable to move.
Pigeons have no survival skills - knowing nothing of the outside world - and do not know how to forage for food or avoid predators. These birds were raised in captivity and cannot fend for themselves in the wild. Those who don't make it home will likely starve to death. They fly into objects they cannot see, in darker weather conditions, like electricity pylons or TV aerials. Most pigeon fanciers will have their pigeons return home with wounds or missing feathers; if they return at all . When these pigeons fly above large bodies of water, they often get tired and, with nowhere to land, many drown.
Pigeon racers are simply professional betters who make thousands on every race. Training starts when the bird is 3 months old, with trial runs beginning with a distance of two kilometers and going up to 70 kilometers. 60 percent of the birds get lost, are eaten by hawks/kites or electrocuted by wires during the training. Birds who survive, but are unlikely to win races, are “basket culled” - killed by suffocation, drowning, neck-breaking, gassing, or decapitation. One typical owner buys 12 baby pigeons before he finds one he can use. The others are killed.
Racing starts when a pigeon is eight months old and carries on till he/she is five years of age after which the pigeon is killed (and eaten). Training is called “tossing”, which involves taking the birds to a place and releasing them. Training birds involves restrictions on their diet for 45 days, during which time they are mainly fed almonds, raggi (millet) and calcium tablets. Some pigeon racers use performance-enhancing drugs on their pigeons.
Wing and tail feathers are clipped so new ones grow – because they are supposed to be lighter. Racing pigeons are fed only once a day. Breeders are fed thrice. Young pigeons are usually made to fly 8 kms and then lured back with strewn grain and a bar of salt on the rooftop. A piece of cloth attached to a stick is waved to signal their take off flight and again when they return. The birds are unable to navigate home in poor light so, in case they remain in the sky after sunset, owners light halogen lamps and keep a group of captive flightless pigeons around it to help the bird in the sky to locate the spot where it should land.
Racing pigeons are released far away with a coded chit tied to their legs. The first to inform the code to the organiser is the owner of the winning pigeon. A day prior to the competition, a seal is imprinted on the pigeon's tails as identification.
Of 100 pigeons, less than ten survive several races. These survivors participate in longer distance races for which they are taken in trains to the starting points and released to fly back to their homes. The distance from Gwalior to Chennai is 1165 kilometers. Pigeons have to cover it in 68 hours. In this race 50 percent lose their way and straggle home after a year.
A report commissioned by Scottish National Heritage and the Scottish Homing Union found that on average, 56 percent of birds released each season do not make it home. In 1996, more than 34,000 birds were lost in Scotland and 8,000 returned injured. Between 2010 and 2012, PETA conducted an investigation into pigeon racing in the US. It found that there were casualty rates of 60 percent or more among birds during races and training due to weather, predators, electrical lines, and hunters. At the 2011 American Racing Pigeon Union Convention, only 827 out of the original 2,294 birds returned from training flights. In some Channel races, 90 percent of birds have gone missing, presumed dead.
Why do the birds bother to come back?
Pigeons are monogamous birds. A couple is inseparable, sharing the same box, kissing each other and breeding. Both male and female sit on the nest and both feed the hatchlings with milk produced in their throats.
One of the terrible ways in which the pigeon is made to fly is by separating it from his/her mate and children. In a process, known as widowing, one bird is taken away to race back to the loft. In very long races, the male often does not return. But the female birds will fly determinedly back to their family. So, it is typically the females that are entered into long and difficult races that often result in the death of the pigeon, like the race to the UK from Barcelona.
This is not a sport, because no birds voluntarily participate. Like cock fighting and dog fighting, pigeon racing is all about gambling. It generates lakhs of rupees in the blackmarket in illegal gambling proceeds and violates gambling, racketeering, and tax-evasion laws. As Government of India does not permit the import of these birds, some individuals and organisations, such as the Central Madras Homer Club - who breed and train pigeons, import eggs of particular bloodlines pretending they are poultry and hatch them – flout the law and bring in disease.
Is the pigeon the only bird harmed? No, in pigeon racing areas, predators like hawks and kites are regularly shot down illegally by pigeon owners.
The Supreme Court has ruled that unnatural animal racing for entertainment cannot happen. In the judgement of Abdulkar Mohamad Azam Sheikh versus State of Gujurat, it was held that it is a fundamental right of all birds to be free in the open sky/air and not caged illegally. Through order no. 2243/pts.D.A. dated 27-09-11, all captivity of birds is illegal and it is the fundamental right of all birds to be free in open sky and not to be caged.
These are the clubs, that I know of that should stop by law or their members should be sent to jail:
The Calcutta Racing Pigeons Club; The January pigeon race held in the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi; The Hyderabad Homer Pigeon Club which began in 2012; 7 clubs of Tamil Nadu including Thanjavur, 5 clubs of Kolkata and another 5 clubs in Karnataka with Bengaluru being prominent. The Kancheepuram Homer Pigeon Association and the Ernakulam Open Pigeon Flying Tournament, in which pigeons belonging to around 200 persons participate. If you know of any groups, let me know.