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
Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".