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.
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.