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Racing pigeons worth more than $500,000 missing
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DESOTO COUNTY -- On a peaceful ranch at the end of a quiet country road, David Clausing awoke to discover someone had stolen 150 of the thoroughbreds he breeds for world-class racing.

These aren't horses. They are pigeons.

But these aren't your ordinary statue-perching pigeons -- they're world-class homing pigeons whose job is to race and breed more racers. The missing pigeons are worth between $500,000 to $1 million, the owners say.

"They are the best in the world," David's wife, Anna Clausing, said Friday. "They win races all over the world."

Two of the Clausings' pigeons were top winners in an annual South African race, billed the greatest pigeon race in the world. One, called Never Say Die, won first place and $200,000 in 2003, and the other, Heidi, won fourth place and $75,000 in 2004. The Clausings also have sold "breeders" for up to $50,000.

The theft of the pigeons appears to have been a well-thought out operation, Anna said. Whoever released the birds was able to get onto the ranch and do it very quickly.

Anna said that her husband went out between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m. Friday to take some birds to a Sarasota veterinarian. They were to be examined before Clausing shipped them to a South African buyer who planned to breed them. But when he entered the stalls, David discovered 60 empty breeding cages.

"The doors were open and the birds were gone," Anna said.

She said she had arrived home between 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. that morning from her job at the Wal-Mart Distribution Center in south DeSoto County. Normally, her dogs come out to greet her, chasing her car along the road from the entrance gate to where she parks. But they didn't come out to her that night. The Clausings suspect the dogs may have been drugged or the thieves brought meat to draw the dogs away from the house and stalls.

Anna then went in and woke up her husband, who had to make a call to South Africa race officials. The couple didn't get to sleep until nearly 4 a.m.

One small piece of good news for the Clausings is that several "key birds" with important racing bloodlines were still in their cages. The Clausings said they think Anna's arrival home may have interrupted the possible thief or thieves, who might have been planning to take all of the family's hundreds of birds.

Anna explained that the missing pigeons were used exclusively for breeding and had been in breeding cages from the time they were born, so even if they escaped, they wouldn't know where to fly back. Some of the birds had been sitting on babies, which were cold when the Clausings found them. Luckily, the Clausings were able to incubate the baby pigeons and they now have other parents raising them, so they may survive.

It will take a much longer time for David Clausing to recover from this setback, however.

"My husband spent 20 years of his life developing this and in a matter of hours it's gone," Anna said. If the birds are not recovered, some of the Clausing's unique bloodlines will become extinct, she said. More importantly, David has lost thousands of dollars in potential money from the sale of these missing pigeons and their progeny.

She said that word of the birds' disappearance has spread fast in the pigeon racing world. The family received calls throughout Friday from pigeon fanciers from as far away as Michigan and South Africa. (David Clausing did not want to talk to the press because he was spending the day networking with other breeders.)

The Clausings said they did not suspect any local pigeon fanciers played a role in the birds' disappearance, but said the birds likely will be used to breed or they may be exported out of the country and sold.

She pointed out they cannot be used in races because they have identifying bands on their legs, which David has used to carefully inventory every bird and track each one's bloodline. He was able to use this extensive, detailed inventory to count each bird Friday and determine which ones were missing.

Fortunately, the Clausings had already shipped to Africa the birds that will race in this year's Sun City Million Dollar Pigeon Race. They've been there since May, when they were babies, and have been training ever since for the race on Feb. 4, 2006.

With a chance to win more than $1 million in prize money and a new vehicle, this is a high-stakes competition. Begun in 1995 and sanctioned by South African Homing Union, the Belgium press has called the race the "Tour de France" of pigeon racing, according to the race's Web site, www.scmdpr.com.

Training flights started in October and continue through January, with the final race on Feb. 4, 2006. Electronic rings are used to track the birds.

Homing pigeons must be trained to come back to certain areas -- they don't know how to do it automatically.

The Clausings said they are considering offering a substantial reward for the return of their pigeons. Anyone with information should e-mail clausing@desoto.net or call the DeSoto County Sheriff's Office at (863) 993-4700 or (941) 743-6777.

by: Ray Delaney

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