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"It makes you keep your shit together!" Smetana says bluntly. "With pigeons, I think, you either like 'em or you hate 'em. If you like 'em, they are really a big part of your life. Every day, you are thinking about the pigeons."
Brian Perin, who started the Bridger Mountain club in 1994, has been thinking about pigeons for the better part of 37 years. His connection to the birds started at age 13 when old-school pigeon guys took him under their wing. He now breeds the "mountain birds" he inherited from a World War II-era fancier with birds Smetana had shipped from his home village. He's already looking forward to this year's racing season, which starts in a few weeks with the club's training runs.
"It's kept me out of trouble a little bit," says Perin. "There's something about taking care of these birds—you bathe them, feed them, train them, breed them, race them—that grounds you."
Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson takes the connection to pigeons even further. One of the most feared boxers in history grew up in Brooklyn without a father. His mother died when he was 16. When he wasn't involved in neighborhood crime, Tyson says he turned to birds.
"The first thing I ever loved in my life was a pigeon," he said in a press conference announcing his new show. "I don't know why...I feel ridiculous trying to explain it. Pigeons are a part of my life. It's a constant with my sanity in a weird way; this is just what I do. If I'm lucky enough to die an old man, I'm going to have birds."
In fact, Tyson started fighting in part because of his love of pigeons. He purchased his first birds—more than $700 worth—at age 10 with money from a robbery. When neighborhood bullies learned of his new hobby, they attempted to pillage his coop. Tyson recalls screaming for his mother as one of the older boys literally ripped the head off of one of Tyson's pigeons and wiped the blood on Tyson's face.
"Some guy said, 'Fight him back.' So I started fighting," Tyson told The New Yorker, recalling the first punches he ever tossed. "I couldn't fight, but I was flailing away. I hit him more than he hit me. So I guess I won."
Tyson now runs lofts in New York, New Jersey and Nevada, and is considered the sport's biggest celebrity.
"Mike Tyson's experience was just like any of my friends'," says Jenner. "It's a moment a lot of young people understand—when you're looking for something to do, to explore...
"Well, at least with boomers, people my age," he adds. "Today, it's another story."
There's another common thread among fanciers besides the intense connection between them and their birds: The inability to impress that bond upon a new generation. Kids these days, for a multitude of reasons, don't seem to care about pigeons.
"They're just not interested," says Perin, who has conducted outreach programs with local 4-H groups through the Bridger Mountain club. "We try, but nothing seems to last. It's sad, really."
Jenner dedicated his latest film, Young Wings, to the issue. He attaches the disinterest in pigeon racing to the overall problem of children spending an alarming amount of time inside, a phenomenon known as Nature Deficit Disorder. It's why he volunteers his free time at the Philipsburg Elementary School, introducing pigeon racing to third, fourth and fifth graders. Over two years he says he's kept at least a dozen students engaged in the activity.
"What I'm trying to do, just a little bit, is to keep people aware that this species, these birds, it's a fascinating way to have nature in your life," he says.
But Jenner is the first to admit it's an uphill climb, especially in the United States. The American Racing Pigeon Union counts more than 10,000 registered members today, but the number of racers was up around 50,000 after World War II. A Belgium auction house set a new world record in January by selling 218 pigeons for $1.9 million during one auction, but the vast majority of buyers were from China–not the United States. Plus, it's telling that a cable reality show starring an aging boxer best known to younger generations for eating another man's ear (Evander Holyfield's) and singing a Phil Collins song (in The Hangover) signifies a monumental breakthrough for the sport.
"Let me tell you something; I get it. There's a lot at stake," says Vinnie Torre, the longtime New Jersey-based fancier responsible for mentoring Tyson on the new show. "The whole reason I got involved, the reason I agreed to this, it's because we were going to do it right, and respect the sport, and because we wanted more people to learn about what we're doing. Listen, pigeons are my life—my life—but not enough people do it anymore. I know that."