PIKEVILLE, Pa. - At the cry of "Pull!" a pigeon is catapulted from a small spring-loaded metal box in the middle of a field at the Pike Township Sportsmen's Club. A shooter poised 30 yards away with a shotgun fires, sending the gray and white bird plummeting to the ground.
Over and over for two hours scores of live pigeons are launched into the air as shooters vie to kill the most birds and take home the prize money.
Some birds are killed instantly. Others land wounded, flapping helplessly on injured wings. The lucky ones escape and cluster in nearby trees and rooftops.
This is the scene at the Pike Township Sportsmen's Club, 56 miles northwest of Philadelphia, where Sunday pigeon shoots are a longtime tradition. Fewer than a half-dozen gun clubs - most of them in Berks County - still stage shoots in the state. Pennsylvania is one of two states where the events are legal, but the only one where the shoots are still being held.
Under fire from lawsuits, bad publicity and hostile legislation, the clubs operate in near secrecy. They do not advertise their shoots, nor are they open to the public. Efforts by a reporter to talk to participants at one recent pigeon shoot were rebuffed.
The Humane Society of the United States has been trying to end pigeon shoots in Pennsylvania since the mid-1980s. It has filed lawsuits on animal-cruelty allegations and pushed bills to ban the shoots in every legislative session without success.
The group argues the unregulated shoots are cruel because so many birds are slaughtered at close range and the injured suffer needlessly. The injured that fall inside the rings have their heads snapped off by ring crew members and those that fly away injured, critics say, languish in pain for hours or days before dying.
But they also contend that the shoots, like dog fights, are rife with other kinds of illegal activity occurring across multiple states in the region: trapping birds in New York City, transporting animals across state lines, tax fraud and gambling.
"Animal cruelty alone should be enough to shut down this practice, but there are many other compelling reasons as well," said Heidi Prescott, vice president for the Humane Society. "Our intelligence about the sordid and secretive pigeon-shoot circuit highlights the similarity to dogfighting and cockfighting in terms of the extent of gambling and illegal animal trafficking."
Officials at three gun clubs contacted by The Inquirer did not return calls seeking comment. An official reached at the Strausstown Gun Club, where pigeon shoots are held seven times a year, said he was not involved.
"I don't approve of them, but I don't condemn them," said Tom Leary, vice president of the club.
Don Bailey of Strausstown, who organizes shoots and provides pigeons at the Strausstown club and elsewhere, said he viewed the events as an effective way to get rid of vermin. "We kill pigeons," said Bailey. "What do you think they do when they poison birds in Philadelphia?"
From her perch a few hundred yards away from the shooting rings, humane officer Johnna Seeton has a clear view of the action.
The retired teacher stands on a public road, dutifully recording on paper and with a video camera the license plates of participants, the numbers of birds used, and how the injured birds are treated before they are destroyed.
This has been Seeton's weekend routine for 20 years.
"I guess I'm obsessed," she said. "But I figure if I have the documentation, no one can say it's hearsay."
After each round, a flock of teenagers, called "trappers," is dispatched with sacks to pick up the injured and dead birds. They disappear into a small lean-to. Typically, the injured birds are disposed of by breaking their necks or ripping their heads off.
Seeton goes out to comb the countryside to try to rescue the wounded the next day. She has brought scores of badly injured birds to vets, where most are euthanized.
"I feel like I'm cleaning up their mess," Seeton said of the shoot organizers.
Bailey claims he picks up birds from the perimeter of the rings and disposes of them. Birds that go farther afield are "taken care of by hawks," he said.
Pigeon shoots have been held in Pennsylvania since before the Civil War. It was a notorious Schuylkill County shoot that put pigeon shooting on the national radar in the 1980s. The annual fund-raiser in the town of Hegins drew as many as 10,000 people to its Roman circus-like atmosphere.
Animal-welfare advocates set up triage tents for the wounded birds. In 1993, mounted state troopers wielding tear gas arrested 114 protesters.
In 1999, amid a court battle with an animal-rights group, the shoot was canceled by its organizers.
"Most people now think the shoots are over," Seeton said.
But they continue to be held almost every weekend from September through February in other Pennsylvania clubs. At least 22 shoots were held in the last year, according to a schedule assembled by the Humane Society.
It's unclear exactly where the pigeons come from.
The pigeon broker and shoot organizer Bailey told a New York Times reporter in 2004 that he paid farm boys to collect pigeons from barns, but that he had heard of people taking birds from the streets of Philadelphia and New York.
The Humane Society alleges a large number continue to be brought in from New York City, where residents have reported witnessing people throwing nets over pigeons and whisking them away in vehicles.
With the clubs on the defensive, access to their shoots has become limited.
At the Pike Township club, where roughly 20 shooters showed up on a recent Sunday morning, a cluster of participants turned their backs on a reporter trying to ask questions.
Participants pay high fees - at Strausstown they start at $270, plus $7 for practice pigeons - for purses as small as $20. At the big events, winners can take home as much as $4,000. But the Humane Society's Prescott believes those purses represent a fraction of the real stakes - tens of thousands of dollars wagered under the table - at some events.
Leary, of the Strausstown club, said that the shoots' attraction was "gambling pure and simple."
Many hunters say pigeon shoots are cruel and not a legitimate form of hunting. Game Commission officials say that leaving behind a wounded animal violates the state game law.
The commission has not taken a position on the shoots or gotten involved because pigeons are not classified as wildlife, said spokesman Jerry Feaser.
But he said the pigeon shoots are "not what we would classify as fair-chase hunting."
David Kozloff, a Wyomissing lawyer who is representing the Pike Township club in a suit filed by Seeton, said he didn't see the difference between pigeon shoots and hunting in the field.
"Isn't the end result the same?" he said.
Sen. Patrick Browne (R., Lehigh), the sponsor of the latest version of the pigeon shoot bill, is still confident he has the support to pass the bill. (A companion bill has been introduced in the House.)
"I think in terms of the issue of a balance between the hunters and the cruelty to animals, this is something that breaches that," Browne said. "Traditional sportsmen find it offensive, and a large majority of Pennsylvanians agree."