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Pigeons and Horses at the Intersection of Oppressions

Guest post by Mark Hawthorne

Few practices seem as cruel to me as using another species for human pleasure. Add a layer of abuse based on an animal’s sex, and the exploitation becomes downright insidious. Though we need look no further than hens’ eggs and milk from cows to illustrate this point, digging a bit deeper into the hidden world of animal suffering reveals how abusers perpetuate a system of domination and control via sports and recreation. Indeed, as we examine these activities as a form of oppression, it’s not hard to see how speciesism and sexism intersect.

Although this topic merits extensive discussion, I’m going to limit this post to two examples: pigeon racing and horse fighting, both of which exploit the females of the species.


At VINE Sanctuary, unreleasable pigeons –including survivors of pigeon shoots and pigeon racing– fly and socialize inside the safety of a spacious aviary.

Pigeons are among the world’s most maligned animals, often referred to as “rats with wings”—a characterization that manages to demean two species at once. Pigeons are actually very clean animals and are no threat to human health. But because they tend to congregate (and defecate) in public spaces, people frequently consider them a “nuisance.”

Sadly making these birds easy to exploit are their uncanny ability for navigating long distancesi and their reputation as extremely devoted partners—in fact, pigeons will generally mate for life.ii Both qualities come into play for those who race pigeons.

The “sport” of racing pigeons—who are timed as they fly a specific distance, often hundreds of miles—has a long history, possibly dating back 2,000 years. At some point in the 20th century, pigeon fanciers (as they like to call themselves) developed a technique called “widowhood,” in which the bonded hens and cocks are kept apart in separate lofts during racing season and only brought together for a few minutes before and after a race. The cock reportedly flies home faster to be with his mate, who is thus used as an object of motivation. Some racers take advantage of the hen when the pair is incubating a clutch of eggs about to hatch: the hen is forcibly separated from her mate and eggs, taken a carefully measured distance away, and then set free to fly home. As one pigeon-racing site puts it, “The hen will now be eager to get back, if racing, because she will want to be back with her eggs and to see her mate; she will race like her life depends on it!”iii

In the coop inside the aviary, nesting boxes mimic the cliff-side hollows in which these birds would naturally nest.

In the coop inside the aviary, nesting boxes mimic the cliff-side hollows in which these birds nest.

It’s not difficult to imagine that pigeons suffer emotionally and psychology from this kind of abuse. Not only is it painful to be separated from one’s family, but these animals have a level of self-awareness that must surely add to the misery, as they are without question cognizant of what’s happening to them. Pigeons recognize images of themselves—a capability shared by chimpanzees, dolphins, and elephantsiv—and recent studies show that pigeons use a spatial map, a kind of natural GPS that is well beyond the capabilities of humans, to find their way home, indicating the birds possess considerable cognitive ability.v

Moreover, racing is a very dangerous “sport” for pigeons. Hazards include hawks and other predators, inclement weather, flying into unseen objects, and death at the hands of the humans forcing them to race—birds who don’t meet an expected level of performance are summarily killed.

While there are enough nests for each bird to have his or her own, they often choose to pair up.

While there are enough nesting boxes for each bird to sleep solo, they often choose to pair up.

Another pastime that exploits the females of a species is horse fighting. These are gruesome competitions—held in China, Indonesia, the Philippines, and South Korea—featuring two stallions provoked into fighting by the presence of an in-season mare, who is tethered in the middle of the arena and often sustains serious blows as the sexual rivals rear up and pummel each other with their hooves, explains veterinarian Dino Yebron with the nonprofit Network for Animals. “That mare,” he says, indicating a terrified horse staked to the ground at one event, “has been out there in the sun all day. There may have been 10 or 12 fights. She’ll have been mounted as many times…. You might say she’s gang-raped. And she’ll also be bitten, scratched, and kicked as the stallions fight it out. There’s nothing noble or natural about the horse fight. This is a purely induced anger.”vi

In addition to the physical pain she suffers, mares are also injected with hormones to keep them in heat for longer periods.vii The stallions, meanwhile, lash out at each other until one of them is either too wounded or exhausted to go on or succumbs to his injuries. Wildly cheering spectators bet on the outcome, and the “owner” of the winning horse stands to earn a large cash prize. In China, where these equine bouts are part of rural festivals, organizers sometimes add another cruel twist: losing horses are barbecued and eaten by spectators.viii

It’s no coincidence that men dominate the worlds of pigeon racing and horse fighting…. the intersection of sexism and speciesism helps blur lines and create a false premise in which no female—human or nonhuman—is seen as having complete control over her body.

It’s no coincidence that men dominate the worlds of pigeon racing and horse fighting. Sexism and speciesism are both rooted in a patriarchal system of oppression in which men have historically been regarded as the ones who control women and animals, subjugating them both. In such a social system, the dichotomies of man/woman and human/animal are so entrenched that their boundaries are virtually undetectable. Furthermore, within such a system, the intersection of sexism and speciesism helps blur lines and create a false premise in which no female—human or nonhuman—is seen as having complete control over her body. As such, those with privilege and power not only confine and manipulate cows and hens for their milk and eggs, but exploit a host of female species for fleeting pleasure.

Of course, recognizing the intersectionality of oppression is only the beginning. As a white man of privilege, I must acknowledge whatever role I’ve played—consciously or otherwise—in perpetuating the marginalization of others, and I encourage all men to seek a deeper understanding of social systems that build hierarchical power structures. We must challenge these systems and help to create alliances among those who fight injustices such as sexism and speciesism.

As proud as I am at times of the animal protection movement and its victories, I believe it has fallen short when it comes to true liberation. So, men, please confront the status quo. We’re obliged to understand, for example, how our attitudes and actions enable sexism and violence—and then to focus on changing those attitudes and actions. We must continue to educate ourselves by reading books and essays about gender inequality and the root causes of violence. And we should never tolerate sexist jokes, nor any brand of humor that demeans human or nonhuman animals.

Creating a world in which everyone is treated with respect and compassion is indeed a colossal undertaking. But we can accept nothing less.

Mark Hawthorne is the author of Striking at the Roots (a compendium of activist tactics)  and, most recently, Bleating Hearts, in which he uncovers many other little-known forms of animal exploitation.

VINE Sanctuary thanks our friend Mark for sharing this information and his own reflections. Click here to read more blog posts concerning intersections between speciesism and other forms of oppression. Visit the Connections section of our main website for even more thought-provoking analyses as well as links to further readings. If you appreciate our intersectional approach to animal advocacy, please consider supporting or volunteering  for the sanctuary.


i Pigeons employ a range of skills, such as using the sun as a guide and an internal “magnetic compass.” A study at Oxford University found that pigeons will also use landmarks as signposts and will travel along roads and highways, even changing direction at intersections.



iv Professor Shigeru Watanabe of Keio University in Toyko, who carried out a pigeon study in 2008, said, “The pigeon could discriminate the present self-image and the recorded self-image of the past with a few seconds delay, which means that the pigeon has self-cognitive abilities.”

v James A. Foley, “Homing Pigeons Use ‘Mental Map’ to Find Their Way Home,” Nature World News, July 27, 2013.

vi Stanley Johnson, “Brutality and the Beasts,” The Sunday Times Magazine, July 8, 2012.


viii Barry Wigmore, “Horror as Chinese horses are forced to fight to the death,” Daily Mail, November 30, 2007.

13 comments to Pigeons and Horses at the Intersection of Oppressions

  • Thank you- thank you VERY much for speaking out against these cruelties and on behalf of these innocents- and so many others.
  • Thank you for your comment, Elizabeth. And thank YOU for all you do on behalf of our feathered friends.
  • Lucy Kaplan
    Thank you so much, Mark, for exposing details and linkages. Let your invaluable observations and sensitive analysis open many still-closed eyes and hearts.
  • Thank you so very much for your writing, compassion and caring. I hope you will share the quotes below with others. Please send my regards to Lauren.

    “It is truly time for all society to see animals as more than mere commodities or property to be bought or sold, exploited or killed at a ‘owners’ whim. I am proud to be the guardian of my animal companions.” Gretchen Wyler, Founder of the Genesis Awards, and former Vice President, HSUS Hollywood Office.

    “Harboring the idea of owning another living being is in itself an act of violence, and our outer violence toward nonhuman animals, which is so devastating to us all, springs from this idea. The vegan ideal of compassion for all life has as its core this same idea: that we are never owners of others. We can be their guardians, companions, friends and protectors, and this blesses us far more than we might think. The move from “owner” to “guardian” frees both the “owners” and the “owned,” and establishes the foundation for peace, freedom, and justice. We are all harmed by the culturally mandated ownership mentality that reduces beings to mere commodities, whether for food, clothing, entertainment, or the myriad of other uses. It is long past time for us to awaken from the cultural trance of owning our fellow beings, and instead see ourselves as their guardians. This is the very essence of compassion, sanity, and healthy relationships with nonhuman animals and with each other. I am grateful for and support IDA’s Guardian Campaign as an essential step in our individual and collective evolution to a brighter tomorrow for our children, and for the children of all our fellow beings.” Dr. Will Tuttle, author of the #1 Amazon best-seller, The World Peace Diet, and recipient of the Courage of Conscience Award.

    “One of the most destructive words we use when we speak of nonhuman beings, is “owner.” The notion that other species are “property,” or commodities or things that we can “own,” underlies every instance of animal abuse and exploitation. If we refer to ourselves as “guardians” rather than “owners,” we begin to get to the root of the problem instead of putting out endless brushfires; we are reminded of our truest values as compassionate individuals. And each time someone reads or hears “guardian” in our public and private discourse, there will be a tiny spark of recognition that we are talking about a role that requires responsibility, compassion and care.” Jan Allegretti, Founder, C.A.R.E.

    “The animals with whom we share our homes and planet have been considered and treated as mere property, commodities, objects and things for far too long. Because of this disrespectful and hurtful mindset, untold billions are forced to bear unimaginable cruelty, suffering, exploitation and death for a myriad of reasons at the hands of our species. It is time for each one of us to do all in our power to foster in ourselves and others a more respectful, just and compassionate relationship with other species, through our words and actions; to urge others to think and act as “guardians” and “friends;” never as “owners” or “masters” of our fellow beings.” Elliot M. Katz, DVM, Founder, Guardian and President Emeritus, In Defense of Animals.

  • Jo Ward
    I knew about the absurd horse fighting…horrible and stupid… I did not know how the pigeons were treated. I am shocked to say the least….so glad to get the right info on this.

    Thank you!

  • Thank you, Lucy. I too hope it helps open eyes and hearts!
  • Thanks for your comment, Elliot, and for sharing the thoughts of others. Of course, I agree nonhuman animals should not be the property of humans, which is one reason I put “owner” in quotation marks.
  • Hi, Jo. Yes, there’s a world of senseless suffering out there. I am so thankful that VINE Sanctuary is working at the intersection of oppressions; they give me hope.
  • And here I thought the worst they do to pigeons are the live shootings that occur in Pa. I never imagined that they’d steal eggs and use mating imperatives to manipulate them too.

    It’s clearly evident too that the wicked treatment to horses goes beyond the round-ups, rodeos, carriages and premarian. In fact the list of horrors is seemingly endless.

    Thank you for being courageous enough to draw the parallels to all subjugation, exploitation and victimization that is forced on to the female sex no matter what species. I know it isn’t all men. It is the ill culture. There are good guys too… Mark Hawthorne you prove that time and again. Thank you.

  • Heartfelt thanks, Bea. These insidious abuses are just so hard to fathom. I mean, it’s all for human entertainment! I really appreciate your comments and all you do to fight injustices.
  • CQ
    Mark, it’s sickening to read about the poor pigeons’ incentives for flying their hearts out. Before reading this, I sensed there was plenty wrong with the “sport,” but never took the time to learn the details. (This blog is being forwarded to a friend who commented on pigeons to me the other day.)

    Nor, for that matter, did I realize that in human-coerced horse fighting the mare is made to stand there for hours on end and endure as much suffering as the two stallions.

    Thank you so much for making us aware of not only the brutality of each “entertainment” but also of the all-important intersections. (I’d also like to thank bravebirds pattrice and Miriam for hosting Mark’s guest blog.)

    Elliot, I’ve saved those excellent “not owners of animals” quotes for future reference. And I join you in sending my best to lauren. (Slightly off-topic, but not really: lauren helped me some vegan cookie companies that buy chocolate only from fair trade sources. As a result, I’m switching from to when my ABC cookies are all gone.)

  • Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, CQ — and for sharing this post with others. Thank you also for caring so much about the chocolate issue.
  • thank you so much, mark, for covering this cruel topic, and for the parallels between sexism and speciesism. my friend had a pigeon companion for 12 years, and she’s the first one who told me about pigeon racing, before i wrote to you on facebook. i didn’t know about horse fighting before, either, and while none of it comes as a surprise, knowing about what humans do, it nonetheless makes me hurt, shake my head, wonder how long it will ever take to see a world where all creation can thrive.

    it’s been said that humans are naturally compassionate. that’s why we cover up the atrocities of factory farming, so that we block the truth, so that [we] humans can eat other beings without guilt. but how can we ever, ever think that humans who engage in such victimization for sport are compassionate “deep down inside”? how?

    and the animal researchers? hunters and seal clubbers? poachers? and the whole range of those who subscribe to a belief system that values monetary gain at any and every cost?


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