A little serious, a little satire, and all opinion on animal welfare.
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On Wednesday I found myself wanting to hum The Circle of Life from The Lion King.  I was watching the attorney (Lawyer 1) representing a Humane Society Police Officer (not our organization) attempting to get an emergency injunction to stop an upcoming pigeon shoot at Wing Pointe arguing with the attorney (Lawyer 2) for the “sportsmen’s” club in front of a Judge.  The circular argument was worthy of a Disney cartoon.

Lawyer 1: “We seek an injunction to stop illegal pigeon shoots.”

Lawyer 2: “Then why aren’t you charging us instead of asking for an injunction?”

Lawyer 1: “Because the DA refuses to let anyone file charges.”

Lawyer 2: “That’s because shoots are legal.”

Lawyer 1: “No, they aren’t and we could prove it in court.”

Lawyer 2: “Sorry, the DA won’t let you file charges.”

Lawyer 1: “That’s why we are seeking an injunction.”

Lawyer 2: “Then why aren’t you charging us with cruelty?….”

And so the circle of life in the court over pigeon shoots go ever on and on.  Meanwhile, District Attorney John Adams, who has forced the withdrawal of strong cases which have a very good chance of demonstrating why pigeons shoots are a violation of Cruelty Law and/or Game code per se and that prior decisions were in error, is somewhere singing Hakuna Matata to himself, without a worry in the world.  You can decide if he plays the part of Simba, the Lion King, or Pumbaa, the wart hog.

One major deviation in the perfect circle was that for the second time in a couple months, the case was before a judge who didn’t spout off NRA talking points about the great tradition of pigeon shoots and how America would decline as a great nation should even one shooter ever be charged with cruelty for shooting- let alone stomping, kicking, or ripping the wings off- a pigeon.  Both the Judge in the case Wednesday and the Justices in the recent ruling that found a DA could ignore a crime if he chose, expressed disgust for shoots as being poor sportsmanship if nothing else.

But they were all bound by the pesky law.  Judges can’t find guilt before the fact, they need to have a charge to weigh before them.  They can’t compel a DA to file charges.  The DA can choose not to file any charge if he wants.  Since only a judge can interpret law, this keeps the charge from being judged on its merit.  And another circle goes on.

I don’t blame the lawyers or even the pigeon shooters for making their case in court.  That’s what they are supposed to do.  I can’t blame a judge for not finding guilt when no case has been made or not filing an injunction when it is not legally appropriate.  I can’t even fault, on legal ground, since it’s entirely legal, a DA refusing to allow charges to be filed.  I can certainly fault that DA on ethical grounds.

Here’s the deal.  Humane Society of Berks County believes there is solid legal reasoning to prosecute pigeon shoots as per se cruelty.  We tried to do so once and were ordered to withdraw the charges by the DA, which we did.  We still believe we can demonstrate in court why shoots are a violation of law since the laws the violation spans are really, really explicit.  When recent video evidence was released showing that shooters were violating not only the law as HSBC believes it to apply but the law as the DA publicly stated he believes it to apply, we offered to prosecute the case on his behalf, under his direction.  We’re still waiting for a response.

But there is a DA who is exercising the law which allows him to ignore the law.  He ignores the law, he ignores offers by HSBC and others to enforce the law, and he’s ignoring courts which might like a chance to do their jobs and actually judge the merits of the case.  When he said it was because his interpretation was that the shoots are legal, it was a difference of opinion.  When he ignores the video evidence which shows shooters doing the exact things he himself said would be a violation, one can only wonder if now there is bad faith.

But, hey, he won his election and can do what he wants for the next couple of years.  Everyone, now, sing! “It means no worries for the rest of his days (or at least until the next election); it’s his problem-free philosophy- Hakuna Matata!”

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Recently a video was released reportedly showing a pigeon shoot hosted at Wing Pointe.  It showed participants not merely engaging in a shoot, about which there is heated disagreement as to legality, but violating the restrictions set forth in the Lash opinion.  Berks County District Attorney John Adams has expressed his opinion that pigeon shoots are permitted under Pennsylvania law, citing the Lash judgement.  He has also been quoted affirming the restrictions on behavior at shoots laid out in the Lash opinion.  Since this footage appears to show a clear violation of the law as DA Adams has defined it and recognizing that DA Adams has many other priorities on his plate, the Humane Society of Berks County extended an offer to prosecute the violation of Pennsylvania law, under any guidelines he thought appropriate.  Although forwarded to his office via email on October 12, 2012, HSBC has not received a reply to our offer of assistance in this clear violation of law and the restrictions reportedly affirmed by DA Adams.  We are publishing the offer in the form of an open letter in order to make it clear that our organization attempted to enforce the law as written and as put forward in the Lash opinion and affirmed by DA Adams.

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October 12, 2012

Dear District Attorney Adams,

The Humane Society of Berks County was forwarded a video purported to be footage of a pigeon shoot held at Wing Pointe on September 30, 2012 (link below).  The video shows participants stomping, swinging birds into their feet and the ground, and kicking wounded birds on the ground.

Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=o994K5oJ_EA

Although I am aware of your belief that pigeon shoots are permitted in Pennsylvania, I have also recently seen that you have been quoted in the press  saying that you believe that legality is grounded in the Lash decision and that the prohibitions on behavior laid out in the 2002 decision (no stomping, swinging, and kicking, etc.) provide “certain requirements that the shoots must comply with to stay within the confines of the law.”  The participants shown on this video clearly violate the Lash requirements.

Since I understand that your office may have more pressing cases to attend to, I am offering the resources of the Humane Society of Berks County and its sworn Humane Society Police Officers (HSPO) to you and your Office.  If you choose to prosecute this clear new evidence of cruelty to animals as defined by the Lash decision which you feel applies to pigeon shoots and the actions taken during their conduct, we will pursue the charges on your Office’s behalf, under your direction, and within the guidelines you choose to set for our officers.  This deferred responsibility was the intent of the HSPO law. In light of the brazen and jovial manner in which the filmed shooters opted to violate and mock the clear limits you have cited publicly while upholding your belief that these shoots are legal under the Lash decision, I feel it is only appropriate to offer our support and resources.

Please let me know if you would like to speak further about this offer to assist you.

Sincerely,

Karel I. Minor

Executive Director

Humane Society of Berks County

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Despite a last minute poison pill added to HB 2630, the Gas Chamber Ban, which seemed intended to either kill the bill or punish good animal shelters, the bill was passed in the Senate, concurred in the House, and is on its way to Governor Corbett, who has indicated he will sign it.  We are all still reading the 23 ¾ hour language changes but one thing appears certain:  Gas chambers for pets are soon to be a thing of the dark past in Pennsylvania.  Well, mostly.  There were exemptions for vet schools and a few other places.

There were reportedly only four remaining in the state anyway, but these must be disabled under the new, soon to be law.  The animal welfare community is very happy about that, as are we happy with the new direct licensing provision which will allow shelters to obtain a license directly from the state to purchase the humane drugs required for proper euthanasia by injection techniques.

Not so happy are shelters which now face a new unfunded mandate for training.  Although all but four shelters in the state followed the old rules, which required that a veterinarian provide a license for the facility and supervise the euthanasia program, the new law will require that every shelter train every euthanasia tech under undetermined regulations to be promulgated by the State Vet Board- which was inserted at the last minute in place of the State Pharmacy Board- at the shelter’s own cost.  A whopping 14 hours training.

That’s right, every shelter, not just the ones seeking a special license.  So shelters like Humane Society of Berks County, which employ multiple staff vets who supervise the euthanasia program directly, and which provide a training program that takes six weeks, will now have to pay to get staff trained for a mere 14 hours, in addition.  And we don’t even know what rules the State Vet Board- no conflict of interest there, do you imagine- will put on shelters like ours.

Anyone who thinks there is no conflict should just look to recent events in Alabama, where the State Vet Board, in a clear attempt to crush competition from non-profit vet practices, such as the one at HSBC and an increasing number of other shelters in PA, tried to ban any vet from working for a non-profit.  It would seem drugs would be controlled by the pharmacists, yet somehow at the last minute the very vets who have complained about competition from shelters are put directly in charge of a major regulation impacting shelters at the very time that shelters are opening public practices.  A mere coincidence, I am sure.

Do you know who else is probably very worried right now about this bill?  The State Office of Dog Law Enforcement.  If euthanasia training becomes expensive and harder to provide, euthanasia is going to be scrutinized much more closely by organizations which will need to ensure that they comply with the law, lest they be shut down by the Department of Agriculture or the State Vet Board.  The simplest way to decrease euthanasia at shelters is to start dropping animal control contracts with municipalities and the State since strays account for the vast majority of euthanasia at increasingly crowded animal control shelters.  What will the wardens do then?  Better sign up for that State Vet Board training program fast, because shelters have been doing the State’s dirty work, already at a loss, for years.  I have a sneaking suspicion that the number of shelters opting out of dog catching and killing contracts is about to sky rocket.  I predict Pennsylvania is on its way to a wave of No Kill shelters.  But you know those animals are going to get killed somewhere and it’s soon going to be Dog Law’s new Director’s job to figure out where.  Maybe the vets of the PVMA will volunteer.

Finally, there is lots of praise going around Harrisburg for those who got this bill passed.  I am certainly glad it passed.  But it should have passed long ago and it certainly should have passed without the Vet Board and Department of Ag shenanigans.  Congratulating the House, Senate and Governor for passing this law is like thanking someone for not kicking you each time they walk past you anymore.  And with the unfunded mandates- and isn’t Governor Corbett and his party leadership supposed to hate unfunded government mandates?- they’ve stopped kicking us but poured their cold coffee on our leg when they walked by this time.  That’s not bravery or leadership, it’s doing the very least they should do.

A victory to end the suffering of animals in gas chambers, to be sure.  But another blow to Pennsylvania’s shelters, which pay millions in payroll taxes and employ thousands across the state and were hit like everyone else during the recession.  I guess we needed another reminder of who holds the reins of power when it comes to lobbying in Harrisburg.  It damn sure ain’t us.

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Writers and directors employ cliché genres in their art for a reason.  They provide an instant framework for the expression of some other conflict.  For example, science fiction often frames some conflict within a “David vs. Goliath” structure.  Romantic comedies frame them around the “boy meets girl, boy loses girls, boy wins girl back” structure.  These basic thematic structures allow a gifted artist to embellish on a simple theme the way a great jazz musician can transform a cliché standard into a new work of art.  Think John Coltrane’s version of My Favorite Things.

When I saw the extended footage of the September 30, 2012 pigeon shoot at Wing Pointe which was posted for the press without the usual over the top- if generally accurate- railings by the group which took the video, the two and a half minutes of quiet video nagged at me.  Not just because of the clear, wanton cruelty shown on the video.  There was something else, something familiar, about what I was watching.

What Will the Sheriff Do?

Then it hit me.  I’ve seen this footage before.  I’ve seen it scores of times on TV and in movies.  I was watching a cliché genre playing out right in front of my eyes.  Chances are you’ve seen it, too.  It’s a particular version of the Western genre cliché.

There is a standard form of it in which the town is run by a rich rancher with a son and his buddies who are a little bit wild.  They tend to break the law in little ways.  They get drunk and beat up the locals.  They harass the local blacks or Native Americans.  They use foul language in front of upstanding women-folk.  And there is a town sheriff who, in the interests of keeping the peace, lets it slide and just tries to keep things from getting out of hand.  When he does send the rich boy home to poppa with his friends, the boy usually turns and tell the sheriff that his daddy put that badge on him and his daddy can take that badge away.  The sheriff inevitably says something like, “One day you boys will go too far and do something I can’t ignore,” and the boys ride away, laughing at him.

You know the boys will go one step too far.  They’ll kill an innocent man or rape a good woman.  This is the moment that a great story is made.  The shorthand cliché that got us to this point is now blown wide open to storytelling.  What will the sheriff do?

Will he put down that bottle of rye whiskey he’s been hiding his shame in or will he return to it?  Will he make the quiet maiden’s heart swell with pride as he marches into the street to deal with the trouble maker and his father or will she hang it in shame as he hides in his jailhouse?  Will he gather together the cowering townfolk into an outnumbered and outgunned posse? Will the mysterious stranger come in to town and help him rediscover his courage?  Will he prevail or die trying?  The story can go anywhere.  Maybe even to Cowboys and Aliens.

When I watched the laughing, taunting shoot boys stomping pigeons to death, swinging them headfirst into their shoes, kicking them in a shower of feathers while they lay wounded on the ground, I think I had a feeling like what the piano player in a saloon fight has when the rich boy challenges the sheriff to a gun fight.  Will he stand up to them or will he turn around to be taunted as he walks away through the swinging saloon doors?  What will he do?  I can’t stand the suspense!

The shoot boys did exactly that on September 30.  The local sheriff who protected their right to a little clean fun to blow off some steam by blowing away thousands of pigeons, also made a stand.  He said, for all the townfolk to hear, “Boys, you can have your fun, but don’t go too far.  Don’t go beyond the confines of what Judge Lash,” – yes, this story even has a hanging judge- “said you could do.  No stomping, no kicking, no swinging.”  He made his line in the sand.  The local press even reported it.  Extra!  Extra! Sheriff Puts Rancher’s Son on Notice!

Then the rancher’s son and his pals, in clear view of the cameras they knew were there filming them, video they knew would be shared with the world and the sheriff, stomped, kicked and swung those pigeons while laughing and taunting.  Laughing at the cameras.  Taunting the sheriff and his line in the sand.

In this case of life imitating art, I can’t stand the suspense.  It’s high noon.  What will the sheriff do?

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I have wondered what more do they need to do at Pennsylvania pigeons shoots to be prosecuted.  Light them on fire?  Have sex with them? Catch the pigeons trying to vote without State issued photo ID?

The latest video to surface from a recent pigeon shoot shows just how far these “proud, traditional, sporting” events, as their supporters calls them, have degenerated.  The birds are shot at point blank range.  They are tossed by hand in front of shooters only a few feet away.  They are bashed from the air by hand.  They are shaken and stomped to death.  All by laughing, jovial “sportsmen” in the full view of the cameras filming them.  These proud, traditional sportsmen have lost all the concern and shame they once demonstrated by trying to hide these shoots from public view.  Why?  Because they have learned that they can do anything at these shoots with complete impunity.

The judges, DA’s, and police once pretended that there was an exemption in the law from these shoots.  When charges were filed they side stepped the core issue of legality by focusing on whether “reasonable efforts” were made to put the pigeons out of their misery, decisions usually wrapped in NRA talking points.  More recently, as multiple organizations, including HSBC, have dismantled and eviscerated the laughable claims that pigeon shots are permitted under the law by nailing every single false claim to the wall in excruciating detail, DA’s have turned to new tactics.  They ham string Humane Officers by not allowing them to bring attorneys to court to represent them.  They only allow the weakest of charges to be filed.  Or in Berks County’s case, the DA simply demands that the charges be withdrawn, as he did to HSBC, or withdraws them himself, as he did to another organization’s charges.

The fact that charges were withdrawn doesn’t mean the shoots are legal.  In fact, on appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the narrow decision to uphold the DA’s right to crush the charges didn’t stem from whether a crime had actually occurred at the shoots.  Instead the justices determined that PA law permits a DA to ignore any crime he wants to.  A proud day for law enforcement and jurisprudence in our great Commonwealth.  We can all only hope that the next time you or I are the victim of a crime the perpetrator is not a campaign contributor to our county District Attorney.

The Berks County District Attorney is quoted saying, “”I should mention that there is certain requirements that the shoots must comply with to stay within the confines of the law.”  Again I ask, what more do these shoots need to do to be in violation of the “confines of the law”?  How can anyone- NRA member, hunter, person on the street- watch this video and say that this behavior is sportsmanlike, is hunting, is a protected activity?  What more do they need to do to lose the protection of the law enforcement officials who are shielding them?

This is not about animal rights or out of state activists.  It’s not about tradition or national political agendas.  It’s about the letter of the Pennsylvania law.  To watch this video and say it is not a violation of the law is willful blindness.  This video shows a violation of the law that makes me change my question.  It’s no longer what more can these pigeons shooters do before they are prosecuted.  It’s can these people do anything that will get them prosecuted?  Anything at all?

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