After years of disappointment, animal-rights advocates are celebrating the state Senate Judiciary Committee's 11-3 vote last week to outlaw target shoots with live animals, including pigeons.
The victory represents only an initial legislative step, but it's the first time such a bill has been voted on in Pennsylvania in 11 years, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
"I'm elated," said Heidi Prescott, senior vice president of campaigns for HSUS. "We have been working very hard" on this.
Senate Bill 626, which has 18 co-sponsors, prohibits "use of live animals or fowl for targets at trap shoot or block shoot" gatherings.
And anyone "who willingly organizes, operates or conducts a trap shoot or block shoot" with pigeons or other live targets commits a summary offense under the state's animal cruelty statute.
Manheim resident Deb Fitzkee said Lancaster County doesn't have a history of pigeon shoots, but there have been turkey shoots here, and those, too, would be outlawed under the bill.
Fitzkee traces her evolution into an animal-rights activist to the 2007 turkey shoot by Elstonville Sportsmen's Association, after which the organization received a $400 fine for violating cruelty laws.
A 1999 Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision ruled that cruelty officers could bring charges against pigeon-shoot participants. That led to the end of the Hegins Labor Day Pigeon Shoot in Schuylkill County, Prescott said.
"But that was not enough to shut them [all] down," she said. Pigeon shoots still took place at private clubs in Berks, Dauphin and Bucks counties.
"Pennsylvania is the only state where live pigeon shoots are openly staged," Prescott said.
Law enforcement wants more clarification on the issue, so HSUS and Pennsylvania activists set their sights on legislation, she said.
"The sad thing is, there even has to be a law," said Laurie Ulrich Fuller, a Lancaster city resident who's Pennsylvania director of the League of Humane Voters.
Bills to prohibit live-animal trap and block shoots stalled in previous sessions of the General Assembly, until finally breaking through with the Judiciary Committee vote Tuesday.
Prescott said she's not sure why it took so long to make headway, given how much the general public despises pigeon shoots. "They see it as cruelty, like dog-fighting or cock-fighting," she said.
"It's a horrifying practice."
If the bill becomes law, Prescott said she expects Pennsylvania pigeon shoots to become obsolete, because they take place in the open. "We're not terribly worried about [the law] being violated," she said.
Unlike cock-fighting, for example, pigeon shoots can't occur behind closed doors, Prescott said.
Pressure on senators
S.B. 626 was supported by six Republicans and five Democrats. Three Republican senators voted no. None of the three senators representing Lancaster County serves on the Judiciary Committee.
"Senators recognize [pigeon-shooting] for what it is," Prescott said, "and are embarrassed to have it in their state."
The next step is for the bill to be considered by the full Senate.
Kristin Crawford, legislative director for Sen. Mike Brubaker, who represents much of the northern half of Lancaster County, said Brubaker hasn't had a chance to read S.B. 626 and will do so before taking a position on it.
"A handful of constituents have contacted us" about the issue, she said, "and I'm sure we'll hear [from] more."
Sen. Lloyd Smucker, whose district includes Lancaster city, Manheim Township and the southern end of the county, said he's undecided how he'll vote and "will check with local folks to get [their] perspective."
Sen. Mike Folmer, who represents a portion of northwest Lancaster County, will be studying the bill in the next few weeks, said his communications director, Beth Williams.
Deb Fitzkee credits groups like PA Shame, which posts videos of pigeon shoots on YouTube, with helping to ratchet up the pressure on legislators.
According to HSUS, pigeon-shoot birds "are launched one at a time from traps in front of shooters who blast away at close range.
"Typically, 70 percent of the birds ... are wounded rather than killed outright, with some wounded animals escaping ... to suffer for hours or days before dying."
HSUS said the shoots attract people from outside Pennsylvania "who cannot participate in the activity considered animal cruelty in their home states."
The organization said S.B. 626 also is backed by the Pennsylvania Council of Churches, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association, the Pennsylvania Federation of Humane Societies, the Pennsylvania Bar Association and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Laurie Ulrich Fuller said the increasing number of co-sponsors over the years reflects the bill's growing level of support inside the Capitol.
Language in S.B. 626 that "clearly states it's not a ban on all hunting" also helps, she said.
NRA not convinced
The National Rifle Association, however, isn't convinced. After the vote, its Institute for Legislative Action released the following statement:
"Bird shooting is [a] historic and legitimate activity steeped in tradition with many participants throughout the commonwealth and around the world. For over a century, shoots have been held in Pennsylvania by law-abiding, ethical shooting enthusiasts, hunters, and sportsmen who would not tolerate an activity that would constitute cruelty to animals.
"National 'animal rights' extremist groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, have organized and funded efforts in Pennsylvania and around the country to ban this long-standing traditional shooting sport. Make no mistake; this isn't just about banning bird shooting, but banning all hunting species by species."
S.B. 626 has to be passed by the Senate and then the House before reaching Gov. Tom Corbett's desk for his signature.
If the bill is approved by the Senate, Fuller said she hopes the House doesn't tinker with it. "What's to modify? This is simple."
The Judiciary Committee vote should establish momentum, she said. "If voters make it clear" how they stand on the issue, "the Senate will look like a bunch of complete idiots if they don't pass it," Fuller said.
"I'd be ecstatic" if the bill became law, Fitzkee said. "I think this will be our year."
Paula Wolf is a staff writer for the Sunday News. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.