There’s been a twist in the curious tale of a racing pigeon on death row after apparently flying 13,000 kilometres across the Pacific Ocean from the US to Australia.
The pigeon turned up in Kevin Celli-Bird’s backyard in outer-suburban Melbourne on Boxing Day, exhausted and weak.
Experts initially traced it to one that disappeared from a race in the US state of Oregon on October 29. They thought the pigeon – which Mr Celli-Bird named Joe after the US President-elect – had hitched a ride on a cargo ship.
But Joe’s feat also attracted the attention of the notoriously strict Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service, who called Mr Celli-Bird on Thursday with some bad news.
AQIS wanted Joe caught because it was worried about bird diseases he might be carrying.
“I said, ‘To be honest, I can’t catch it. I can get within 500 millimetres of it and then it moves’,” Mr Celli-Bird said.
He said quarantine authorities were considering using a professional bird catcher – and with that Joe was poised with a claw on death row.
The Agriculture Department, which is responsible for biosecurity, said the pigeon was “not permitted to remain in Australia” because it “could compromise Australia’s food security and our wild bird populations.”
“It poses a direct biosecurity risk to Australian bird life and our poultry industry,” a department statement said.
Mr Celli-Bird said the Oklahoma-based American Racing Pigeon Union had confirmed that Joe was registered to an owner in Montgomery, Alabama.
Mr Celli-Bird has been feeding Joe pigeon food every day, and the bird – which was initially exhausted and weak – had regained his strength.
“I think that he just decided that since I’ve given him some food and he’s got a spot to drink, that’s home,” he said.
Then came the twist. On Friday afternoon, the American group said it had determined the blue band on Joe’s leg – used to initially identify him – was a fake.
“What a relief to know that Joe the pigeon found in Australia is not a genuine AU band. The true band is in the US worn by a Blue Bar, not the pigeon featured in news photos about Joe,” it said in a Facebook post.
“The pigeon found in Australia sports a counterfeit band and need not be destroyed per biosecurity measures, because his actual home is in Australia.”
Also on Friday, the little-known Pigeon Rescue Melbourne said it wanted to help Joe out of his perilous position. It said it believed he was wearing a “knock-off American ring that anyone could buy”.
“We believe he is not an American pigeon at all – rather an Australian pigeon,” it said.
Earlier, Joe’s plight had attracted the attention of all sorts of people. Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley urged AQIS to “show some compassion” while Acting Prime Minister Michael McCormack was more brutal.
“If Joe has come in a way that has not met our strict biosecurity measures, then bad luck Joe,” he said.
“Either fly home or face the consequences.”
Australian National Pigeon Association secretary Brad Turner said there were genuine fears pigeons from the US could carry exotic diseases and he agreed Joe should be destroyed.
The animal rights group PETA said pigeon racing was a “cruel practice that kills hundreds and thousands of these clever birds”.
“If birds don’t rank well in races and aren’t selected for breeding, breeders break their necks,” Ms Rice said.
“We urge those who profit from Joe to allow this poor bird to retire,” she said.