Commentary by John Jalsevac

April 16, 2008 ( – “If only babies were pigeons.” It makes for the beginnings of a catchy nonsense rhyme, no? Something like this,

Oh, if only babies were pigeons
  What a wonderful world we’d live in,
  With babies a’ flyin’
  Instead of a’ cryin’
  And no more diaper changin’.

Or even better yet, in the spirit of Jonathon Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,”

Oh, if only babies were pigeons
  What a wonderful world we’d live in
  At noon I’d go shootin’
  With Vladamir Putin,
  By five we’d ‘ave a baby a’stewin’.

Do you remember that “Modest Proposal” of Swift’s? In the infamous satirical essay of that name Swift, the author best known for “Gulliver’s Travels”, suggested to the Irish public a simple solution to poverty – the culling of babies from poor families, and their subsequent stewing. Not only, he observed, would there be fewer mouths to feed, but the babies would help feed the poor that remained by being converted into a sumptuous and economical stew. A win-win situation. True, the idea of baby stew has always struck Swift’s readers as a tad grotesque, and therefore his proposal has never been implemented on a wide scale.

But what if, as my rhyme suggests, we lived in a world where babies were pigeons? Pigeon meat was once a staple food. Surely it could make a comeback. I envision pigeon stew restaurants on every street corner. With a lower population to feed, and more food to go around, world hunger would be practically eradicated overnight. In such a mythical world Swift’s prescient vision could finally be realized.

But then again, maybe not.

* * *

As I look over the news from this past week, it strikes me that pigeon stew isn’t as much the perfect answer to poverty as it might seem. Even if we lived in a world where babies were pigeons, instead of landing you a succulent specimen for dinner, a bout of pigeon hunting could very well land you behind bars.

In the first place there’s this story about four men in Pretoria, South Africa, who were arrested after they were caught shooting pigeons with their air rifles on the roof of a hospital. The men appeared in court last week on charges of attempted murder, cruelty to animals and the unlawful discharge of a firearm. What exactly the men were charged with attempting to murder isn’t clear, but by all accounts it seems to be the pigeons – though with 19 of the pigeons having “joined the bleedin’ choir invisible” (as Monty Python once put it), it’s hard to see where the “attempted” figures in the equation.

In the end, however, the judge had to let the killers go. Apparently the hospital had hired them to kill the birds. The fowl, the court was told, had been proliferating around the hospital premises, to the point where staff began to fear that their growing presence constituted a serious health hazard. Finally hospital officials decided to sanction the “killing spree,” as the Pretoria News referred to the incident, which term I last recall being bandied about in the media when a gunman opened fire on a classroom at Northern Illinois University, killing six of his classmates and teachers (The Pretoria News also referred to the pigeons as “pests”. Not pests, but “pests”, which are different from just plain old-fashioned, un-scare-quoted pests.). But never mind that.

A similar case involves a man in Kitchener, Ontario, who appeared in court on the same day as the South African men, also on charges of cruelty to animals. Apparently Jesse Parker neglected to check his pigeon traps, and a number of pigeons died due to starvation and dehydration. A neighbor across the way spotted the dead birds and called the humane society, and next thing he knew, Parker found himself in court. An autopsy conducted on the pigeons came back “inconclusive,” but Mr. Parker plead guilty anyway, and narrowly escaped the full weight of the law, which could have criminalized him for his pigeonophobic behaviour. Instead the judge was merciful and Mr. Parker was given a conditional discharge, and ordered to pay $200 to the humane society.

In yet a third story, this time out of Scotland, dozens of racing pigeons died last week in a fiery blaze. The cause of the fire is suspected to be arson. Joanna Wilson of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was enraged by the incident, and told the BBC, “These birds must have suffered horribly and whoever is responsible could be prosecuted for animal cruelty offences.”

All of which leads me to reconsider my Swiftian vision of a world in which babies are pigeons and poverty a thing of the past. Such a world, instead of leading to baby stew and the eradication of world hunger, could lead to something altogether unexpected – a world in which babies are vociferously protected by the law and the court of public opinion.

* * *

Consider that right now in Canada Conservative MP Ken Epp is trying to have passed his private members Bill C-484, the so-called “Unborn Victims of Violence” Act, which would make it a separate criminal act to harm or kill an unborn child during a violent attack on the mother. On the whole the bill is doing okay, but still faces strong opposition from those who believe it is the first step on the slippery slope to recriminalizing abortion. In the debate on C-484, abortion rights advocates have made perfectly clear their staunch opposition to giving any rights whatsoever to the human fetus, even if the fetus is wanted.

Should Epp’s bill fail, therefore, I would like to suggest my own “modest proposal”. I propose that Epp should altogether abandon his foolhardy effort to afford the fetus legal rights (or rather “right”, singular), which directly pits him against the powerful abortion lobby. Instead Epp should turn right around and introduce another private members bill, this time to have the unborn child legally recognized as a pigeon. In this way Epp would be opening the door to giving the human fetus a whole slew of rights, instead of just the one, narrowly limited right he is currently attempting to obtain for Canada’s unborn children.

In Canada right now the fetus finds itself in a legal twilight zone. It most certainly exists, but precisely what it is, is unclear. The fetus does not become a human person until birth, and what it is before then nobody knows. As a consequence, Canada’s unborn children have less protection under the law than Canada’s animals, even that lowliest resident of the gutter, the pigeon. This is the case even though the fetus is undoubtedly a living organism belonging to the kingdom animalia.

Hence, if we could only get the fetus legally defined as a pigeon (or a dog, or a cat, or a hamster, or a rat for that matter) what a step forward this would be for fetal rights. Fetuses would finally be recognized as equal to other animals (In fact, that could be our rallying cry: “Equality for all animals, no matter how human!”). And the law would protect the fetus from cruelty, as it does other animals.

Who knows, in no time at all maybe violent crimes committed against pregnant mothers would come to an end, and Epp’s goal would be realized. For who, except the most inhuman of criminals, would ever deliberately kill a poor, defenseless animal in that most vulnerable of places (their own mother’s womb), especially when they know that if they do they will have to answer to the law and the unforgiving court of public opinion? Of course, there is the further advantage that most abortion rights advocates are also strongly in favor of animal rights. A bill to recognize the fetus as an animal would receive overwhelming bipartisan support and be swept into law. And finally pregnant mothers would be able to rest assured that their unborn child is protected from cruelty and violence by Canada’s criminal code.

As odd as it may seem, then, the most accurate version of my poem (if not the most poetic), would go something like this:

Oh, if only babies were pigeons
  What a wonderful world we’d live in
  With the state’s laws protectin’
  The lives of our children
  All the way from conception.