Young Birds (and Germs) Sent From All Over the World
Pigeons from 36 countries are sent to compete in the SAMPDR, in which the vast majority of them will die. Baby birds as young as 4 weeks old are quarantined for a month in their own countries before being airfreighted to South Africa in cramped crates. When they arrive at their destination, these stressed birds from all corners of the world are quarantined again. As they’re all housed together in the same loft, it’s easy for them to transmit pathogens to one another as well as to wild and farmed birds. These pathogens include viruses that can infect humans, such as those that cause avian flu and Newcastle disease, which also poses a catastrophic threat to birds in the meat and egg industries.
More than 1,000 pigeons who were quarantined together, died before training and racing had even begun.
The managing director of the SAMDPR admitted that at the 2020 race, “We had a terrible virus that decimated our loft.” And the head trainer said that up to 1,200 pigeons perished in quarantine: “[Y]ou can do nothing. You go with a bag in. You take them. You throw them in the dustbin.”
All eight birds sent by the Queen to participate in the SAMDPR in 2020 died during the quarantine period in South Africa.
Massacres Masquerading as 'Sport'
Pigeons who survive quarantine are forced to participate in daily training flights and races under the blazing South African sun. These flights become progressively longer and harder, building up to the main race. Many die en route and never make it back to the loft.
Some birds become disorientated or succumb to the exertion and the sweltering conditions and endure a slow death from exhaustion, dehydration, or starvation.
Others hit power lines or are attacked by predators.
On average, only 22% of the birds entered into the competition survive to the end of the final race. Pigeon fanciers have a term for this kind of event – they call it a “slaughter race”. In 2020, the organisers made a last-minute decision to extend the race to over 370 miles, despite forecasts of extremely high temperatures, and only three birds in the championship race managed to return to the home loft on the day of release.
In the pigeon-racing industry, if birds don’t rank well in races and aren’t selected for breeding, breeders break their necks. Hundreds of thousands of birds who don’t make the grade are killed this way every year. One pigeon fancier told the PETA US investigator, “If you can’t kill a pigeon, you will never be a pigeon fancier and you will never become a top pigeon fancier. If you can’t wake up in the morning saying, ‘What pigeon am I going to kill this morning?’ you will never be a top [pigeon fancier].”
The 'Winners' Lose, Too
The “winning” birds who make it to the end of the race are auctioned off to become what the industry calls “prisoners”. They’ll be bred repeatedly in pigeon-breeding mills – often inbred with their own offspring and siblings. The Queen also keeps “prisoners” and auctions them off to other breeders.
These birds are never allowed to fly out of the loft and are killed as soon as they stop producing “good” offspring. The poet William Blake wrote of the cruelty of this captivity:
A Dove house filld with Doves & Pigeons
Shudders Hell thr’ all its regions
The Queen Is Patronising This Cruelty
The Queen has long been a pigeon fancier and a patron of many UK pigeon-racing associations, and she has around 200 pigeons in her loft at the Sandringham Estate.
The Royal Loft sends six or eight birds to the SAMDPR every year. Out of the 42 birds sent in the last six years, just 23 survived quarantine and only five finished the competition alive.
The Queen’s birds are also entered into other extremely cruel races in the UK and Europe. One race from France to the lofts at Sandringham is around 680 miles long. These races include a harrowing portion in which the birds must fly over the English Channel – known as the “graveyard” because deaths are so commonplace.
Pigeons flying over the channel are forced to fly low over the water to avoid strong headwinds, and many are struck by waves or, exhausted and disorientated, try to land on the water and drown. The Queen’s birds will also be entered into the next edition of the Barcelona International One Loft Race, a 795-mile “ultramarathon” in which they’ll have to cross the Channel in the last 100 miles.
Other Dirty Secrets
At the SAMDPR, pigeon racers gamble extensively and apparently illegally on the preliminary races and the main race. Participants have also admitted to alleged tax evasion, money laundering, and violating exchange-control rules. The winner of the 2011 race stated that the pigeon trade is “better than diamonds” for evading authorities when moving money between countries.
PETA US is submitting legal complaints about these alleged financial crimes. Its previous exposés of illegal gambling on pigeon races in the US and Taiwan resulted in criminal charges for 242 organisers and racers.
The president of South Africa, Cyril Ramaphosa, plans to enter the SAMDPR in the future and potentially host his own pigeon race. He is building a loft and has bought pigeons to breed. He wants to keep this hidden from the media, according to his loft manager, who told PETA US, “[L]ots of things I do on the phone … are under the radar. Because we don’t want to be in the newspaper – ‘The president buy[s] a dove for a million rand …. He don’t feed the poor and now he buys a dove for a million rand.’ … Ya, none of the things he buys can go under his name.”