DADE CITY — Back in February, the owners of some luxury lofts in north Pasco asked for permission to add countless new tenants.
At the time, no one seemed to give a hoot.
The loft owners were members of the Gulfcoast Homing Pigeon Club, and the tenants were their birds.
Club members wanted Pasco to reconsider the limit of 20 birds per acre that is spelled out in county code. Human neighbors registered no objections. Pasco officials were poised to lift the restrictions.
But last month, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals entered the picture, and they had serious allegations about pigeon racing, the sport of releasing the birds hundreds of miles from their homes and seeing which ones can return fastest.
PETA told commissioners in a letter that it was not an old-fashioned hobby but a potentially lucrative investment that puts money over the health of the birds.
What's more, PETA said, the industry is predicated on "unlawful racing, unlawful gambling and callously reducing intelligent and sensitive animals to nothing more than disposable commodities."
Gulfcoast homing members told the Pasco Times that PETA has got it all wrong: on the gambling allegations, on the cruelty allegations, on the money-making part.
"You don't make money racing," said Shady Hills resident Zig Vanderwall, 67, a club founder who has been raising pigeons since he was 9 years old.
Either way, county officials on Tuesday put the brakes on the proposed changes and decided to sort it all out at a public workshop they will schedule at a later date.
Pasco County has quietly become one of the top destinations for people who want to raise and train homing pigeons. Officials from the 200-member Gulfcoast Homing Pigeon Club say that most of them have moved to the area just to be in proximity to each other. And their bird lofts aren't cheap: Some cost as much as $50,000, said Vanderwall.
"We're pretty much the leaders in pigeon racing in the United States," assistant county zoning administrator Lee Millard told commissioners on Tuesday.
But in the July 13 letter to commissioners, PETA lawyer Jeffrey Kerr said Gulfcoast club trainers kill off the old pigeons to make room for the younger, faster ones.
"Nearly all of the surviving birds, most of whom are not even 1-year-old and remain healthy, will have their necks wrung by their trainers to make room in the lofts for the new arrivals because young birds are most lucrative," the letter says. "Only a select few winners and those chosen for breeding will be spared this death."
Vanderwall said that the accusation is false. He said birds race up till about the age of 3 and then they are used for breeding.
"We don't wring their necks," said Vanderwall. "I don't know where they got that."
PETA, which has gone after pigeon racers in other states, also says that the Gulfcoast club violates Florida law that prohibits any racing — other than horse and greyhound racing — that is conducted for any stake or purse.
Gulfcoast conducts one major race a year, which it calls "the largest and most prestigious futurity race in the country!"
The upcoming event in December features a $40,000 first prize for the pigeon that returns to Pasco first from a dropoff point roughly 300 miles away in Georgia. (The fastest ones will likely take less than six hours, said Vanderwall.)
Vanderwall said PETA is off-base in its assertions though. Only people who own pigeons qualify for the prize; no one could come off the street and place a bet as he could at a greyhound race.
"We do not gamble," he said. "There is an entry fee, just like at a bass tournament."
Vanderwall said pigeon owners from all over the country ship their birds to Gulfcoast trainers. Sixty percent of the prize money goes to the breeder and 40 percent to the trainer.
Prize money is collected from the $100 per bird entrance fee. Around 37,000 birds have been shipped here so far for the event, Vanderwall said.
The classic is the club's only big event of the year, he said. The prize in other smaller races is just a trophy.
Millard, the Pasco zoning official, said it's not just PETA complaining now. Some members of the Gulfcoast club have come forward to say the restrictions on the number of birds are needed, he said.
He said the county may want to consider making pigeon lofts subject to county inspections, limiting the size of the lofts and limiting the number of hours per day that the birds are exercised.
Commissioner Michael Cox said he was struck by the amount of prize money at stake, according to a flier for the club's December race.
"When this was originally proposed to us, it was presented to us in a way that it was people's hobby," he said. "This goes beyond being a hobby."
Jodie Tillman can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 869-6247.