Mike Tyson's new show on Animal Planet, Taking On Tyson, revolves around the former boxer's introduction to the sport of racing homing pigeons. Viewers get a glimpse of a fascinating world, in which birds are treated like athletes — carefully trained, fed only the best birdseed and vitamins, prized for their performance. There's definitely something different about people who like birds. Bird people can't (usually?) cuddle or snuggle with their pet at night like dog people and cat people. There's no moving-together-as-one-powerful-being experience, like horse people have. Birds — whether they be sparrows or eagles — are delicate. And most of them do what people, cats, dogs and horses cannot: Fly. Bird people tend to have their eyes on the sky.
There are many different racing clubs in the New York area, but Tyson is a newcomer to the competition. That said, his involvement with birds has been almost life-long. As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, he was impoverished, bullied incessantly and surrounded by drugs and crime. His father left the family when Tyson was 2; his mother died when he was 16. Birds became an escape and a comfort, and the first fight he ever participated in was over a bird. Some bullies took one of Tyson's pigeons, and when he demanded that they give it back, one of them broke the bird's neck and threw the blood in Tyson's face. "I just started fighting," Tyson says.
Though he was enamored with his birds, the creatures couldn't keep Tyson out of trouble — he spent a heap of time in one of New York's worst juvenile detention centers, and according to some reports, by the age of 13, he'd been arrested 38 times. But when Muhammad Ali made an appearance at juvie, Tyson saw boxing as a means of earning respect. Taking into account everything we know about Mike Tyson — allegations of spousal abuse, a rape conviction, the ear-biting incident — he appears very calm and humble on the show, while still exhibiting a passion for pigeons. He talks about how he used to believe he was superior to everyone else because he was "programmed" that way by his coach, mentions he's been in therapy for years and works every day on "de-programming" himself. The birds seem to be part of the process. Tyson and his crew keep their pigeon coop immaculate and as comfortable as it can be, since homing pigeons will only race back to a place that they truly consider home. Watching the man you may think of as a brute be sober, gentle and humane with his birds, you gradually realize what's going on is even more powerful than a heavyweight punch.