You’d never sink your life savings into a Ponzi scheme, right? Especially one operated by a former pig farmer who wants you to breed racing pigeons. But you might be surprised at what you’d do, given certain circumstances.
Almost 1,000 people in Canada and the U.S., many of them just as smart as the rest of us, fell for such a scheme between 2001 and 2008. That’s when Arlan Galbraith of Cochrane, Ont. operated Pigeon King International. A crackerjack salesman with a lifelong love of the birds, Galbraith sold breeding pigeons to farmers, contracting with them to buy the offspring, ostensibly for markets in the Middle East. And he did buy the young birds for many years, paying the breeders promptly.
Those payments were a godsend to the breeders because many were struggling to keep their family farms afloat. Even when Galbraith, who said his mission was to save the family farm, changed his story and said the birds were being raised for squab, a meat delicacy, instead of racing, investors stuck with him.
Problem was, Galbraith didn’t actually have a market. So he basically warehoused the offspring that he bought, operating a business that depended on fresh cash from investors for continual and unsustainable expansion. By the time his company collapsed, Galbraith had scooped up nearly $42 million from the farmers but had agreed to buy back $356 million worth of young birds. You can imagine the outcome.
Galbraith, and what he did to all those people, is the subject of The Pigeon King, a docudrama with country music. The Blyth Festival production is at the NAC starting April 24.
“He was primarily selling hope,” says Blyth artistic director Gil Garratt, who plays Galbraith in the show. “I don’t think he would have been able to achieve what he did if Canadian farmers were not living hand to mouth … and the precarious nature of the family farm in the 21st century.”
“One of the things we strive for with the show is to portray why people bought into this,” he continues. “Like every other con artist, Arlan was speaking 90 per cent truth and just 10 per cent lies, but those 10 per cent of lies will rob you.”
Mary Baxter, at the time a newly hired reporter with southern Ontario’s Better Farming magazine, was one of three at the publication who started digging into Pigeon King International in 2007.
At first, the three were just trying to answer readers’ inquiries about whether it was a good business opportunity. But “some of the things in the scheme weren’t adding up,” says Baxter, who has since left the magazine. “We heard that the birds they were producing were no good for racing. Then we talked to squab producers, and they said, ‘These birds are no good for squab. They’re entirely the wrong kind.’”
The more they dug, the more they understood why people had fallen for the scheme. Not only did Galbraith pay his investors as he expanded their numbers, but the model he used – selling the offspring of livestock – was an old and reliable one in agriculture. He also often initially targeted religious networks of Mennonite and Amish farmers, “so there was already a sense of trust, and that’s what Arlan played off,” says Baxter.
As he moved from his racing scenario to his squab scheme, he also sent breeders updates on a processing facility he was supposedly building in northern Ontario.
On top of everything, Galbraith was charming. He was a ladies’ man, a good dancer and very personable, says Baxter. Why wouldn’t you start cutting this fellow cheques?
For outsiders, “it’s very easy to judge, but until you’re in that kind of situation, you can’t judge,” she says. “Look at what happened with Bernie Madoff: there were so many seasoned investors that bought in and those were specialists in the industry.”
In all, investors lost an estimated $20 million in the pigeon scheme. Some of them were about to retire or had already done so. “Imagine what it does to a person,” says Baxter. “They had to go back out to work. Because so much had been lost, they’re still working two jobs.”
When Garratt stumbled across the story and thought there was a potential play in it, he started asking local farmers if they knew any of those investors. At first a wall of shame and embarrassment went up, but when Garratt and his co-writers managed to track down and interview some of the victims, the ball began rolling. In the end, they interviewed dozens of farmers, landlords, sales people for Galbraith, even the crown prosecutor who put him away for seven years on a fraud conviction.
And when the show premiered at Blyth in 2017, some of those investors attended. “It was amazing the number of people who had been burned by Arlan who came to see the play and actually came away from it so moved,” says Garratt.
He figures there are multiple reasons that we are drawn to stories like Arlan Galbraith’s. There’s the element of security we feel because we ourselves haven’t been taken in by a scheme like this. There’s also a feeling of community as we gather to witness a disaster in the making and, hopefully, figure out how to prevent similar incidents in the future.
As well, says Garratt, “We look to it for a sense of warning, how easily it could really happen to any of us.”
The Pigeon King is in the NAC’s Babs Asper Theatre, April 24-May 5 (previews April 24 & 25; opening night April 26). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca