After a seven-month truce, the Pigeon War of Bucks County is on again.
Hostilities resumed Nov. 14 when the Philadelphia Gun Club held a live-pigeon shoot on its riverfront property in Bensalem - and opponents called out the police.
"I saw wounded birds flying off the gun club's property into the nearby neighborhood," said Philadelphia lawyer Elissa Katz, an anticruelty advocate. "I also saw dead birds floating in the river."
The shoot was unexpected. Bensalem Township officials had said in April that the exclusive, private club had promised to stop using live birds for target practice.
In return, police had withdrawn citations filed against the organization's president, Leo Holt, that accused him of animal cruelty and violating a township ordinance banning most gunfire.
"We want them to cease and desist what they are doing, and I think we have come to that agreement," Public Safety Director Fred Harran said at the time.
Bensalem police have announced no charges stemming from the Nov. 14 shoot. Harran and Township Solicitor Joseph Pizzo each failed to return phone messages left on three days last week.
John VanLuvanee, a Doylestown attorney who represents the gun club, also did not return repeated calls.
Holt, in a telephone interview, said the gun club "is doing nothing illegal or improper" in resuming the shoots. He declined to say how soon, or how often, others might take place.
Heidi Prescott, senior vice president for campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States, has jousted with the gun club for nearly a decade over the shoots.
"Once again, their arrogance at flouting the will of the township is surprising," Prescott said. "But each time this happens, I'm certainly less surprised."
Pennsylvania is the only state in which live-pigeon shoots still openly take place, Prescott said. Almost every other state, she said, has outlawed such events, in which birds typically are launched from spring-loaded boxes on the ground and shot as they take wing.
"Honest opinions differ on the shooting," Holt said, but the activity "is protected by the laws of the commonwealth and the Constitution."
That could soon be tested in Berks County, where the county Humane Society recently filed charges against the Pike Township Sportsmen's Association under the state's anticruelty statute. The case is scheduled for a court hearing Dec. 10.
With bills seeking to outlaw pigeon shoots stalled in Harrisburg, "we are just trying to put the existing [cruelty] law to the test," said Karel Minor, executive director of the Berks Humane Society.
"Our issue is not with weapons or shooting," Minor said, noting that his organization has hunters on its governing board. "Our issue is with this one particular practice that all of our hunter-supporters do not think is reasonable. I have yet to find one who thinks this is a good thing."
Under Pennsylvania law, anyone who "wantonly or cruelly ill-treats, overloads, beats [or] otherwise abuses any animal" is guilty of a summary offense, typically punishable by a fine.
Bensalem also has an ordinance that bans shooting guns in the township under most circumstances. The 132-year-old gun club contends that since it predates that law, its activities should be grandfathered in.
Katz said she believed that she and other activists had put an end to the Bensalem shoots last spring.
She filed a complaint with the township after witnessing a March 14 pigeon shoot at the gun club's secluded, 17-acre site along the Delaware River. Earlier, Prescott had videotaped a shoot in December from an adjacent property.
Police responded by citing Holt, but withdrew the case under what they thought was a pledge to end the live shoots. Holt declined to comment on any such deal.
"I was satisfied personally with the withdrawal of the citations," he said, "and that's as much as I want to say."
Holt suggested that an adjacent property owner who has repeatedly complained of the shoots might have an agenda beyond the birds' welfare.
That neighbor, Otto Grupp, acknowledged that his family someday hoped to develop housing on its seven-acre tract just south of the club. He said there was "no question" that gunfire of any kind would impede that plan.
But Grupp said that wasn't his chief motivation for opposing the shoots, which typically leave his land littered with a half-dozen dead or dying pigeons.
"My objection is the shooting of the birds," he said. "I do not object to hunting, but there is nothing sporting about having pigeons thrown up out of a trap 25 yards in front of you and shot.
"It's cruelty to the birds."