by Walter Brasch
September 9, 2010
Twenty minutes South of Harrisburg, on a two hour drive to her home near Gaithersburg, Md., Heidi Prescott shed a tear. No one else saw it, only one other person could hear it in her voice. It was about 9 p.m., Tuesday, June 29.
Prescott, senior vice-president of campaigns for the 11-million member Humane Society of the United States, values her reputation as a compassionate but tough lobbyist, but more than two decades of grief and hope was in that tear. For five straight days, she had driven to the Capitol; this would be the week, she was led to believe by the House leadership, that the Legislature would finally bring forth a vote to ban live pigeon shoots. But, in a late night deal, the Legislature had come to a decision about the next year’s budget, and that meant it would recess before voting on the bill to ban pigeon shoots.
Every Tuesday, when the Pennsylvania legislature is in session, Prescott spends five to 10 hours working the 50 state senators and 203 representatives, every one of whom she knows by name and by their political beliefs. She seldom eats, rushing from office to office, sitting, waiting, and talking. To staff. To elected officials. To anyone who will listen.
With logic and facts, Prescott, who has been to more than 50 shoots, explains that placing scared and undernourished birds into a small cage, and then releasing them only 20 yards in front people with 12-gauge shotguns is not only cruel but not a sport. She explains that most of the birds, sometimes as many as 5,000 at a shoot, are hit by the shot within five to 10 feet of the cages, with many shot while standing on the ground or on the cages themselves. She gives names of life-long Pennsylvania hunters who oppose pigeon shoots because they aren’t “fair chase hunting,” and emphasizes that even the Pennsylvania Game Commission doesn’t call pigeon shoots a sport. She tells everyone she talks with that the International Olympic Committee banned pigeon shoots as cruel and inhumane after its only appearance in the 1900 Olympics. She tells stories of underage drinking and illegal gambling at the shoots. She almost tears up when she tells about a spectator at one shoot who stomped on a live bird after he ripped it from her hand. She cites statistics that show that 70 percent of all birds aren’t killed by the first shotgun blast, but are wounded, many left to die in agony over two or three days if they aren’t first picked up by paid trapper boys, some as young as eight years of age, who wring their necks, stomp on their nearly dead bodies, or stuff them live into barrels to suffocate.
Spectators ripping the heads of live birds, throwing them in the air like footballs, and impaling live birds on plastic forks are not normal activities, she points out. To emphasize the widespread opposition to pigeon shoots, Prescott points out that more than 80 percent of all Pennsylvanians oppose the pigeon shoot, and explains why almost every daily newspaper in the state and dozens of organizations, from the Council of Churches to the Pennsylvania Bar Association, have formally opposed this form of animal cruelty. But most of all, she tries to embarrass the legislature by pointing out that Pennsylvania is the only state that allows people to openly kill live pigeons in organized contests, and that most of the shooters come to Pennsylvania because they would be arrested in their home states if they participated in pigeon shoots. Each pigeon shoot, she says, teaches children that violence and animal cruelty are acceptable practices.
Deliberate and patient, Prescott counters several arguments by legislators. To those who believe bans should be local options not the function of the state, Prescott points to innumerable legal precedents that allow the state to act, and that if local jurisdictions were allowed to make such laws, there would be a patchwork of conflicting local ordinances. To those who believe pigeons are merely “winged rats,” and that the shoots get rid of vermin, she explains that all life is sacred, but that most of the pigeons are either captured out of state or are bred specifically to be killed. To those scared by fear-mongers in the National Rifle Association (NRA) and a couple of organizations that were bred solely to support pigeon shoots and who believe that banning pigeon shoots infringes upon the 2nd Amendment rights to bear arms, Prescott carefully explains that absolutely nothing in proposed bills or amendments would restrict firearms ownership or usage. The NRA, says Prescott, has misrepresented its members, “most of whom would never support or condone pigeon shoots.” Some say that banning pigeon shoots would be the “slippery slope” to gun restrictions. “Some representatives and senators are just dense,” she sighs.
Prescott and her 40-person staff have been at the forefront of animal rights, persuading numerous designers and retail chains to stop selling fur, convincing all states to stop cock fighting, pushing 10 states to either ban or modify rules on puppy mills, and exposing animal cruelty in the cattle industry and the secret world of dog fighting. Normally, Prescott wouldn’t be “working” the Pennsylvania legislature, but she has taken a personal interest in Pennsylvania and in its failure to ban live pigeon shoots.
Prescott grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., and moved to Pennsylvania when she became a student at Edinboro State College (now Edinboro University). After earning a B.A. in psychology, with a focus upon domestic violence, and an M.F.A. in art, Prescott and her husband of two years moved to the Washington, D.C., area so she could began a career as an artist. In college she was a vegetarian, but not active in animal rights issues. A mortally wounded woodpecker changed that.
Her husband, Jim, brought the bird home. “I didn’t know what to do,” she recalls. What she did was to call several places to get assistance. “I demanded to know what I should do, where I should go,” she says. The answers she got weren’t satisfactory and the bird died the next morning. However, all her calls led her to finding a wildlife rehabilitator. For three years, she apprenticed with the rehabilitator; for five years, she mixed careers as a professional artist and certified animal rehabilitator. “I took way too many animals,” she says, “because when you say ‘No’ to helping any animal, it gets euthanized.” At times, she had dozens of birds, squirrels, bunnies, and possums in her townhouse. She readily acknowledges that her devotion to animal rescue put a strain upon her marriage. She and Jim divorced after six years.
In 1989, Prescott stopped being a professional artist and became a professional animal rights advocate and began working 60–80 hour weeks—when she wasn’t arrested.
In Strausstown, Pa., she was arrested when she tried to save a wounded pigeon. In Pikeville, Pa., she was arrested for walking across the street to hand a press release to a reporter. And then there was Hegins, site of the nation’s largest pigeon shoot, one that brought more than 200 shooters and several hundred paying spectators every Labor Day to the isolated rural community in northeast Pennsylvania to watch the killing of more than 5,000 birds. She attended the shoot in 1990, and then went back with a team of rehabilitators the next day. It was that day she knew that eliminating pigeon shoots would be her cause. She picked up a bird lying on the field, turned her over and realized she was gasping for air. Both of her legs had been blown off and she was in the final stage of dying. The team was forced to euthanize her. “It was just that act of her struggle to live and then her dying in my hands,” says Prescott, “when I made that promise to do everything I could do to stop this cruelty.”
Several animal rights groups, led by Prescott, launched massive protests in 1991 and 1992, including running onto the shooting fields to rescue the birds, and chaining themselves to concrete blocks and fences. Prescott was one of the rescuers who ran onto the fields to open cages to free the birds, “knowing they would not be shot.” Twice she served 15 days in the Schuylkill County jail for trespassing, theft, and the receipt of stolen property—she had picked up wounded birds from the shooting fields. She could have paid the $500 fines, but chose jail because “I wasn’t about to give that county even one dollar.”
Confrontational protests, which had succeeded in bringing media attention to mankind’s cruelty, were abandoned in 1993 in favor of a bird rescue program. “Most of the public’s attention was on the confrontation instead of the horror of what was happening to the animals,” says Prescott, “and we wanted to refocus the attention upon the cruelty.” In a statement to the Court for one incident, Prescott explained her philosophy of life. “I did not physically strike, obstruct, yell at, or insult anyone with whom I communicated,” she said without bitterness.
In 1989, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives had defeated a bill to ban pigeon shoots, 66–126. By 1994, three years after the first large scale protest, the House voted 99–93 in favor of an amendment to ban pigeon shoots, but fell short of the 102 votes needed for passage. That was the last time the full House voted on any bill or amendment to stop pigeon shoots.
Cowered by the perceived power of the NRA, which has about one-third the membership of the Humane Society—and only 200,000 members in Pennsylvania against 670,000 Pennsylvanians in the Humane Society—House and Senate leaders of both parties, primarily from the rural areas, continuously blocked bills from getting out of Committee and onto the floor for a vote.
In the 21 years since she first began protesting pigeon shoots, Prescott has been cursed, shoved, poked, hit, slammed against a car, and had boot-clad spectators deliberately step upon her sneakered feet. A pacifist, she never resisted. But the greatest wounds, she says, were the lies she was told by legislators who promised what they would never deliver—a vote to ban pigeon shoots. “Their lies and distortions caused a waste of resources and time, and led to thousands more animals who suffered cruel deaths each year,” says Prescott.
“It’s time for the Pennsylvania legislature to stop playing politics,” she says. Shortly after the House reconvenes on Sept. 13, Prescott hopes she will shed yet another tear, this time one of joy, as a majority of the House and Senate develop a spine and resist the prattling of a minority of self-proclaimed “sportsmen” and of national organizations that help fund their campaigns, and do what’s right, what every other state has done—stop the cruelty of pigeon shoots. “The only place this bill seems to be controversial is within the walls of the Capitol,” says Prescott.
“I know how close we are, and if we give up now,” she says, “we will never fully appreciate the strength and courage of the animals that lay dying in my hands because of the cruelty of mankind. It’s an image of life I can not live with, and giving up now is unthinkable.”
[Walter Brasch is an award-winning syndicated columnist and author of 17 books. He first reported on pigeon shoots in 1990, and has covered them and the Pennsylvania legislature since.]
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