In minutes, the opening salvo in the latest skirmish of the Pennsylvania pigeon wars was due to begin.
And there, a half-mile away across the Delaware River, lay ground zero.
Shrouded behind a long, 30-foot-high wall of pale fabric, the Philadelphia Gun Club looked fortress-like in the distance.
For decades, the club in Bensalem has been staging pigeon shoots that animal activists call cruel, savage and an outrage.
On the New Jersey side of the river, in Beverly, five of those activists stood watching Saturday as the clocks on their laptops ticked toward 9 a.m.
Armed not with shotguns but an inflatable boat and a drone-mounted video camera, they could barely contain their contempt for the men and women who fire at caged birds flung skyward by handlers.
“To any ethical hunters, they are the scum of the earth,” said Steve Hindi of Chicago, president of the Illinois protective organization known as Showing Animals Respect and Kindness, or SHARK.
They were there, Hindi said, to gather video evidence to try to persuade Pennsylvania lawmakers to ban the sport.
Just last month, the Senate voted 36-12 on a bill to enact such a ban. But days later, the Pennsylvania Flyers Victory Fund, a lobby for pigeon shooters backed by the National Rifle Association, handed $1,000 checks to 17 members of the House Rules Committee, and a $3,000 check to House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.
Turzai, who had promised a House vote, instead blocked the vote, and the bill died.
“These kinds of shoots should have ended before the 20th century,” Hindi said Saturday, sweeping his arm westward with an angry gesture that seemed to take in all of Pennsylvania, the only state that does not ban pigeon shoots by law.
Hindi, 60, and his fellow “investigators” insist such shoots are illegal anyway, because they violate the state’s animal cruelty laws.
Representatives of the Philadelphia Gun Club did not return requests Saturday for comment.
The animus between the shooters and their opponents runs deep. Funded by retired TV game-show host Bob Barker, SHARK not only monitors shoots but lobbies to ban such shoots.
The gun club responded by filing a federal lawsuit in April against five of SHARK’s investigators, seeking damages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for alleged harassment, intimidation, trespass and assault.
By 9:25 Saturday morning, however, no shotgun blasts were audible from across the river. SHARK’s operatives decided to investigate.
Like Hindi, Mike Kobliska had traveled from Chicago to monitor the shoot.
At 9:48 a.m. the two men pressed buttons on their handheld remotes, and a $15,000 eight-bladed drone, or “octocopter,” three feet in diameter and equipped with a high-definition, remote-controlled Sony video camera, sprang to life.
The drone let out a moaning whir like the locusts of Exodus, rose to 326 feet and dipped toward the Bensalem shore.
Two minutes later, the club grounds were visible on the men’s laptop screens. But instead of revealing hunters with shotguns and crippled birds fluttering on the ground, the copter showed only empty lawn and shooting platforms and a vacant parking lot.
The club had evidently canceled the shoot, which had been announced on its website.
“It’s a victory of sorts if we can stop a single shoot,” said Hindi, who appeared disappointed. “It’s wonderful when not a bird is shot. But the only real victory is when this (is) stopped.”
He said his team would travel Monday to Western Pennsylvania to demonstrate against Turzai in his district and then Wednesday to Harrisburg, where they will show disturbing videos in the Capitol rotunda of pigeon shoots.