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
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.