On crisp fall weekends on the banks of the Delaware River in Bensalem, sportsmen gather at the Philadelphia Gun Club and enjoy an activity their forebears have shared for 135 years: Releasing pigeons into the air, and then shooting them dead.
For at least two dozen of those years, animal-rights activists have been trying — and, generally, failing — to stop them. Now, a settlement with an environmental group could put a wrinkle in a practice so far untouched by lawsuits, animal-cruelty citations, public-shaming campaigns and legislative efforts. Or, then again, it might not.
In March, the Delaware Riverkeeper Network sued the gun club in federal court, demanding it get a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for the privilege of dumping shot, casings and carcasses into the water. Last week, the club agreed to a settlement: apply for the permit and pay the Riverkeeper’s $15,000 in legal costs. “Today is a good day — the River’s voice has been heard!” Riverkeeper Maya Van Rossum said in a statement.
John Judge, a lawyer for the club, saw it differently: “This was a nuisance settlement … a cost-effective resolution.” After all, in the scope of the “nuisances” the club has faced over the years, $15,000 was a small price. Chief among those nuisances is Showing Animals Respect and Kindness (SHARK), a national group with a penchant for taking boats out on the river to film pigeon shoots and recover wounded birds. Steve Hindi, who heads SHARK, says he’s also begun sending video cameras on remote-controlled aircraft above the clubs, though sportsmen have, at times, taken aim at the drones.
Not all confrontations are by proxy. Hindi says sportsmen have responded less than genteelly, “pulling guns on us, hitting us with their vehicles.” (Hindi has, in turn, has been accused of hitting a gun club member with binoculars.) But what happens behind closed doors infuriates him most: “Those Philadelphia Gun Club folks have got a lot of money and a lot of political pull, and they’ve used it.” That’s the only way he can explain the fact that, despite numerous citations against the Bucks County club and another in Berks County by court-appointed Humane Society police officer Johnna Seeton for failing to euthanize wounded birds, district attorneys in both counties haven’t prosecuted. Seeton sued the Berks County DA to force him to act, but recently lost in a 4-3 vote in Commonwealth Court; she’s appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Until then, Seeton is trying to get a bill passed to ban the shoots. So far she has been outgunned. “Legislators … have said to me, ‘The time will come,’” she says. “I thought, ‘Why can’t it be now?’”
For her part, Van Rossum tells CP, if the DEP doesn’t act, she will. “[Shooting over the river is] totally inappropriate. If the DEP makes a decision … we don’t think fully complies with the law, then we are fully prepared to challenge the DEP’s decision.”