An animal-rights group is accusing an Oklahoma City company of supplying a Taiwanese gambling syndicate with prized pigeons used in grueling races in which millions of dollars are illegally wagered and many of the birds die.
Officials with the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals say a five-month investigation last year by the organization in Taiwan uncovered a multibillion-dollar industry centered on racing pigeons imported from all over the world, including from Oklahoma City-based Continental Breeding Station. Richard Mardis, former owner of the breeding business, already faces felony gambling charges in Oklahoma County as a result of another PETA investigation that authorities say exposed illegal pigeon races in Oklahoma.
“It’s not about specifically who is doing it; it’s about the fact that this activity is going on,” said Jared Goodman, PETA’s director of animal law. “This is a cruel underbelly to an activity that many people aren’t aware exists.”
Mardis, 66, of Oklahoma City, could not be reached for comment.
Conner Helms, Mardis’s attorney, said his client is innocent and discounted PETA’s investigation. He said the organization has focused on illegal gambling after being unable to convince any jurisdiction that the racing pigeons are being mistreated.
“Their fallback position is gambling, which they really couldn’t care less about,” Helms said. “They’re really just trying to stop this international sport.”
Mardis’s son, Steve Mardis, said he now owns Continental Breeding Station, which operates out of a residence at 14600 S Indiana Ave. Court records list the address as the home of Richard Mardis. Steve Mardis said his father is no longer affiliated with the company, but declined to say when he stepped down.
Steve Mardis said his company exports pigeons to Taiwanese racers. He said he was unaware of the most-recent PETA investigation, was unfamiliar with Taiwanese gambling and animal-cruelty laws and denied any wrongdoing. He declined further comment.
Pigeon racing is a popular hobby in the U.S., but in Taiwan it’s a high-stakes business, with links to organized crime and illegal gambling. Millions of dollars can be wagered on races and the sport has been beset with reports of race fixing and birds being kidnapped and ransomed or fed performance enhancing drugs.
During its undercover investigation in Taiwan, PETA alleged that pigeons less than a year old were shipped out to sea to fly back to their home lofts over a series of seven weekly races. It was common for less than 1 percent of the birds to survive, according to PETA. Thousands perished in typhoons or were swept underwater by waves and drowned. Others snagged their wings or legs on wires. Birds who returned rarely received appropriate veterinary care, and pigeons that failed to return within qualifying time often had their necks snapped, PETA said.
“PETA's investigators captured video of a single race in which tens of thousands of these highly intelligent birds likely died in a matter of hours in typhoon-strength winds,” Goodman said.
PETA officials also say they recorded top officials at Taiwan’s largest racing club admitting to sponsoring illegal gambling and misrepresenting the amount of money at stake. They also claim organizers concealed profits and that top government officials are involved.
PETA officials said they filed a complaint earlier this year with Taiwanese government officials who promised to investigate. PETA officials also alerted authorities in the United States, where several of the breeders are located.
Oklahoma hosts racing clubs
Oklahoma City sits at the center of American pigeon racing. The American Racing Pigeon Union, with 10,000 members in about 1,000 clubs nationwide, is headquartered in northwest Oklahoma City.
The state also is home to several pigeon-racing clubs, including the 23-member Pigeon Racers of Oklahoma, the largest in the Oklahoma City area.
In the United States, the year has two race seasons, each typically lasting six to eight weeks.
Pigeons less than a year old race in the fall. The “old-bird series” — those a year or older — compete in the spring. Club members meet before the season to decide race locations.
The first race typically is 100 miles. The distance then is increased 50 miles each week up to 600 miles. Some races can last more than one day.
The Racing Homer, a breed of racing pigeon, can fly 500 miles in a day under normal weather conditions, according to racing union officials. Pigeons are assembled the night before a race and then are driven to a starting point for release. Races don’t have finish lines. Instead, released pigeons fly to their owners’ homes, so some fly farther than others. Results are determined by global-positioning systems attached to the birds’ legs that measure yards-per-minute flown.
Local gambling investigation
In 2013, authorities charged Richard Mardis and two others with felonies for illegally wagering on pigeon races during a November 2010 convention hosted by the racing pigeon union at a downtown Oklahoma City hotel. The investigation started after PETA members attended the convention and then submitted evidence to police, including audio and video recordings.
Prosecutors alleged that organizers set aside a room for parimutuel betting and that the racing pigeon union kept 15 percent of all money wagered.
Karen Mae Clifton, 52, executive director of the racing pigeon union who helped organize the event, pleaded no contest to gambling in August 2013. She was placed on probation for a year, ordered to perform 35 hours of community service and pay $2,000 to a victim compensation fund.
James Orr Steele, 63, who was alleged to have collected bets, also pleaded no contest in August 2013. He also received probation and was ordered to complete 40 hours of community service and pay $2,300 to a victim compensation fund.
Mardis, who is alleged to have managed the racing side of the convention and overseen the distribution of winnings, has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in September. PETA officials said local authorities are aware that Mardis sold birds internationally.
Mardis faces up to 10 years in prison and a $25,000 fine if convicted of the gambling charges.
Helms said no illegal gambling took place at the hotel because he said Oklahoma’s legal definition of “bet” excludes entry fees and purses collected or paid during sporting competitions.
PETA officials disagree.
Clifton, who still leads the racing pigeon union, said she was unaware of the most recent PETA investigation.
Racing pigeons from companies like Continental Breeding Station can sell from $75 to $1,000 or more. Clifton said casualties during land races are rare. On occasion, hawks and other predators will snatch a pigeon. Birds race only during good weather, she said, and trainers give them plenty of food, water and medication.
Clifton said the union does not condone gambling on pigeon racing. Rather, prizes consist of certificates and bragging rights, she said.
It’s not about specifically who is doing it; it’s about the fact that this activity is going on. This is a cruel underbelly to an activity that many people aren’t aware exists.”
PETA’s director of animal law