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Pigeon racing is hardly the same as cockfighting

PETA are campaigning to have pigeon racing outlawed, but I just can't get behind the idea that this is a barbaric sport

Among my various ailments, neuroses and other assorted psychological disorders, it seems that I may suffer from peristerophobia.

This is an extreme fear of pigeons, and while my symptoms may not be so acute that I can't walk in a London park, my idea of a living hell would be to find myself in any kind of confined space with a pigeon flapping around.

This happened to me last week in a cavernous shopping centre, and it was a horror on a Hitchcockian scale. I realise I am not alone in disliking pigeons - the poor things are the outcasts of the avian kingdom, blamed for spreading disease through their droppings, held accountable for damaging property and usually regarded with the same affection as rats or spiders.

Throughout Britain, there are more than 18 million feral pigeons, and they are one of the few species of birds officially recognised by the government as a nuisance pest. And while I may not have been Ken Livingstone's most ardent fan when he was Mayor of London, I wholeheartedly supported him in his war against the pigeons occupying Trafalgar Square - there was believed to be a flock of 4,500 who regarded it as home - and his ban on feeding the birds has, in most rational people's view, improved the quality of life in this part of central London.

So it was through this prism that I viewed with indifference the news that the animal rights group PETA are campaigning to have pigeon racing outlawed. I would regard myself as a caring, sharing citizen and, as an animal lover, I applaud some of the work done by PETA, but I'm afraid I just can't get behind the idea that this is a barbaric sport, up there with cock-fighting and bear-baiting.

And it's not just for the simplistic reason that I don't care for pigeons. I am aware, also, that racing pigeons, carefully bred and lovingly cossetted, are highly-evolved specimens, quite unlike the street-dweller of my nightmares. PETA (an organisation, it should be remembered, which believes no animal should be bred for human consumption and which is against the keeping of household pets) claims that pigeon racing is inherently cruel because of the numbers of birds lost - presumed dead - in competition. They also have film which claims to show pigeon fanciers euthanising slow-flying birds by snapping their necks.

The head of the Royal Pigeon Racing Association admits that, among the 43,000 pigeon fanciers in Britain, there may be a tiny minority who mistreat their birds. "The vast majority of pigeon fanciers look after and take care of their animals - why wouldn't they?" That's the official view, and there is, equally, disagreement over the casualties sustained during races, with PETA's figures being disputed.

For obvious reasons, that is a hard one to prove either way. My feeling is that pigeon racing is an esoteric, lawful, engaging pursuit whose popularity is on a seemingly unstoppable downward curve. It will, for certain, die out eventually without a shove from PETA. But my liberal principles lead me to believe that, as long as the laws of the land are observed, people should have the freedom to follow whatever interest they choose.