British Columbia

Pigeon wearing crystal meth 'like a backpack' caught inside B.C. prison yard

Drug-smuggling pigeons have persisted over the decades, busted from North America to Europe and Asia. Last week, for the first time in recent memory, one was captured at a correctional facility in B.C.

'This is kind of a curveball,' says corrections officers' union

A grey pigeon is pictured walking on damp concrete.
Correctional Services Canada is investigating after a pigeon was found at Pacific Institution in Abbotsford, B.C., with a package of crystal meth tied to its back on Dec. 29. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Nearly a century ago, a pigeon breeder approached federal customs officers with a bit of an odd problem.

A pigeon he'd recently sold to a buyer in Mexico had flown back to his home in Texas with two aluminum capsules full of cocaine tied to its legs.

After a brief investigation, officials announced their conclusion. 

"CARRIER PIGEONS SMUGGLE DRUGS," blared an all-caps newspaper headline on Feb. 2, 1930.

Drug-smuggling pigeons have persisted over the decades since, busted from North America to Europe and Asia.

The birds are caught with pills or powder stuffed into mini-backpacks, tiny baggies or zippered pouches — sometimes foiled because they couldn't get off the ground with all the weight.

Last week, for the first time in recent memory, one was captured in B.C.

A newspaper article warning about pigeons smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border appears in a newspaper on Feb. 2, 1930.
A newspaper article warning about pigeons smuggling drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border appears in a newspaper on Feb. 2, 1930. (TimesMachine/The New York Times)

"This is kind of a curveball," said John Randle, Pacific regional president of the Union for Canadian Correctional Officers.

Officers 'had to corner it'

Randle said it was a routine day after the holidays at Pacific Institution in Abbotsford, B.C., on Dec. 29.

Officers were standing in one of the fenced inmate unit yards, which prisoners use regularly for hanging out, playing games or just getting some fresh air.

Then the officers noticed something strange: a grey bird with a small package on its back.

"From my understanding, it was tied to it in a similar fashion as like a little backpack," Randle said.

The officers moved in.

"They had to corner it," Randle said. "You can imagine how that would look, trying to catch a pigeon."

A grey correctional facility building is pictured on an overcast day. Mountains are in the background.
Pacific Institution correctional facility is pictured in Abbotsford, B.C., on Thursday. The multi-level complex has a capacity for around 500 inmates. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

After "a lengthy period of time," the officers apprehended the bird, removed its cargo and set it free.

Randle said the package contained about 30 grams of crystal meth, which he described as a "fairly substantial" amount of the intensely addictive stimulant.

"It's definitely scary with the fact that it was crystal meth that was found on the bird, because that causes a whole lot of problems," he added.

Corrections Canada confirmed in an email it is investigating, but would not provide further details.

Drones typically the problem

In recent years, corrections officers have increasingly been on the lookout for drones dropping contraband into correctional facilities. Last month, a drone dropped a firearm into Mission Institution.

Since the drone crackdown, Randle said smugglers might be turning back to "old school" methods like pigeons or "throwover" — where someone outside lobs a package over the fence.

"We've been focusing so much on drone interdiction ... now we have to look at, I guess, pigeons again," said Randle, who hasn't heard of another live pigeon incident in B.C. in his 13 years of experience.

"It's a bit of a reality check for us that the creativity that people are going to use to try and smuggle drugs and other contraband into the institution is multifaceted."

Homing pigeons have been used to carry messages since the Roman Empire, particularly valued during the First and Second World Wars for their ability to navigate long distances to return to their home lofts with key messages. 

A bird flies over a prison tower, surrounded by a fence.
A bird flies near a tower at the Pacific Institution correctional facility in Abbotsford, B.C. on Jan. 5. In recent years, corrections officers have increasingly been on the lookout for drones dropping contraband into correctional facilities. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

One expert said there are two plausible ways to use a pigeon to deliver drugs. One, someone could throw the freighted pigeon over the fence into the prison.

Second, an inmate could spend months training the bird from the inside to recognize the prison as its home. Someone would get the bird to the outside, fasten its cargo and release it to return "home" to the prison.

"Like Shawshank Redemption, where he had a crow from a baby — you could do that with a pigeon. Then, yeah, the pigeon would come back," said Givo Hassko, director of the Vancouver Poultry & Fancy Pigeon Association.

"It's sad in a way, where the pigeons once were used for saving lives is now being used for smuggling," he added. "But I hope they they figure it out."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rhianna Schmunk

Staff writer

Rhianna Schmunk is a staff writer for CBC News. She is based in Vancouver with a focus on justice and the courts. You can send story tips to rhianna.schmunk@cbc.ca.

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