Pigeons should not have to pay with their lives for our entertainment

Many racing pigeons don't even make it to a year old. We must end this cruel sport, argues Reg Pycroft.

 

Imagine if the London Marathon had a 90 per cent casualty rate. There would rightly be a public outcry, and the race would be banned. You'll be surprised to learn that some races do have such a high death toll. We seldom hear about them because the victims are not humans. They are pigeons, forced to fly vast distances – sometimes up to 900 miles – in a race for their lives. Pigeon racing involves more than two million birds in the UK alone – and it is deadly.

As a Royal Air Force (RAF) veteran, I have great respect for these intelligent and gentle birds, who have saved lives in wartime and helped find sailors lost at sea. Pigeons serving with the RAF during World War II were the first recipients of the Dickin Medal – the animals' Victoria Cross – for delivering messages that led to the rescue of human airmen.

Over a period of two months in 2012, PETA US – with which I am associated – went undercover at multiple races across Europe and gained access to all major British pigeon-racing organisations. Everywhere they turned, the findings were the same – most birds who are entered into pigeon races never make it home. Many die in storms. They die from exhaustion, drowning or collisions with buildings and power lines that slice open their breasts to the bone. Young birds easily become disoriented, and because they have no experience finding food, water or shelter on their own, they often succumb to starvation or predators.

During the signature race of the National Flying Club – Britain's largest pigeon-racing club –  5,560 birds were released from Fougères, France, to make their way back to their lofts on the other side of the English Channel on 1 September 2012. Most of these birds were not even a year old. Only 622 made it home. The rest are presumed to have perished. Even the Queen entered pigeons in this race, and every one of them went missing.

Pigeons' navigational abilities, which are largely dependent on keen vision and an exceptional memory for topographic details, are legendary. A ten-year Oxford University study found that the birds rely more on their knowledge of human transport routes than on their internal magnetic compasses, and another more recent study found that pigeons are even able to follow ultralow frequency sound waves to try to make their way back to their lofts.

Pigeons mate for life and are doting parents – traits that pigeon racers exploit by separating birds from their mates (a cruel practice known as "widowhood") and their babies so that they will race their hearts out, frantic to get home. Before the races, some fanciers even place plastic eggs beneath the hens, with live worms or live flies inside, to trick them into thinking that they have eggs about to hatch.

In gruelling cross-Channel races, the focus of PETA US' investigation, pigeons in the UK are crammed into cages containing 20 birds or more and are transported for up to seven days to sites throughout Europe. They are released along with tens of thousands of other birds, all disoriented and confused. By far the biggest danger that these birds face is crossing the Channel, which can be 150 miles wide at some points. Birds already exhausted from having flown hundreds of miles face an endless body of water with no sign of land. They must battle relentless winds and rapidly changing weather systems. Those who become too tired to continue have no place to land except on the water. Many drown.

The death rate over the Channel is so high that it is often referred to as the "graveyard". Particularly lethal races are called "disaster" or "smash" races.

There is little doubt about the fate of the missing birds. They are not having a holiday somewhere in Normandy. And they are not living with wild flocks. These birds have been raised in captivity and do not have the skills needed to survive on their own.

When we think of pigeon racing, images of kindly older men with garden sheds may spring to mind. The reality is quite different. Like other forms of animal exploitation, pigeon racing is driven by money. Millions of pounds are bet on these races every year – often illegally – and pigeons who do not win races or are not successful breeders are commonly killed by suffocation, drowning or cervical dislocation (neck-breaking).

PETA US' undercover video shows one man killing a pigeon with his bare hands. He leaves the bird, his wings still flapping, to die slowly in an empty feedbag. Pigeons would naturally live approximately 20 years, but in pigeon racing, most birds don't survive their first year, and if they are not put in a breeding loft, only a tiny percentage of them will make it to age four because of race deaths and culling.

Please visit PETA.org.uk to join me and my friends at PETA in calling for a ban on these cruel cross-Channel races. Animals should not have to pay with their lives for someone's idea of entertainment.

Pigeons sit in their cages. Photograph: Getty Images
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What does the end of the one-child policy mean for China's disabled population?

Even after the policy was abolished last year, cultural prejudices against disabled people have proven hard to shake.

In a small shop hidden in the shadows of the gleaming, golden arches of the two-storey McDonald’s next door, Liu Wenzheng has been developing photographs since 1995. Business in his north Beijing neighbourhood is slow but steady. Every now and then, a Western couple will come in to have a photograph taken of their newly adopted Chinese child. The child is nearly always “imperfect” in some way, whether it’s something as minor as a cleft palate, or a more challenging disability.

“Westerners have higher morals. They will adopt disabled children,” Liu tells me over a glass of baijiu, the distilled Chinese rice spirit, at a nearby restaurant. His disappointment in his own people is personal: Liu has been disabled for all of his adult life, since a run-in with Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution left him so badly beaten that his left leg had to be amputated. He was 22 and had been arrested for reading banned American literature.

He spent six months in hospital. After being discharged with a rudimentary wooden limb, he returned to his old job on a Beijing factory floor. “I was tough and people were scared of me,” Liu says, his brusque manner and burly frame illustrating his point. “Not every disabled person would have been allowed back to work with a full salary, to stand there and not do much.” Throughout our conversation, he emphasises the rarity of his situation compared to that of other disabled people. He has worked all his life, is happily married and has an adult son. Most disabled people in China are not so lucky.

A few miles north of Liu’s shop, on the outskirts of an eerily quiet retail park, Alenah’s Home is a warm hub of activity. This private centre for disabled orphans has been looking after children since 2004. The children come from orphanages all around China, which don’t have the funds or the facilities to provide disabled care. Many children, such as Furui, a one-year-old who was abandoned after a premature delivery, arrive with muscular atrophy – a result of months of neglect.

Alenah’s Home is one of the few private centres of its kind in China that look after disabled orphans. They don’t receive any government funding. Chris Hu, a full-time volunteer, tells me that children who are abandoned in China are nearly always female, disabled or both. This is in part a result of China’s one-child policy, which made China’s disabled population fall to 6 per cent of the country as a whole (the global average is 15 per cent) and also produced a gender imbalance of 120 boys for every 100 girls.

China’s one-child policy was officially abolished in January 2016. But Hu agrees with experts who predict that this won’t necessarily redress demographic imbalances. Cultural prejudices against disabled people are hard to shake. Confucian ideology emphasises the idea of the body as a point along an ancestral continuum. Thus, any defect is attributed to a spiritual flaw in the family, even for disabilities, such as Liu’s, which are caused by injury. It is easy to dismiss this kind of abstraction as stereotyping, but when Yuan Xiaolu, a retired journalist who has been blind in one eye since birth, repeatedly tells me, “I don’t blame my mother,” it suggests a genuine anxiety about the perception of her family’s morals.

In wealthy cities, and especially in popular tourist areas, public facilities are becoming more accessible to disabled people. The Chinese government claimed to have invested 500 million yuan in the construction and renovation of 25,000 public toilets in 2015, most of them wheelchair-friendly. This follows changes in the law to encourage greater inclusivity: employers are required to reserve 1.5 per cent of jobs for people with disabilities, or pay a fee to the Disabled Persons’ Employment Security Fund, which is managed by the China Disabled Persons’ Federation (CDPF), a government body.

However, meaningful social change lags behind. Disabled children are more likely to be found – and often abandoned – in poorer rural areas, where women can’t afford abortions and facilities don’t exist to support disabled people. Liu describes the government’s measures as “barely a cup of water when you need the sea”, saying that most companies would rather pay the fine than employ a disabled person.

Even then, John Giszczak, a former China programmes manager for Save the Children, has said that the fees paid to the CDPF often end up being spent on overpriced “pseudoscientific ‘therapeutic’ equipment”.

The CDPF was founded in 1988 by Deng Pufang, the son of the then Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping. Like Liu, Deng Pufang was paralysed – left paraplegic after an assault by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Having such a high-profile disabled person in Chinese public life contributed to a more open attitude towards physical disabilities, but this didn’t necessarily spread to all aspects of life.

Similarly, when the Hubei-based farmer Yu Xiuhua, who has cerebral palsy, published her poem “Crossing Half of China to Sleep with You”, which went viral on Chinese social media, she illustrated that her situation was an exception to the opportunities for disabled people, rather than the norm. Like most disabled people in China, Yu was unable to finish school and has spoken about how she has felt “undermined . . . [and] hated” by her body. Still, she insists, “My disability really has nothing to do with my poetry.”

“It’s not the government that’s the problem. It’s the people,” Liu says. China is often characterised as a country where the official Communist Party line is the only one that matters. But most Chinese people I speak to see their culture as running far deeper than political diktats. Policies may change behaviour or improve facilities for disabled people, but social rehabilitation seems a long way off.

Still, I suggest to Liu, he seems to have done quite well for himself. His family and his photography business aren’t the future he foresaw when he first became disabled. “Not really,” he says glumly. “Digital ruined everything.”

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge