By Michael Oliveira, The Canadian Press
TORONTO - Some farmers across North America are alleging that a now-defunct pigeon-breeding business was run like a pyramid scheme, and animal welfare advocates voiced concerns Monday that hundreds of thousands of birds could be at risk as a result of the business shutting down.
For years, Waterloo, Ont.-based Pigeon King International was selling breeding pigeons to farmers with promises to buy back their offspring at lucrative prices.
The company said it intended to build up a large stockpile of young birds to create a new North American pigeon-meat industry that would sell a lower-cost chicken alternative in supermarkets.
Company founder Arlan Galbraith had reportedly signed up around 1,000 breeders on farms in Canada and the United States.
It's estimated that 150 to 250 people in Ontario had bought birds from the company and as many as 400,000 pigeons may have been bred in the province, said Brent Ross, a spokesman for Ontario's Ministry of Agriculture.
But the company has now apparently gone bankrupt farmers don't know what to do with the flocks of birds on their farms.
Farmers essentially have two choices: either find a buyer for their birds or euthanize them properly, Ross said.
"Our main concern is that the birds are going to be treated humanely and continue to be fed and continue to be housed until such time as the pigeon growers determine what it is they wish to do with the birds," he said.
The ministry has updated its website detailing how pigeon owners can kill their birds humanely and what other options they may have to sell them.
The Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals executed a search warrant at the company's office last week so it could find out where in Ontario pigeons were being raised and held. Since the company had also been supplying feed to farmers, there was concern that some birds might stop being fed, said spokesman Darren Grandel.
He urged farmers to continue to feed, house and care for whatever pigeons they have and ask for help if they need it.
"You're pretty much obligated to do so under the law and definitely contact us if you have these birds and you're not able to care for them yourselves," he said.
"Don't just let them go without food."
Ross said the ministry had known about the company for years but only received complaints about it after it apparently went out of business.
He said it's not up to the ministry to decide if the company was running an illegal scheme, and police will investigate any complaints.
"We don't really look at business-to-business transactions in terms of (those types of) concerns," he said.
"As far as we know and as far as we knew at that time (we became aware of the company) it was indeed a legitimate business. No complaints had been received up until the date that apparently Mr. Galbraith said he was declaring bankruptcy."
But officials in several U.S. states have warned their citizens about the company's claims and ended up halting any further sales in those jurisdictions.
The office of Iowa's attorney general said in December that farmers should be wary of Pigeon King's claims and "whether there is a realistic and independent market for pigeons now and in the future."
It said it was concerned that Pigeon King's operations could be "providing inventory for new growers in furtherance of a 'Ponzi' type of investment scheme."
Sgt. Robert Zensner of the Waterloo Regional Police said the force has received eight complaints about Pigeon King so far from farmers in Canada and the United States and is still deciding whether it should open a criminal investigation into the company's business.