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January 2, 2003 Issue

Curtis Clay examines the flight feathers of Sunshine, one of his racing homing
pigeons, one of the birds the city of Louisville has given him until Jan. 9 to get
rid of.

Clay's pigeons under fire

Louisville man's attempts to raise racing pigeons stymied by city's zoning laws

By Parish Howard

Jefferson County is by far the most rural place Curtis Clay has ever lived.

When he moved to Louisville almost two years ago to take care of his invalid mother, he fell in love with the place, with the people, with the way of life. Proudly proclaiming itself a bird sanctuary on the signs entering town, Clay thought it would be a perfect place to continue his life-long passion of raising racing homing pigeons.

In April he approached City Manager Don Rhodes to see if Louisville's zoning would prohibit such a hobby.

Within a month, he had his answer.

"First of all, I want to apologize," Clay said Thursday, just two weeks before the city's Jan. 9 deadline to remove the birds comes due. "I never dreamed that my little birds would cause such a tempest in a teacup."

To the city, it's a relatively simple matter. The neighborhood where Clay lives is zoned low residency residential and city officials believe their zoning ordinance doesn't allow for the raising of pigeons in that area.

Rhodes referred the matter to the city attorney and in May, Clay received a letter.

In it, Rhodes explained that the city considered the raising of pigeons an agricultural pursuit and that such pursuits are prohibited in residential areas.

"The zoning ordinance does not permit the raising of pigeons in that area," Rhodes said. "There are a lot of different things spelled out in the ordinance about what can be done in a residential area, but that isn't one of them."

He told Clay that anyone wishing to make such use of a residential property would be required to file a request for a variance or a pre-zoning.

At first Clay accepted the response, but upon further analysis of the definition of agricultural pursuit, wondered if his birds were actually poultry.

After speaking with Dr. David E. Marx, a veterinarian he met through his pigeon racing friends, Clay discovered that Galliform birds like chickens and turkey are considered poultry while doves and pigeons are considered Colombiform birds.

Once he believed he had the law and the facts on his side, Clay said he proceeded to purchase his breeding stock.

Clay said his loft was vandalized, the screen cut and all but three of his pigeons released, about two weeks after the birds were bought. He feels certain those birds have attempted to return to their out of state loft, the place they were born. However, that loft was bulldozed the day after he purchased them.

Since then he claims to have received anonymous threats over the birds and has even been arrested on public drunkenness and disorderly behavior charges, charges he contests, after calling officers to investigate noises around his pigeon loft.

"I guess I found out that you don't do that in a small town," Clay said. "That even with the law and facts on your side, you don't do what someone has told you you can't do. Apparently they've taken it personally. God knows I had no intention to step on anyone's toes."

Clay says he sent letters and went door-to-door hoping to find out what his neighbors' concerns were with the birds and hopefully to educate them on the facts of his hobby.

"I've canvassed the neighborhood to find out what my neighbors think," Clay said. "Most of them didn't even know I had any birds and most didn't care."

The neighbors who did voice complaints had three major concerns, he said.

"They were worried about the West Nile Virus, about the smell and about the birds hanging around in their trees and on their houses, messing on their cars. If they knew anything about the sport and raising these birds, they'd know they had nothing to worry about."

Clay explained that because the birds' body temperatures are 107 degrees, humans and homing pigeons share no common vectors for viruses or paracites.

"People are a lot more likely to catch a disease from their dog or cat or hamster than they are from a pigeon," he said.

He said the smell is approximately nil and that exhaustive studies have been done on the decibel levels of aviaries and he doubts anyone would be able to hear them there.

"As for the third complaint, people should realize that these are finely trained athletes," Clay said. "They've been selectively bred for 5,000 years. To compare them to the rats with wings that light on statues downtown, is like comparing a donkey to a thoroughbred racehorse. The birds will be kept inside the loft at all times except on training and racing flights.

"After you've flown 500-600 miles in a day, you aren't going to laze around on anyone's roof," Clay said. "You want to get on home where you know there's food and water waiting on you. You want to get home and rest."

The birds are expensive, and not just monetarily. A competitive team of racing pigeons demands a lot of personal attention. Clay expects to spend between six and seven hours a day with his birds, caring for them, treating illnesses and training them.

"The adrenaline rush you get from seeing your team coming in to land is incredible," Clay said. "It's the closest a poor man can come to owning the Los Angeles Lakers or the Red Skins."

On Dec. 10, Clay went before the city council hoping to explain that pigeons are not poultry, and educate city officials on the nature of the birds and the sport.

"They aren't poultry," Clay said, recounting the events of that meeting. "They aren't even in the same family as chickens and turkey. I tried to show them proof, but the mayor told me that he'd call pigeons whatever he wanted in Louisville, Ga. and he was calling them poultry."

Clay asked for 30 days to find a home for the birds and the mayor said that he would leave that up to the police chief, but he recommended Clay remove the birds as soon as possible.

"I tried to do the right thing and now I'm being penalized for it," Clay said.

To the city, the birds are still, simply a matter of zoning.

"Zoning ordinances are in place to protect all of our citizens," Rhodes said. "I believe the mayor asked him to have them moved as soon as possible. There are a few agricultural zones in the city and he could have as many as he wants outside the city.

"We don't want to be hard nosed about this thing. We don't have anything against pigeons or pigeon racing, but it's the city's job to enforce its zoning ordinances."

Rhodes said several council members and the mayor claimed they had received six to seven calls each from Clay's neighbors expressing that they did not want such an operation in their neighborhood.

"We are very sensitive to that," Birt said. "We want to do what's good for the public."

Mayor Birt said the number of calls could take the issue into a category of public nuisance.

"He's been given ample time to find a home for his pigeons," Rhodes said. "But, I guess he has chosen to do otherwise."

"And besides," Birt added. "He knew the city's position before he ever went out and got these birds."

But he did, and now the Jan. 9 deadline is approaching.

Clay is afraid that in two weeks, when the Jan. 9 one-month deadline rolls around, he will be taken to jail and his birds will be killed.

"I'm not a contentious person," he said. "I just want to quietly enjoy my home and not bother anybody."

If Clay doesn't move his birds by Jan. 9, the city isn't sure what it will do, but Rhodes and Birt said they have no plans to euthenize the pigeons.

"I hope it doesn't have to go that far," Birt said, "but violating this ordinance is in effect violating the law. At one point he did inform us that he would be looking for somewhere else to house his birds.

"I don't want to lose him as a citizen, but if he moves out of the city, he could have as many birds as he wanted. He could have a hundred."

If he has to, Clay guesses he will have to give the birds away. He said he would rather give them away and compete against them later than see them die. But he does not plan on moving.

"I'm disabled," Clay said. "I have rods in my back, I'm missing two vertebrae and a lung. My mother is an invalid and we live three minutes from the hospital. We're comfortable here. We don't want to move."

For Clay, one of the most frustrating elements of this entire situation is that while he has always lived in larger, more densely populated cities, he has never had a problem before.

"I've been rasing racing homing pigeons since I was 13-years-old," he said. "In 35 of my 48 years I've never had a problem like this."

There is no doubt, Clay loves his birds.

He can talk about them all day, about the 5,000 year history man has had selectively breeding this bird, about J.I. Joe a famous WWII pigeon credited with saving the lives of at least 1,000 British troops.

Clay says racing pigeons can fly as much as 600 miles in a single day to return to their roosts

"It's still one of the great mysteries of science as to how they do it," Clay said. "Nobody knows for sure how you can take a bird that far away, to a place it's never been, release it and it will still find it's way back to the very building it was born in."

The pigeons have to be in perfect health to make such a trip. One of the secrets to getting them to come straight in during a race and not linger in neighbors' yards is that the birds are given just enough food and water to make the trip home.

"When they come in they're like a squadron of bombers. You can see them turn and drop and it looks like they are going to come straight through the roof," Clay said holding his hands up and looking up into the sky above his coup. "If they wasted any time at all before coming to the coup, then they'd be wasting valuable seconds in the race. They aren't going to be hanging out in the neighbors' trees, I can assure you."

Clay feels that a lot of people have the wrong impression of his birds.

"It's something about pigeons," he said. "I could have a boatload of parrots, macaws or falcons, but people get funny about pigeons."

Right now he only has 13 birds, what he considers his breeding stock, the birds he hopes will generate his two race teams.

"I estimate that all I'll need is 50 birds, plus or minus five," Clay said. "That will give me the stock I need for Race Team Clay."

City officials seemed to think that it may be the number of birds he plans to have that has generated the calls they say they've received.

Right now, on little homemade shelves in the converted toolshed, are two pinestraw nests holding a pair of eggs each.

The first of Clay's new birds, the first to be actually born in the Louisville loft, are scheduled to hatch Jan. 9, deadline day.

Under his original plan, he would have had a team ready by next summer, and his second team ready the following summer. That's all he wants, he said.

"I enthusiastically invite anyone interested in the sport or the birds or who just wants to see the loft to give me a call," Clay said. "I'll talk to anyone, day or night."

He said that everything he knows he can tie back to his birds in one way or another.

"They've taught me so much, or I guess, having them, raising them, I've had to learn so much," Clay said. "At 13-years-old, raising these birds, I was studying geometry and carpentry to build my loft. I was studying meteorological reports to see what weather my birds were flying through. I was studying genetics, trying to breed faster birds. I've learned dedication, responsibility, patience and sportsmanship. I've learned about the miracle of birth and the agony of death."

Within the next few weeks, the birds may have a lot more lessons to teach.

Struggle over handgun ends in death

Two are injured, one killed in a tussel over a .38 caliber handgun; charges pending

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

Two people were injured and one man died Dec. 27 at a Sandy Lane residence when a struggle resulted in shots fired from a .38 caliber handgun.

Forty-one year-old Isiah "Zeke" Johnson died at MCG Hospital in the early hours of Dec. 28 from complications of gunshot wounds in the chest and the side of the abdomen.

Johnson had been involved less than three hours earlier in a struggle in his home with his 25 year-old stepson, David Campbell, who lived next door, according to a spokesman for the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office.

Investigators said Monday that a domestic dispute between Johnson and several family members led to a struggle in the kitchen area of Johnson's home.

At some point during the struggle Campbell apparently attempted to wrest control of the handgun from Johnson.

During the incident the gun went off at least three times, striking Johnson once in the chest and once in the side of the abdomen while a third bullet grazed him.

One bullet struck Campbell in the left leg and another struck a family friend in the left hip. It appeared that one of the bullets might have struck more than one person, investigators said.

Johnson was transported to MCG and died at 12:21 a.m.

The investigation of the incident is ongoing. The district attorney's office will determine whether charges will be forthcoming.

Jefferson County Sheriff's investigators and agents of Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the investigation.

Christmas Eve fire fatal for 66-year-old Wadley man

The cause of the housefire that killed John Russell Jackson, of Wadley is undetermined

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

The hours that would soon turn Christmas Eve into a day of family visits and celebration held a different outcome for 66 year-old John Russell Jackson.

The south Jefferson County resident died that night in a fire that took his life and consumed his home on Jackson Road outside Wadley.

Units of the Wadley Fire Department responded to a call at 9:51 p.m., reported by family members at an adjacent house. Wadley firefighters and those from Bartow arrived to find the singlewide manufactured home in blazes.

Jackson was found by firefighters facedown in a hallway near the kitchen and within feet of what appeared to be a rear entrance to the trailer.

The reason he did not exit the trailer was not known, said Rural Metro ambulance supervisor and Deputy Coroner Mike Bennett.

The body had been completely burned beyond recognition and approximately 10 percent of the body had been consumed in the flames.

Investigators were attempting to access dental records last week to positively identify the body, though the certainty of the body being that of Jackson was bolstered by the finding that the lower portion of the right leg had been removed.

The finding was consistent with the amputation Jackson had undergone previously after being the victim of a shotgun blast in his right leg.

An autopsy performed at the state crime lab in Atlanta determined that Jackson died of smoke inhalation, according to a sheriff's office spokesman.

The fire was believed to have started in the area of the kitchen or living room. The cause of the fire was undetermined because the blaze was so fully involved when firefighters arrived at the scene, said Fire Marshal Alan Logue.

Jackson worked for several years as an officer with the Wadley Police Department.

Teenage runaways apprehended in New Mexico

New Mexico police officers took pair into custody during a routine traffic stop

By Ben Nelms
Staff Writer

A New Mexico traffic stop led to the discovery of the whereabouts of a 17 year-old Wadley man and a 14 year-old Wrens female, missing since Dec. 23.

Alvin Radford faces misdemeanor charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in the incident.

The pair are believed to have left sometime between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. on Dec. 23, according to a spokesman for the sheriff's office.

Investigators were notified Dec. 26 by Carlsbad, New Mexico, police that the pair had been located.

Officers ran Radford's tag during a traffic stop and took the pair into custody based on information provided to the national network by investigators.

Radford reported to the jail Monday after arriving from New Mexico. He was released on $1,000 property bond and faces an appearance in state court.

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