One of Illinois' bloodier hunting rites was banned by the Illinois Department of Agriculture last week after eighteen months of indecision. Pigeon shoots – where captured or commercially raised pigeons are catapulted into hunters' sights – have been targeted for years by animal-rights activists as pointless, cruel, and lacking any element of the art of hunting.
Originally banned in 1973 under the Illinois Humane Care for Animals Act, which forbids raising animals for the sole purpose of killing, pigeon shoots were exempted for years from the act under an Illinois Department of Conservation (DOC) code that was rescinded in January 1992.
Since then, authority for policing the shoots has gone to the ag department, which has been in "no huge rush to decide," said ag department spokesman Pat Hogan, because "we haven't received complaints about pigeon shoots."
Yet Illinois residents have been in a flap over pigeon shoots for years. Thirty-eight-year-old Steve Hindi, who owns and manages the Allied Tubular Rivets factory in Plano, said he was an avid big-game hunter and deep-sea fisherman until 1989 when he witnessed a pigeon shoot. "I was so repulsed by it I was determined that this could not go on," he said.
When Hindi's hunting friends refused to help him, he turned to animal-rights activists, who rallied to his cause. In time, he made a total conversion. "It really was the beginning of the end," he said. "The time I spent hunting and killing I now spend saving animals."
Hindi uses only the most gory terms to describe pigeon shoots. The birds – which are either captured park pigeons or those specifically raised for killing – are shot from a spring-loaded catapult four to eight feet into the air before a hunter in line takes aim with a twelve-gauge shotgun, he said. It's hardly a challenging sport – unlike true hunting and trapping, which Hindi hesitates to criticize – but rather the gratuitous killing of captured animals who are never used for food, he said. "The funny thing about it is, if they miss the bird, the bird often falls back to the ground and tries to figure out what the hell is going on," Hindi said. "The whole thing is inherently cruel and pointless."
Most birds are wounded and not killed, so the shooters hire girls and boys to perform the coup de grace, Hindi explained. "When they pop their heads off or wring their necks, that's about the best we can hope for," he said. The birds are thrown into a barrel, he said, and processed for fertilizer.
Hindi is especially critical of the conservation and agriculture departments, who have delayed acknowledging the 1992 changes despite an advisory letter by the Illinois Office of the Attorney General, which stated that the shoots were banned under state law. "The law is on the books. We don't think it needs an opinion or clarification," said attorney general spokesperson Ernie Slottag. "It is clear that it's not permissible."
After inquiries last week by Illinois Times, ag officials changed their stand, announcing that "anybody holding a pigeon shoot would be in direct violation of the Humane Care for Animals Act" and that the department would work with local law-enforcement agencies to investigate violations.
Not every state agency has been so cooperative. DOC officials are stonewalling a Freedom of Information Act request by a Springfield lawyer wishing to obtain a list of sites where pigeon shots were once permitted in Illinois. Conservation spokesperson Carol Knowles said the department denied the request because it would invade the privacy of the permittee. "It would be different if these were public events," she said.
Lawyer Elizabeth Caddick took the denial earlier this year to Sangamon County circuit court, where Judge Leo Zappa ordered DOC to cough up the documents or risk being in contempt of court. State lawyers, however, appealed Zappa's decision, a process that could drag on for up to a year, Caddick said. She refuted the idea that DOC was protecting the privacy of pigeon shoot permittees, when their private addresses are not even listed on the permits. Permits contain the name of the holder and the location, time, date, and place of the pigeon shoot, Caddick said. Furthermore, the Illinois Freedom of Information Act specifically refers to permits as being documents of public record, she said.
Caddick further criticized ag officials for delaying their decision to implement the law in the face of the attorney general's advisory letter stating that pigeon shoots were illegal. She especially refute comments that the law ambiguous because it had yet to be tested in court. "That's ridiculous," Caddick said. Everyone is presumed to know what the law is regardless of what the courts say."
Hindi said that DOC is "doing a disservice to the taxpayers." Case law is clear and DOC will be forced to release the list of permittees sooner or later, said Hindi, who added that the department should not be in the business of protecting pigeon-shoot participants at public expense.