Lisa de Moraes reports on Animal Planet's upcoming 'Taking on Tyson'

By Lisa de Moraes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 16, 2010; C01

Animal Planet, the Silver Spring-based cable network that says it's the destination for animal lovers, announced Monday it has purchased a new TV series in which it will introduce Mike Tyson, the heavyweight pugilist and avid pigeon fan, to the competitive world of pigeon racing.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals says pigeon racing is like dog fighting, in that the birds are put into cruel circumstances for the sake of winning cash prizes for their owners, and those that don't prove themselves to be winners can expect to be killed.

Animal Planet says "Taking on Tyson" will introduce Tyson to an "intensely competitive and bizarrely fascinating" sport at which he hopes to become "crowned champion all over again." ("Taking on Tyson" will start filming this spring in New York City and will debut on Animal Planet in early 2011.) Animal Planet says the show "peels back new layers of the remarkable persona and deep humanity of Mike Tyson," and Animal Planet's general manager Marjorie Kaplan says that "Tyson's passion for his pigeons takes my breath away."

PETA finds its own reasons to gasp: "Animal Planet needs more programs in which people go to bat for animals like 'Whale Wars' and 'Animal Cops,' and fewer showcasing cruelty and profiteering at the animals' expense."

PETA President Ingrid Newkirk says of Tyson's breathtaking passion for his pigeons: "One wonders if Mike Tyson realizes that . . . these gentle, loyal birds who race their hearts out trying to get home to their life mates often end up lost in storms, or coming home just have their necks wrung for failure to beat their competitor's time."

PETA wonders if Tyson, in his anxiousness to rehabilitate his image, is being used to rehabilitate the image of a sport that needs instead to be exposed.

Tyson's is an image that has needed some serious brushing up. The failed marriage to Robin Givens, not to mention his rape conviction. On a lighter note, the ear biting!

These days, Tyson has been the subject of an adoring curiosity of a documentary, by macho iconographer James Toback. As for his acting career, Tyson has been playing himself for money -- most recently in a June '09 flick "Hangover," and in two cameos in the short-lived Fox comedy "Brothers."

"Pigeon racing is an extremely dangerous pursuit for the birds," explained Newkirk.

Pigeons, in this so-called sport, are thrown into a much larger playing field than, say, pit bulls. "They take them for great distances [as many as 500 miles] and see if they can come home," Newkirk says. "When they run into bad weather, this is considered, in pigeon-racing circles, a test of endurance -- if they can survive the storm, the wind, or whatever the hell they have to survive. Many of them don't."

Then there's the ultra-dark side of losing: "People who race pigeons consider that the standard operating procedure is to wring the necks of pigeons that aren't good at it. Pigeons that won't win you prize money," she said.

"Pigeons mate for life. They are very faithful. When they are dumped hundreds of miles away, maybe just one partner will make it back. Or maybe they have not released the other partner and the pigeon will desperately try to get home," Newkirk added.

The most common form of pigeon racing, Newkirk said, involves taking a bunch of birds and releasing them at a location very far from their home base. The birds wheel around in the air for a time, until they get their bearings from Earth's magnetic field and point themselves toward home.

According to a representative for Animal Planet, when the network was doing research to see if there enough "stories and characters" in the pigeon racing world to warrant an entire series, pigeon owners talked about the perseverance of the birds. One of them told a story about a pigeon that was trying to make its way home but could no longer fly and was found walking down the street.

"We are doing more controversial things" on Animal Planet, the rep explained to the TV Column, noting that the network has a stable-view series about racehorse jockeys, and that horse racing also has "a whole underbelly . . . but that does not mean it shouldn't be talked about."

Animal Planet's announcement of its new pigeon-racing competition series makes no mention of the whole "underbelly" thing. The release does, however, say that "to rear, train and race pigeons -- or 'homers' -- requires dedication, discipline, patience and tenderness."

"For many pigeon racers, these avian athletes are the kings of the bird world," the announcement says soaringly. "Their intelligence, spirit, titanic bonds of loyalty and astounding homing ability sets them apart from other birds. Pigeon fliers treat the birds like fine thoroughbred horses to dominate the racetrack."

Contacted about PETA's position on the new show, Animal Planet and Tyson's publicist, Tammy Brook, issued the following statement: "Everybody that knows Mike Tyson knows of his deep and abiding love for his pigeons. His birds are where he finds his solace and peace. He treats them with the utmost respect and care. Animal Planet will honor that respect and care in our production and in how these beautiful creatures are treated in 'Taking on Tyson.' "

An Animal Planet rep told the TV Column that pigeon racing is "for us, a whole new world. We don't know much about it." The rep said they are going to focus on the "beauty."

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