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In the face of race bans, dwindling membership, and a low, low profile, metro Detroit’s pigeon racers struggle to keep the sport flying



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Reminded that many fliers don't much want to talk about pots, kitties, points or the like, Schmelzer laughs. "Everybody knows you bet on them," he says.

The schedule for any racing club is full of short races that help train the birds. But September's 43rd Motor City Race is the big kahuna, offering the biggest prizes. Unfortunately, in an unprecedented turn of events, almost all Midwestern pigeon racing has been halted due to an outbreak of bird flu since early June. (Bird shows and poultry exhibitions have also been casualties.) The news couldn't be much worse for the region's fliers.

Indiana's ban is expected to last six months. Ohio announced its own ban on June 2. Michigan announced the next day. The big race is off, and the already-embattled pigeon-racing scene is on lockdown. Officials did temporarily reverse the ban on pigeon racing in mid-June only to re-establish it a few weeks later, citing any commingling of birds, even in the air, as too dangerous to allow.

Karen Clifton, the executive director of the American Racing Pigeon Union, has been dealing with state officials regarding the bird flu outbreak. She's doing her best to go to bat for pigeon-racing clubs with state departments of agriculture, participating in conference calls with the USDA and trying to educate poultry-oriented officials about the finer points of racing birds.

That's important when industry efforts to eradicate a strain of flu can involve drastic measures. For instance, in 2002 and 2003, an 11-month outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease in California resulted in an eradication program that saw more than 3 million poultry destroyed, and California enacted a ban on moving all birds out of state. "The good news is California is a very long state so they could still get their races in," Clifton says.

But the strain of bird flu affecting the Midwest this spring is something else. "My understanding, through USDA sources and websites, is that approximately 50 million poultry — chickens and turkeys — have been destroyed. ... This is largely unprecedented," Clifton says.

The outbreak has effectively grounded all Midwestern pigeon clubs, given bans on crossing state borders with birds of any kind, and it affects Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. Precautionary measures have been taken in almost two dozen states, including many in the "Mississippi Flyway," a bird migratory route roughly following the Mississippi River. Fliers are allowed to let their birds out of the loft for exercise, but that's about it.

There's a possibility that the strain affecting edible birds may not affect pigeons as severely, though it would be a tough job establishing that to the USDA's satisfaction. Clifton says, "Pigeons are typically not susceptible to many if not most of the viruses that poultry are for a number of reasons. Their body temperature is in excess of 107 degrees. Their metabolism is so rapid that they shed anything that they might pick up, and if they're shedding it, they can't host a virus, therefore they can't transmit it. In fact, even the USDA has done studies where they've found a minuscule rate of occurrence with regards to bird flu. I'm hopeful that some solid science will support that fact. And I would hope that that would alter the way the officials respond to any future outbreak."

Advocating for pigeon racers with state agencies trying to fight a disease threatening an entire agricultural sector is no simple errand. Clifton has to be cautious, and she words her answers carefully. "We've been really trying to stand where the state vets want us to. The USDA has even indicated that they believe pigeons should be at the very lowest end of the list of species even remotely affected, but again at the end of the day it's up to each state vet to do what they feel they need to do, and they're taking precautionary measures."

Clifton also has to remain true to the people who have made the sport their life's passion, and some certainly feel it's overkill. "Oh, sure," she says. "They're passionate about their hobby. And if pigeons are susceptible, you would think by now, with the outbreaks that have occurred, that there would be feral pigeons that would be found all over the place that had been impacted by this strain, and that's not the case. However, on the flip side of that, our members by and large want to be part of the resolution, not the problem. They also respect that the poultry industry is huge and their various officials are doing what they feel they need to do to protect a multibillion-dollar industry. So while our members may not really like it, they do understand and they're willing to be responsible. It could be much worse. Conceivably, the state governments could order that all the pigeons be euthanized."

If some metro Detroiter fliers characterized the pigeon racing scene as moribund to begin with, it doesn't help that they can't compete in 2015. It's one less season for the father-son bonding process that keeps the sport going. As both Fatalski and Schmelzer have pointed out, the scene is drying up as members age out without younger fliers to replace them. It's a phenomenon driven by several factors, not just the sport's lack of cachet among younger people who'd rather be snowboarding or surfing than cleaning up pigeon poop. As both men noted, the cost of the sport has gone up considerably. And there's little doubt that suburban sprawl has diffused the neighborhood and community energy that fed into pigeon racing's classic era. When Schmelzer lived on Harper Avenue in the 1940s, he could count eight families keeping pigeons; today, among the dwindling number of fliers, some will drive an hour or more to meet at the clubhouse.

That's why many consider the future of pigeon racing to be firmly in the hands of metro Detroit's Mexican community, made up of mostly 30-something fliers like Zamudio, family men poised to pass on the hobby to the next generation, men with deep ties to the sport and its place in their modern culture back home.

"I would say if you had to pick a nationality, it would be more Mexicans racing than anyone else I can think of. They actually they get together and party more than the rest of us," Fatalski says. "The Mexican Union Club is growing."

Eighty-nine-year-old Schmelzer agrees. "They're getting better and better and better, the Mexicans. I'd say most of them are in their 30s. They're young guys. But they're very cliquish." He quickly backs off and clarifies, "I shouldn't say that, because the Belgians and the Polish were very cliquish too at the time when we were growing up. Nationality meant a lot more than it does now. But Mexicans brought nationality back into it."

He adds, "And they talk about them now 'cause they're winning."

Zamudio is no longer with the Mexican Union Club — he says the duties of office were a chore — but the Mexican fliers seem more motivated by trophies and glory than points on the pot anyway.

"We fight for the trophy. I mean, we have prizes and stuff too, but it's mainly for the trophy," Zamudio says. "In other clubs, you can find fliers that fly one race that's big for the money, even if they have 12 races. When we say we are gonna have the first race on a certain day, 95 percent of the guys are ready."

Asked about being grounded by the government this season, he admits he misses racing. "Flying is the top of the mountain," he says. "You can work all the time breeding the winner, trying to make your best pairs, and it's fun, but nothing compares to when you see a bird coming back from the race. I can't tell you how you feel expecting your baby to be home, and, of course, to be the first. And you don't imagine how you relax sitting in a coop. Sometimes, when I come home from work, or I got some discussions in my family, you just get out, get into the pigeon loft, and it's certainly therapeutic. You touch the birds. You look around at them and then you get more relaxed. You get out of your house and then you're calm."

And as for whether he thinks Mexicans in metro Detroit can carry the sport on for another generation despite the hurdles, the way the Belgians and Polish did before them...

Zamudio smiles and says, "I can answer that question in 20 years. But I hope so. It's a pretty good sport."

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