Mike Tyson's Animal Planet show about pigeon racing amounts to animal cruelty, says PETA
Earlier this month, Animal Planet announced plans to begin filming a new show, tentatively called "Taking on Tyson," in which boxing champion Mike Tyson will showcase his new and unorthodox hobby: pigeon racing.
Tyson is apparently a longtime pigeon fancier -- according to the network, his first fight as a child was waged in defense of his pet birds -- but has never before participated in a competitive pigeon-racing event. "Taking on Tyson" will follow the world's most famous ear-biter as he takes on a new, presumably less violent, sport.
Tyson, who refers to the show as "monumental," professes to have a deep affection for the birds he'll be racing. "I feel a great pride acting as an official representative for all the pigeon fanciers out there," he said in a statement. "I want people to see why we love these birds."
But some other prominent bird lovers are less than thrilled at the prospect of the show and the increased visibility it will lend to pigeon racing, a sport they say is inherently cruel to birds.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals responded to Animal Planet's announcement by firing off a letter to the Brooklyn district attorney's office -- "Taking on Tyson" is to be filmed in New York -- asking for an investigation into its production.
In the letter, PETA attorney Jeffrey Kerr writes that "[it] is likely that extensive wagering will take place on the outcome of these races, as is customary in the industry, in violation of New York law."
Further, given that Tyson will presumably be paid for his participation in the show that bears his name, such payment "is itself a monetary reward derived from racing animals, which is illegal in New York" (with the exception of horse racing), PETA president and co-founder Ingrid Newkirk argues in a blog post published on the website Change.org.
In addition to its allegations about gambling and Tyson's paycheck, PETA argues that racing pigeons amounts to animal cruelty. "It can only be a traumatic experience, as evidenced by the fallen pigeons who succumb to storms, shotgun pellets and collisions with high-tension wires and who are often found starving, exhausted and a long way from home," PETA's Logan Scherer writes on the group's blog.
Beyond the dangers inherent in flying long distances, PETA claims, many pigeons that are unsuccessful as racers are put to death for their deficiencies. "People who race pigeons consider that the standard operating procedure is to wring the necks of pigeons that aren't good at it, pigeons that won't win you prize money," Newkirk told the Washington Post.
Pigeons, PETA says, are intelligent creatures with cognitive abilities rivaling small children's. A 2008 study out of Tokyo's Keio University found that the birds could distinguish between live and tape-delayed video images of themselves, demonstrating cognition one scientist involved with the study described as being more advanced than that of the average 3-year-old human.
Responding to PETA's allegations about the wagering on the races shown in "Taking on Tyson" and concerns about the treatment of birds on the show, an Animal Planet representative sent a statement to Entertainment Weekly "to clarify that for ["Taking on Tyson"], there have never been any plans for wagering on the pigeon races. We have not yet begun filming but, rest assured, all of the pigeons that we will feature in the program are cherished and respected by their owners, including Mr. Tyson. Animal Planet will honor that respect and care in our production and in how these beautiful creatures are treated."
But Animal Planet's promise of fair treatment for the avian costars of "Taking on Tyson" isn't enough for PETA. Newkirk's blog post concludes with a warning that the show is likely to produce an effect similar to the "101 Dalmatians syndrome" that's often cited by pet rescuers as a cause for animal abandonment. Many moviegoers who see a charming and well-behaved animal actor of a particular breed or species are apt to purchase one for themselves, the "101 Dalmatians syndrome" thinking goes, only to discard the animal later when they discover that the real-life animal is more difficult to deal with than its movie-star counterpart.
"Many of [Tyson's] fans will casually acquire birds and then quickly tire of the idea," Newkirk writes. "Animal Planet will do viewers and pigeons a terrible disservice if it airs this show, as it will sentence countless birds to a life in a cramped cage and ultimately a bad end."
-- Lindsay Barnett
Photo: Tyson attends an Italian talk show on Jan. 22. Credit: Danilo Schiavella / European Pressphoto Agency