Yesterday, a Dauphin County Magisterial Justice dismissed 83 cruelty charges associated with one of three remaining Pennsylvania pigeon shoots, filed by Humane Society Cruelty Officer Johnna Seeton. The charges were dismissed despite no defense being offered by the defendants. Few cases offer a better example of the need for legal and judicial reform in Pennsylvania.
I was not present for the case but I know Johnna Seeton. However, I doubt she presented a vacuous case and failed to hit on the key points of law. In fact, the key points of law should require a robust defense by the accused because they are so clear and so specific that they would mandate conviction unless a Justice or Judge chose to ignore or was ignorant of the law.
I will summarize this clear and unassailable case against pigeon shoots under Pennsylvania law. It will be a long summary, since there is a lot involved with making the case for illegality or denying the case for legality.
Doing nasty things to most animals (like shooting, stomping, cutting their heads off, leaving to suffer and die) is considered cruelty in Pennsylvania unless the activity is a legally protected activity. If you have been proved to have done these things, it is the requirement of the defendant in the case to show why their action was among the protected activities.
There are four protections from a charge of cruelty. They are: self-defense, normal agricultural activity, pest control and protection under Pennsylvania’s game code.
Let’s review some examples of how these protections would work. There is clear video of you beating a dog to death with a baseball bat. Barring any defense, you are guilty of cruelty. However, if you were being attacked by that dog and you were defending yourself with the baseball bat which happened to be there, you are not guilty of cruelty under the self-defense protection. Self-defense is rarely a defense because it generally quite clearly the case and would not be prosecuted.
Or, there is clear video of you shoving the head of a live domesticated turkey into a mechanical grinder. With no defense, you would be guilty of cruelty. However, if you were a turkey farmer fetching Sarah Palin her holiday meal, you would be not guilty under the normal agricultural practice protection. “Normal agricultural practice” is a powerful but rarely used defense, primarily since few cases are brought against farmers for actual practices and the State Humane Society Police Officer training program spends a great deal of time demonstrating the difference between the unpleasant and the illegal in modern farming.
Or, there is clear video of you drowning a cage full of white rats. With no defense, you should be found guilty of cruelty. However, if you showed your pest control license and the contract to exterminate the colony of feral escaped lab rats, you would be not guilty of cruelty. Because there is a clear contractual paper trail, pest control is rarely attempted as a defense in a real cruelty case.
Lastly, there is clear video of you shooting arrow after arrow into a turkey as it runs from you and slowly bleeds to death. If you offered no defense, you are guilty of cruelty. If you present your hunting license and say it was a wild turkey and you were just a terrible sportsmen, you are not guilty of cruelty under the game code protection. But you should probably still practice a little more.
In all of these cases, if there is irrefutable evidence of you performing these acts and you present no defense, you should be convicted of cruelty. Unless the Justice or Judge determines you somehow did not have the intent to commit an act of cruelty (maybe you were sleepwalking or had a brain tumor) or they simply ignore they law, you are guilty.
Which was the case in Dauphin? Under the four protections from cruelty prosecution, self-defense seems clearly not to be the case. Kamikaze pigeons? No. Normal agricultural practice? They don’t eat them or farm them and shooting them while little boys stomp them into the ground seems an unusual form of slaughter, so, no. Pest control? This one is sometimes brought up as a validation of shoots so we should look at it.
Pigeons are viewed as pests by many in the city and on farms. Pest control companies can, in fact, be contracted to remove pigeons and that may involve killing them. However, shoots aren’t held at pigeon infested gun clubs which are merely trying to rid themselves of “flying rats”. The birds used in shoots are trapped elsewhere, often from other cities and states, such as New York City. Pest control may be a defense if New York City tried to file cruelty charges against those who trapped the pigeons there, but it is quite clearly not a defense by those who purchase the “pests” from the trappers to shoot here in Pennsylvania. Pest control protection, out.
The one that most settle on is the protection under Pennsylvania Game Code. Most, including pigeon shoot booster and protector of all things involving bullets, the NRA, conflate Game Code protection with “sporting activity”. They are not one and the same. Dog and cock fights are “sport” to many. They are also illegal and a claim of the proud and long heritage of blood sports in Pennsylvania- and there is a long, long tradition of blood sports in Pennsylvania- does not offer a legal defense of the activities. Merely a shallow and immoral one. Sorry, NRA.
Pennsylvania’s game code, and the regulations promulgated under it, provide clear and explicit rules for which animals may be killed, in what way, at what time, and by whom. If I am in possession of a shot deer in June, it is considered prima facie evidence of a crime unless I can show that I shot it last November with a license and just pulled it from the freezer today. The killing or taking of virtually every animal in Pennsylvania, from fish to amphibian to reptile to birds to mammals, is regulated. Some have limits, some do not; but when they don’t, it’s clearly designated. Hate starlings? Go to town- it’s open season and there’s no limit! It’s in writing!
The Pennsylvania bag limits defined by the PA Game Commission clearly outline which birds may be taken (pheasant, grouse, quail, turkey, crow, starling and English sparrow). The Game Commission clearly states that “Waterfowl and Migratory Game Bird seasons will be established in accordance with Federal Regulations,” and pigeons are neither waterfowl nor migratory birds. And most importantly, the Game Commission states there is, “No open season on other wild birds or mammals.”
No open season on other wild birds. That means they cannot be killed under protection of game code.
No pigeon shooter has ever pointed to the place in the game code or regulation which permits pigeons to be shot. Therefore, based on the Game Commission’s own language, if it’s not explicitly permitted, there is no season on pigeons. If they are wild birds, they may not be shot. And if they are not wild birds, then normal cruelty law should obviously apply, just as it would for a chicken or a parakeet.
So, which is it? Wild or not? Which of the four defenses will be used if Game Code protection is not? Self-defense? Pest control? Normal agricultural practice? If pigeon shooters want these cases and this issue go away, simply point to the law that permits these shoots.
For these simple and explicit reasons, pigeon shoots are cruelty under current Pennsylvania law and have no protection under the exemptions to cruelty allowed under Pennsylvania law. Pigeon shoots are illegal. Period.
If Johnna made this case in court and no defense was offered, then the elected Justice made a willful decision to ignore the written law. As importantly and shockingly, Johnna’s case was the first to be permitted to go to trial, since charges in other counties have been blocked by elected the District Attorney in the two other counties where shoots occur (Berks and Bucks).
This is why Pennsylvania needs immediate cruelty law and judicial reform.