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Taiwan Raid: Police Bust Pigeon Racers

Update: Huge progress! The Taichung District Prosecutors Office has charged 129 pigeon racers, including the president of the Fengyuan Pigeon Club, with gambling offenses and seized more than $2 million. This comes on the heels of the prosecution of three club officials and 32 pigeon racers from the Kaohsiung Zhong Zheng pigeon-racing club and the application for the confiscation of nearly $570,000 in illegal gambling funds. The total number of people charged is now 164—the most people who have ever faced prosecution as a result of a PETA investigation. 

PETA commends the efforts of authorities and is calling on them to finally hold pigeon racers responsible for massive death tolls in these races. A recent race series by the Zhong Zheng club started with 7,301 birds entered and saw only 36 birds return from the fifth race of the series, prompting the cancellation of the final two races because there were too few birds remaining.

Following PETA’s groundbreaking exposé and in response to a detailed complaint submitted to authorities, Taiwanese police raided at least three pigeon-racing clubs across the island, including the largest. Officials have now charged the president, secretary, and bookkeeper of the Kaohsiung Zhong Zheng pigeon-racing club, along with 32 alleged pigeon racers, and have applied for the confiscation of nearly $570,000 in illegal gambling funds. The tens of thousands of bird deaths per racing season are still being investigated by authorities for violation of Taiwan’s cruelty-to-animals laws.

More than a million homing pigeons die every year during Taiwan’s seasonal pigeon races, grueling sets of seven races over open ocean from ever-increasing distances. Young birds—not even a year old—are shipped out to sea, released in the middle of the ocean and forced to fly back home even in the midst of typhoon-strength winds. Most often, less than 1 percent of these highly intelligent birds complete each seven-race series; many drown from exhaustion, perish in the storms, or are killed afterward for being too slow.

PETA investigators went undercover at the largest pigeon-racing club in southern Taiwan from June to October 2013. They infiltrated this secretive industry, obtaining access to racing lofts, to “shipping night” (when the birds are registered and put in cargo crates), and even to a ship from which the pigeons were released. Investigators recorded officials and participants as they admitted to the millions of dollars in illegal bets and the massive losses of birds in this ruthless “sport.”

pigeon racing clubPETA
Click here to see more pigeon-racing images.

Top racers and high-ranking club officials admitted to deadly conditions for the birds, who fly with untreated injuries, without enough rest between races, and through heavy rainstorms. PETA investigators captured video of a race in which tens of thousands of birds disappeared in a matter of hours and were presumed to have drowned. Even birds who survive these extreme conditions may be killed or discarded by their owners if they do not make the qualifying time for the next race in the series. Pigeons are smart, gentle, and loyal birds. They bond for life and can live more than 20 years. Yet almost all of the birds who begin their lives as racing pigeons in Taiwan perish in their first year of life.

“It was raining pigeons—literally. I’ve never seen such a scene. Every one of them crashed onto the boat. … Some crashed into the ocean. … About one hour after the pigeon rain, you could see the whole surface of the ocean filled with dead pigeons.”

—Taiwanese fishing boat captain

Money—not just entry fees, but vast illegal wagers—fuels the multibillion-dollar pigeon-racing industry in Taiwan. Wealthy racers pay upwards of $100,000 for imported breeder birds, and top flyers admitted to making millions on a single race. “Prizes” such as refrigerators are listed on gambling sheets as a cover for the cash bets that are the main draw for these events. Racers boasted that government law enforcement “can’t catch us.” The chance to win staggering sums leads to extortion, drugging of birds, the kidnapping of birds for ransom, and the use of rigorous anti-cheating systems that involve RFID tags, multiple stamps on birds’ wings for identity, covering their leg ring numbers, and meticulously comparing photographs of the birds’ feathers.

An international web of commerce supports Taiwanese pigeon racing: Breeder birds are bought and sold for tens of thousands of dollars from U.S. and international dealers, then kept as “prisoners,” constantly reproducing while their offspring are serially exterminated in race after race. As a result of a previous PETA undercover investigation, a prominent U.S. racer and breeder who is involved in selling birds to Taiwan—along with the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, the largest pigeon-racing organization in the U.S.—recently pleaded no contest to charges of commercial gambling—the first time in history that anyone has been held responsible for illegal conduct associated with cruel pigeon races. Bieche Lofts, another top U.S. breeder, recently sold a prize-winning bird to a Taiwanese racer for an undisclosed price. An Idaho company called Dynamite is even producing a specialized pigeon feed for the Taiwanese pigeon-racing market. Millions of dollars fly in this business, but for the pigeons it’s always a losing bet.

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