A pigeon is released or catapulted into the air and starts to takes flight. A few yards away, a gun club member quickly aims and fires a shotgun, usually striking the bird.

Some of the hundreds of pigeons released in a typical daylong shoot die instantly. But as many as 70 percent are only wounded, animal-rights activists allege, and dying birds can languish for days.

The result is "an animal-rights vs. sportsmen's-rights issue," said State Rep. Mike Tobash (R., Schuylkill), a defender of the shoots, which are legal in Pennsylvania. The Philadelphia Gun Club — one of three clubs that stage live shoots — has conducted them since 1877.

Foes such as Heidi Prescott, a senior vice president with the Humane Society of the United States, say the shoots are cruel and should be abolished.

"Pigeon shoots should go the way of dog fighting or cockfights," she said recently. "They're so easily replaced with clay targets. There's no reason to use live animals."

Animal-rights groups contend the shoots violate anticruelty laws. Police and district attorneys say the events are legal under current law.

Retrieving wounded birds to destroy them humanely — not the legality of the shoots — is the issue, Bucks County District Attorney David Heckler said.

"Once you shoot a bird and just let the thing lay — don't put it out of its misery — you're committing cruelty to animals, and I'm willing to enforce that," he said recently.

"I wouldn't engage in this activity myself, but it isn't against the law."

The Philadelphia Gun Club, which has fended off opposition to its shoots for years, faces five citations for allegedly failing to euthanize wounded birds during two shoots in March.

And it is under fire from environmentalists, who contend pigeon carcasses and lead shot are polluting the Delaware River bordering the club's lower Bucks County shooting range.

"I don't think animal shoots can go on without cruelty going on," says Johnna Seeton, who has been appointed a humane officer by judges in Bucks, Montgomery, and six other counties to enforce anticruelty laws.

The club's secretary declined to comment; its treasurer and lawyer declined to return phone calls; and the president and vice president could not be reached for comment.

The group has 56 members, according to its most recent tax filing as a nonprofit.

The club's website described it in 2009 as a "mecca for shooting gentlemen interested in serious competitive shooting in a genteel atmosphere." The rich and famous, including Ernest Hemingway, William K. Vanderbilt Jr., and Annie Oakley, once hunted at the former estate.

Seeton said the citations represented five wounded pigeons that animal-rights' activists rescued from the Delaware during the club's shoots on March 17 and 31. She watched from the New Jersey side while members of the national group Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK) manned two boats near the club's Bensalem property.

"Many more were killed or wounded and died in the boats," she said. "Many of the wounded flew away to who knows where."

Observing in another boat on March 31 was Maya van Rossum, head of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which is suing the gun club for allegedly polluting the river.

Heckler said his office was investigating Seeton's charges. And it is looking into club members' and employees' claims that SHARK members were racing to the wounded birds, preventing club employees from retrieving and destroying them.

"If that's the case, the citations are going to get deep-sixed," he said.

A club employee, Darryl Bogart of Hamilton, N.J., filed a criminal complaint during the March 31 shoot, accusing SHARK president Steve Hindi of punching and kicking him while he tried to retrieve a wounded pigeon on shore.

Hindi said recently he had not seen the complaint and denied the charge.

Each of Seeton's citations carries a penalty of a $50 to $750 fine and/or 90 days in jail.

"I've never seen a fine or jail time issued for a pigeon shoot," said Seeton, who has been a humane officer for 26 years.

The Philadelphia Gun Club is one of three known hosts of pigeon shoots in the state. Erdmans Sportsmen's Club holds shoots northeast of Harrisburg, and the Wing Pointe Gun Club is based in Berks County.

Meanwhile, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network is taking aim at the club's shoots from a new angle.

"The shoots are a violation of the Clean Water Act because of shot and carcasses falling into the river," van Rossum said. "They can't have a discharge into the water without a permit."

Federal and state agencies have failed to enforce the Clean Water Act, van Rossum said. So she and her nonprofit group, which has more than 7,700 members, filed suit in federal court in Philadelphia on March 30.

In addition to the pigeon carcasses, gunshot containing lead, bismuth, tungsten, copper, steel, and other metals are polluting the river, according to the suit.

Tobash, the state legislator from Schuylkill Haven, discounted that new tack.

"In duck and goose hunting, shot goes in the water," he said. "This is close to a sportsmen's issue, and it could affect most duck, goose, and pheasant hunting."

Shot peppering the water also makes it unsafe for boaters, van Rossum said. Her husband, who was in a kayak during the March 31 shoot, was hit in the face.

The club responded to the network's complaints two years ago by erecting a three-story cloth barrier to keep shot out of the river, van Rossum said.

"The blind is not preventing pollution or the safety hazard," she said. "There are little holes in the fabric."

The club also asked the Coast Guard to establish a safety zone because of the "danger of personal injury" to boaters and others from "falling shot offshore out to 100 yards," according to the suit.

But the Coast Guard and township police have not resolved the safety issue, van Rossum said.

The Coast Guard determined "that a safety zone is not warranted for this type of event," said Lt. Andrew Madjeska, station manager and public affairs officer of the sector based in Philadelphia.

And Fred Harran, head of the Police Department, said, "It's not a Bensalem issue — it's a Harrisburg issue. Until Harrisburg bans them, they're legal."

Bills and amendments that would ban pigeon shoots have sputtered in the state legislature for decades, blocked by opposition from sportsmen's clubs and the NRA.

State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R., Bucks-Montgomery) is cosponsoring Bill 626, which would prohibit the shoots, "because there is legitimate hunting, and this doesn't seem to be a sporting event."

There's been no action on the bill in a year.

There's even less support for the ban in the House.

"This is not a hunting issue, not a gun issue, not a Second Amendment issue," said Roy Afflerbach, a former state legislator who proposed bans in 1996 and 1997 without success and who now works as a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States. "It's the use of live animals for target practice."