Farm Sanctuary, Then and Now: Celebrating Another Year of Compassion

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What is a notable challenge that you have faced? How did this experience shape you as an advocate and activist and influence the way you interacted with others moving forward?

The Hegins pigeon shoot in Pennsylvania was a focus of the animal rights movement in the late 1980s. It was an annual community fundraiser centered around shooting pigeons and drinking beer. Animal advocates began showing up to protest with the intention of stopping the killing. We would vocally demonstrate our opposition and disgust with the event, often resulting in open conflict with its participants. Various arrests were made over the years as police tried to maintain order in the midst of what became a volatile environment. The violent circus atmosphere attracted shoot supporters who enjoyed the conflict, which made us realize that our confrontational approach was not having the intended result.

We decided to change our tactics; rather than fighting with shooters, we began documenting the violence of the pigeon shoot and rescuing injured birds. When the shooters and their supporters sought to fight, we refused. Unfortunately, the group began to take on more drastic measures to stir us up. They rushed to catch injured birds in order to prevent us from helping them. And they’d rip off the birds’ wings and bite off their heads, attempting to incite conflicts with us.

As the shooters escalated their confrontational tactics, however, we remained nonviolent and continued documenting their behavior. During the multi-year battle, Farm Sanctuary incorporated as a Pennsylvania law enforcement agency and filed cruelty charges, complementing other legal strategies underway to end the shoot. Our behavior came to be seen as respectable and responsible, and the shooters, still seeking to create violent confrontations, were behaving in abominable ways. Their position became less tenable and more desperate.

In the event’s final year, the shooters’ violence was continuously met with nonviolence, which ultimately prevailed. At the end of the day, after most people had left, a small group of animal advocates convened around a veterinary van where rescued pigeons were being cared for. When a group of frustrated shooters came over for one last try at stirring up a conflict we linked arms and turned our backs to them, placing ourselves between the shooters and the pigeons. Thankfully, the police arrived just as the shooters did and told them to disperse. It was a fitting end to an ugly event. This episode helped me understand the power of nonviolence in creating social change.

In the end, we were able to rescue dozens of pigeons, many of whom came to live at Farm Sanctuary. And if you visit our Watkins Glen shelter today, you can see the descendants of these Hegins birds.

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