Gun Club's Pigeon Shoots Ruffles Feathers
An Animal Rights Article from

April 2009

A historic Pennsylvanian gun club that has hosted Ernest Hemingway and Annie Oakley has surreptitiously restarted a century-old tradition of holding live pigeon shoots, reigniting the ire of animal rights groups and putting the state's porous animal cruelty legislation in the crosshairs.

The Philadelphia Gun Club has been fined $160 following a recent incident in which a member was spotted firing his rifle at birds that had been released from spring-loaded traps along the banks of the Delaware River, about 32 kilometers north of Philadelphia.

The club, which boasts a guest book littered with famous signatures dating back one hundred years, has been warned off of the event several times in the past, including a request from township officials in 2002 to cease and desist and a more recent warning in December.


"Live pigeon shoots are a practice similar to cockfighting or dog fighting, where it is largely an underground circuit of the same people who follow it around," said Heidi Prescott of The Humane Society of the United States. "The Philadelphia Gun Club had shut them down, but apparently started them up quietly again, and we don't know when."

Club president Leo Holt was issued the citation for animal cruelty and violating the 2002 order last month, after a Humane Society member watched the event from a nearby property and alerted officials. The club's attorney, John VanLuvanee, did not respond to requests for comment, but has previously said it is not against Pennsylvania law to shoot pigeons on private property. He also said the club predates all legislation barring pigeon shoots and says no official cease-and-desist order has ever been issued.

Pigeon shoots are a long-running controversy in the state, and involve hunters firing at birds as they are released from small cages and attempting to fly away.

A circuit of gun clubs still hold pigeon shoots throughout the fall and winter seasons, typically involving 500 to 1,000 birds and 30 or 40 shooters.

The Philadelphia Gun Club is one of the oldest gentlemen's clubs in the United States. Established in 1877, the club currently has 61 members who "hold dear the Club and its many traditions."

The club opened its doors to a number of socially prominent shooters of the Gilded Age, including gentlemen and their ladies.

Under the leadership of William White, the club attracted such notable American sportsmen as William K. Vanderbilt, Jr. and Harry Payne Whitney, as well as top class gentlemen shooters like George McAlpin, H. Yale Dolan and Fred Hoey. Both Annie Oakley and her then employer, "Buffalo Bill" Cody were guests at the club sometime around 1900.

In 1928, Nash Buckingham shot his famous Fox gun, "Bo Whoop," built in Philadelphia by Burt Becker at the club, as a guest of Eltinge Warner, the publisher of Field & Stream. In the 1930s and 1940s, the club attracted members and guests such as Ernest Hemingway, Canadian jazz musician Charles Biddle and nature and fishing writer Van Campen Heilner.

Debate surrounding the pigeon shooting match at the Philadelphia Gun Club dates back more than 120 years, when a member was indicted for cruelty to animals for participating in the shoot in 1887.

According to New York Times archives from Jan. 27, 1890, A. Nelson Lewis "fired with a gun upon certain pigeons, liberated from a trap, killing one and wounding another," which was later killed. "The birds so killed were immediately sold for food, according to the rule and custom of said club."

Pigeon shooting was once the sport of elite upper classmen in Britain, but was widely abandoned at the turn of the last century and the country banned it in 1921.

The sport went out of Olympic favour in 1900, after the first and only shooting event using live pigeons was held in Paris. The birds were released much like clay pigeons are today and nearly 300 were shot from the sky, leaving blood and feathers carpeting the turf below.

According to The Humane Society of the United States, Pennsylvania is the only state in which pigeon shooting matches are openly held, as it is covered by statute, judicial ruling or cruelty laws in other locations.

In 1998, a long-running annual pigeon shoot in the town of Hegins, Pa., came to an end following a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that participants could be guilty of animal cruelty.

An attempt at a statewide ban on such hunting failed to be passed by legislature in 1999, and an updated ban proposed in 2007 remains under debate. Regardless, Ms. Prescott says animal right's groups will keep fighting for a statewide ban.

"We believe that you can't have live pigeon shoots without violating Pennsylvania's cruelty statutes," she said. "We would like clarification from the Pennsylvania state legislature. The fact that the township is force to address them highlights the need for statewide law that specifically prohibits it."

Kee Bubbenmoyer, a member of the Philadelphia Gun Club and president of a bird hunting group called the Pennsylvania Flyers Association, said the battle over pigeon hunting has been going on for years, in a campaign bent on banning all hunting species by species.

"Shooting pigeons is no different from going to a pheasant farm or shooting pheasants ... If you object to hunting in all terms, then you will object to pigeon hunting. But then we have a different discussion."

To see video of a pigeon hunt and actions you can take to end these atrocities, visit SHARK (Showing Animals Respect and Kindness).

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