The central question — what does an ostrich taste like? — I had hoped to answer firsthand at the Ostrichfest held earlier this year at the San Diego Community Concourse. This event drew some 2000 people from all over the country who all think they're going to make money from the big birds. Some were selling ostrich incubators that looked like something you'd see in Minnie's kitchen at Toontown, refrigeratoresque, but oversized and filled with cartoon eggs. Others were hawking shepherd's crooks made slender enough to grasp long, snaky necks.
Ostrich-feather boas could be purchased (for $35), along with ostrich vitamins and ostrich insurance and ostrich sex identification kits and computer programs for managing your ostrich herd. Many participants wore day-glo orange stickers that announced they had the birds themselves for sale for prices ranging from $4000 (for a three-month-old chick) to up to $50,000 for an established pair of breeders.
There was so much being offered that it was hard to discern why anyone would want any of it. Ostriches aren’t pets. Opinion seems uniform that they are as stupid as their reputation suggests. And they’re dangerous; it’s said that their slashing toenails can disembowel lions.
It turns out that flightless-bird ranchers — whose burgeoning ranks now include at least 100 in San Diego County — believe that Americans will want to eat the animals, by the millions. They point out that ostrich meat contains less fat and cholesterol and calories than almost any kind of flesh commonly consumed by humans.
An 85-gram serving, for example, has only 1.7 grams of fat — compared to 3 grams in a similar amount of roasted chicken or turkey flesh, or 19 grams in lean broiled pork loin. And yet ostrich tastes just like beef, the ostrich boosters claim. Can it be so? I joined the line trailing away from the booth where representatives of the Pacesetter Ostrich Farm of Arizona were dishing up Ostrich Cajun Jambalaya.
A dozen or so people stood in front of me. In the center of the aisle, next to Pacesetter’s booth, a giant fenced enclosure had been erected, and a pair of young African black ostriches stood within, eying the hubbub around them placidly. I don’t recommend gazing at a live ostrich while waiting to taste ostrich meat. The sight is so bizarre: that tubby body decked out in the chorus-girl plumes; those eyes (more beautiful and alien than anything found on a Walter Keane canvas); that furry neck, undulating like a separate animal that somehow managed to carry off the bird’s head.
By the time I dug into my bowl of rice mix, I was prepared for the worst. What I tasted was the peppery, pungent flavor of cayenne. There were overtones of garlic, too, but the cayenne overwhelmed it all: each grain of rice, the bits of celery and green pepper, the chunks of meat. From the recipe that the Pacesetter people distributed, I saw that some of the meat was pork sausage and some was ostrich, but it could have been squirrel or pigeon, the spiciness so blanketed everything.
On the floor of Golden Hall, the smell of optimism came through much more plainly. It was strongest during the keynote speech, made by a dapper, white-haired Texas entrepreneur named Paul J. Meyer. We were told that he owns 50 companies around the world “that do everything imaginable.” Among them is his Chisholm Trail Ostrich Farm, one of the largest in the country. Meyer confided to the assembly that the idea of ostrich-ranching came to him from a friend at his local Sunday school. “It looked like a piece of cake,” Meyer recalled. He paid $35,000 for a pair of adult birds, of which the female — worth $25,000 — died within a week. He’d gotten another female that had laid a bunch of eggs. "But within 90 days, all 40 chicks died.”
Groans and chuckles rose from the audience; they knew these woes, but they also knew that a happy ending was coming. Chagrined by his ignorance, Meyer had plunged into study. He’d visited ranches. He’d talked to scientists at Texas A&M University. He’d made the ostrich-breeders’ great pilgrimage, to South Africa. He’d devised best- and worst-case scenarios for the infant American ostrich industry. “And my worst-case scenario made it a better business than any of the other 50 that I’m involved in. I said, 'This is for me!’ ”
Although Meyer didn’t spell it out, the most common scenario voiced by ostrich boosters goes something like this: The meat is appealing enough to capture one tenth of one percent of the American meat-eating market. That may sound modest, but the extent of American carnivorousness in fact is staggering. Some 28,395,826,000 pounds of beef, pork, chicken, and turkey were consumed in the United States last year, and a tenth of one percent of that adds up to almost 28 million pounds of ostrich meat per year. You’d have to kill around 400,000 ostriches a year to yield that much. And figuring on the modest rate of 25 chicks per hen per year, you’d need some 16,000 producing hens to meet the demand.
Just ten years ago, there were almost no ostriches in private hands in this country. Now, after years of feverish expansion, there are probably between 35,000 and 70,000 birds, according to the American Ostrich Association’s estimates. But roughly half of those are males, and many are still babies. People are still paying outlandish prices for the latter. Everyone agrees that those prices will have to collapse eventually. When breeders no longer find buyers willing to pay $30,000 for a young pair, they’ll have to cut their prices. Someday, the argument goes, you should find ostrich meat in grocery stores at prices comparable to beef. By that point, the industry will have evolved from the frenzied, speculative "breeder’s market” to a "slaughter market.” And Meyer tantalized the Ostrichfest attendees with his vision of what that will be like.
“We see the current 2000 to 3000 ostrich farms growing to more than 100,000. This industry is in its infancy today!” he exulted. “We see at least 50 meat processing plants in the United States...20 tanning plants...a million jobs directly in the industry, with another million in related fields.”
There are observers (none in evidence at the Ostrichfest) who’ve seen elements of the pyramid scheme in all this. The get-rich-quick allure is undeniable. Say you went to the recent Ostrichfest and were persuaded to invest $50,000 in a breeding pair. Say you took them to your home in Santee, and to your great delight they immediately began copulating daily. The female might lay 50 eggs during her season (the most prolific hens have produced more than 100). If half the eggs hatched and you successfully raised the chicks for a year, you’d earn as much as $250,000. All you would need is for prices of year-old birds to hold at $10,000, not an unreasonable expectation, given the recent market.
But what if this happens to be the year the breeding market crashes? I spoke to Gary Teixeira, a Cuyama ostrich rancher and the president of the California chapter of the American Ostrich Association. Teixeira, who claims to be a conservative fellow, predicts that breeders will be earning a net profit of as little as $50 to $100 per bird by the time a mature slaughter market develops. If the average hen yields 20 to 40 baby ostriches per year, such a hen should bring the farmer a net profit of $2000 a year. "There’s no other livestock in the U.S. today that can produce that kind of yield,” Teixeira proclaimed. "If this is a pyramid scheme and I’m on the very bottom, i if I’m the last guy in the country to buy his bird, I’ll still make my money back in three years,” he declared.
That sounded great; only later when I sat down and thought about it did I realize that it didn’t make sense (three times $2000 is $6000). I called Teixeira back and pointed this out. “You’re right,” he said after a momentary pause. Doing the calculations out loud, he came up with this:
If you were at the bottom of the pyramid and sold all your chicks every year (rather than keeping some to increase your breeding flock), it might take 14 years to pay off a $65,000 breeding pair.
Teixeira was only discussing meat, but others at the Ostrichfest reminded everyone that the birds can also yield feathers and leather. A number of exhibitors displayed purses and jackets made from the birds’ skin; the tanned end product felt fragile and silky.
In its most distinctive form, ostrich leather bears an intriguing pattern of bumps made by the quill tracts. “Ostrich boots have become the number-one super-exotic for the last 20 years,” one former executive of the Tony I.ama Boot Company told the conventioneers. “Our problem in the United States is not acceptance but supply.” Only about 160,000 ostrich skins were produced last year (in Israel, South Africa, and a handful of other African countries) “to supply the whole world market,” the leather executive stated. Prices have climbed by 30 percent since 1990 — with no slackening of demand. “We have an untapped marketplace out there,” he concluded. “Once we get into a slaughter market, the infrastructure (to tan and sell the leather| will be in place, I have no fear.”
Feathers seemed less promising. The Northern California veterinarian in charge of that topic pointed out that the South Africans do currently harvest them, selling them for feather dusters and theatrical costumes. The South Africans get two crops from most of their birds, clipping them at six to eight months and then six months later, at the time of slaughter. Feathers from each bird bring in the equivalent of about $30. “We could do feather production (here in the United States],” the speaker asserted. “But to do so will require a lot of birds."
Not bothering with the feathers would enable American ostrich ranchers to kill their birds earlier (since they wouldn’t have to wait for the second set of feathers to grow in). But should the feathers be ignored, it will be ironic. Once before in the American Southwest, ostrich-raising became enormously popular and brought some of its participants huge profits. That boom was exclusively fueled by feathers.
Feathers were the only ostrich by-product much prized by humans throughout most of history. According to Charles Vaurie of the American Museum of Natural History (writing in the 1993 edition of the Encyclopedia Americana), people have been using the panache-like feathers from ostriches’ wings and tails for thousands of years. Vaurie says they were worn solely by men (“as martial decorations in ceremonies or war”) throughout most of history, but when women began to decorate their dresses and hats with the plumes, “demand grew so sharply that the ostrich was hunted almost to the point of extermination at the beginning of the 18th Century. They were saved after the discovery in the mid-19th Century that ostriches can be readily domesticated and are prolific in captivity.’’
The South African ostrich industry began in 1863, and by 1880 prices had climbed to $2500 to $5000 per breeding pair, according to one early magazine article.
That kind of money was bound to attract competitors, even from faraway America.
The first ostriches arrived on this continent in 1882, and after being exhibited in San Francisco for three months, they moved to Anaheim and soon acquired flightless neighbors in northern San Diego County.
These were owned by the Maine-based American Ostrich Company, founded by one C.F.A. Johnson, who had dispatched his son Ed to South Africa to learn the ostrich-raising business. Ed returned late in 1883 with 21 birds. He apparently scouted ranch sites in Florida, Texas, and around New Orleans before deciding that San Diego offered a superior climate.
The San Diego Historical Society has a copy of a letter penned by Ed Johnson in January of 1884 to a South African associate.
Although preoccupied with searching for a permanent ranch site in the North County, Johnson wrote, “I mast take time to let you know of my safe arrival here with every bird alive and well.... I came here from New Orleans on a special freight train in seven days. Thus far the climate is a twin to South ] Africa and the country about the same thing — the people perhaps a trifle more lively, and many trifles more sinful. But everybody busy, busy, busy. The ostrich enterprise creates a great deal of excitement here and you would split your sides with laughter to hear the absurd questions that are hurled at us from all sides.”
Johnson eventually settled his birds onto some land just outside Fallbrook, and within a few years he also established a small satellite facility in Coronado. It was “one of the attractions of the Coronado Tent City,” according to one 1887 visitor who described it in a letter to friends back East. “The birds are all native Californians except two 30-year-old progenitors from Africa,” she wrote. “Old African Carlos tried repeatedly to pluck the cherry-red nose of another visitor, nipping persistently at this overripe fruit.... [The birds] inspected us with as much curiosity as we bestowed on them.” By 1890 Coronado had even acquired an ostrich racetrack (located on what later became the Coronado Country Club). Among other events, it showcased races in which ostriches pulling sulkies covered a mile in just over three minutes.
Selling birds to other would-be ostrich ranchers provided some income to Johnson and the three other Americans who had imported birds before the South Africans cut off all exports (by imposing a $500-a-bird tax). Some of Johnson’s birds reportedly went to Hawaii, others to Colorado. Birds from Southern California also made their way to Arizona, where, then as now, their numbers increased at an explosive rate. But it was feathers that brought in most of the money. (California ranchers claimed that the average ostrich was generating annual feather income of $50 per bird — and those were 1892 dollars. Johnson’s ranch sent its feathers to New York, “where they are made up in a variety of ways, aigrettes, pompous, collarettes, boas, etc., in addition to the plumes and tips,” according to An ostrich tries to cat a camera lens one report.
San Francisco and New York wholesalers then bought the processed feathers, and some of them returned to Coronado where individual plumes cost one to ten dollars. The city of San Diego by 1906 had also acquired its own ostrich ranch, located next to the Mission Cliff Gardens at the end of Park Boulevard. For a nickel, thrill-seekers could take a cable car from downtown out to the attraction, where they could gawk at the avian curiosities or buy feathers for up to $10 to $20 apiece (for “lyre” and “lobster” plumes). At least three other ostrich-feather specialty stores along Fifth Street also competed for the business.
By 1911, Edwin Cawston, one of the original four U.S. importers, sold his huge South Pasadena facility for $1,250,000. Cawston’s timing was impeccable. From a $5 million annual industry, ostrich farming was about to turn disastrous. By most accounts, the crash came in 1914. As Europe went to war and American ladies increasingly rode in newfangled (open-topped) automobiles, suddenly no one wanted hats adorned with the frivolous, wind-catching plumes. Although the Bentley Ostrich Farm (at the end of Park Boulevard) hung on for some years by offering ostrich rides (a cheap but thrilling date), most ostrich farmers slaughtered their animals or, in some case, simply freed them. “We had feral ostriches running in the San Joaquin Valley for many years,” the Northern California veterinarian told the Ostrichfest attendees.
A grim memory, perhaps, for anyone hoping to stake his future on ostriches. But one could reason that the disaster was founded on feathers, and it all happened very long ago. The first two speakers in Golden Hall on Saturday morning focused instead on headaches faced by ostrich ranchers today. Boyd Clark, who opened the program, looks too young to know much about anything; he’s still a senior at Texas A&M. But he hatched his first chick nine years ago, in junior high. Today he not only runs his own ostrich farm, but he also helps direct the American Ostrich Association. Clark showed detailed slides depicting the ostrich reproductive tract, and he touched upon such pitfalls as wet and muddy eggs, ice and hailstorms, ostrich obesity (“That will cut down on egg production and hatchability,” he warned).
Robert Stonebreaker testified even more graphically to what can go wrong for ostrich breeders. A veterinarian based in Del Mar, Stonebreaker showed one slide of 20 or so dead chicks, a gray slimy mass. Another photograph revealed pus in a nest; Stonebreaker talked grimly of the consequences of “egg-binding” and prolapsed uteruses. Though he didn’t quote Shakespeare (who had Jack Cade in Henry the Sixth, Part 2, rant, “I’ll make thee eat iron like an ostrich and swallow my sword like a great pin”), he made clear what the playwright obviously knew; that ostriches will eat anything, including nails, screws, hair barrettes, beer bottles, mittens, and more. Stonebreaker told the story of one rancher who was working on a fence for some young birds; when he turned his back for a moment, 28 metal conduit brackets disappeared. Stonebreaker later surgically extracted all the hardware from three of the young animals.
After his presentation, Stonebreaker was besieged by breeders lobbing anxious questions at him, but I finally caught up with him for a moment. Though the Del Mar veterinarian is a big man, he has the soft tenor voice, plump cheeks, and demeanor of an exceptionally polite and friendly choirboy. Now 37, he grew up in Hacienda Heights surrounded by domestic and farm animals, and “basically, I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian by the time I was three or four years old,” he says. He got a bachelor’s degree from Cal Poly Pomona in avian sciences and went on to do graduate studies in avian physiology at Cal State Los Angeles.
When he entered the veterinary school at UC Davis, Stonebreaker figured he’d probably work in the poultry industry. “I knew I didn’t want to go into some practice where you just saw flea-ridden dogs and cats every day. I wanted something where every case was different.” But on a sailing trip through the Caribbean Islands, he delighted in the sight of gorgeous wild parrots and began to think that working with parrots might be another option.
“At that time, none of the universities were teaching anything on pet bird medicine,” Stonebreaker recalls. Very little had been written on the subject, he says, other than one book by the Bird Man of Alcatraz, and the cornerstone of his basic therapy for ailing cagelings was simple: heat and a shot of whiskey. “That was the treatment. Everybody kind of followed suit.” Despite the dearth of veterinary knowledge about parrots, Stonebreaker was already raising them as a hobby. He says he enjoyed them and felt that exotic birds were about to experience greater popularity than ever. So upon graduating from veterinary school (in 1987), he joined an Escondido veterinarian who already had a practice specializing in small and exotic animals.
Stonebreaker got his first call about an ostrich only a month after he started. “It was a challenge,” he recalls. He had worked part-time at the Sacramento Zoo while in veterinary school, but his exposure to the big birds had been minimal. Now he was confronted with a four-month-old ostrich with a tumor on its leg — transported to the clinic in the back of a VW bus. “We had to ’brute-a-thane’ it down. That means no anaesthetic, just sit on top of the bird.” The animal recovered and Stonebreaker began to get other calls from the grateful owner.
That man, Phil Sargent, wasn’t the first private ostrich breeder in San Diego County. That distinction goes to the Stehlys, an extended family of avocado and citrus farmers in Valley Center who acquired their initial ostrich back in 1979 as a curiosity and now rank among the biggest ostrich ranchers in the United States. But Sargent very early understood the commercial potential of ostriches. A native of South Africa, he bought his beautiful spread off Via Rancho Parkway, along the route to the San Diego Wild Animal Park, with the intention of building his herd of birds into an enterprise rivaling those in his homeland.
Sargent’s enthusiasm led Stonebreaker to emus, a smaller type of flightless bird from Australia also considered to have a golden economic future. (Emu meat is said to be similar to ostrich, and while the skin has no commercial value, emus yield a hypoallergenic oil that’s prized by the cosmetics industry.) Stonebreaker says emus are somewhat easier to raise than ostriches, and back in 1987 you could pick up an adult breeding pair for $400. That’s what the vet paid, and “Two years later I was offered $50,000 for them. They’re worth $65,000 right now.”
It wasn’t long before Stonebreaker started his own mobile vet service, one that increasingly paid calls upon ostrich and emu ranchers. Today he estimates that he still devotes 50 percent of his time to parrots, but his work with ratites (flightless birds) has grown to perhaps 40 percent of his business. His limited supply of remaining time goes to treating reptiles, deer, wallabies, even some dogs and cats.
Stonebreaker sees the latter at the Del Mar Veterinary Clinic, a facility that he shares with an elderly partner. But he still takes to the road five out of seven days, on average. I asked if I could accompany him on one of his typical ratite rounds, and he assented.
My day with him began one recent Tuesday morning at his office, a homey, old-fashioned facility where he lives with his girlfriend (and veterinary technician) in the second-story quarters. Though it was only 7:30 a.m., I found Stonebreaker finishing up his first emergency of the day: a finch whose foot had been bitten by a possum. The vet deftly taped a splint on the damaged limb and dispensed some calm directions to the owner. Then he bustled around gathering charts and supplies, which he loaded into his diesel pickup truck. As we zoomed off, heading eastward, he described the frantic events of his weekend.
He’d been out until 10:30 on Friday night, sewing by flashlight the lacerated neck of one young North County ostrich. Friday he’d also gotten word of a developing crisis at a quarantine station up near the Los Angeles International Airport. This particular facility was built by private investors last year to receive ostriches exclusively. “There’s not enough breeding stock in the U.S. in order to fulfill the demand for all these birds, so they’re bringing thousands and thousands of eggs in from South Africa,” Stonebreaker explained. The eggs are gathered from the ground in South Africa (where the birds are free-ranging), then transported to the U.S. in specially cooled packing cases that keep them from developing until they’re placed in the quarantine station’s incubator. “They hatch them...then keep the chicks for another 30 days, when they’re about a foot and a half tall.” The month-old chicks are then tested for Newcastle disease, and if cleared (by the U.S. Department of Agriculture), they can be released. But if a virus or bacterium happens to penetrate the quarantine station first, the result can be a veterinary nightmare.
Of course, that’s true with any animals (or people) in close confinement, but Stonebreaker says ostriches “basically have no immune system whatsoever when they’re born, as far as I can see. They do develop one, but it seems to take three to six months.... I would say by six months, they’re pretty much out of the woods. ” By then there’s less chance of “impaction,” in which the chick’s gut becomes so crammed with food or foreign bodies that digestion stops. By six months Stonebreaker also sees a lower incidence of leg deviations and other abnormalities that often require chicks to be euthanized.
“When you buy them at less than six months,” Stonebreaker says, “you may be saving yourself some money, but it’s almost every day you have to say your prayers. You have to watch those birds almost 24 hours a day. You could be sitting out there in a chair watching them, and they’ll be walking along, and the next thing you know, they’re dragging their head. Hipping over backwards and going into these stress syndromes that these little chicks will do. They’ll hold their wings out and drop their head down between their legs, and often they’ll kind of wobble back and forth and rock a little bit. And then you’ve got trouble big-time.”
Signs such as these were showing up among the chicks at the'quarantine station when Stonebreaker got the call on Friday. He was told that 8 or 9 of the baby birds had died, and by Saturday morning, the number had climbed to 35. “They wanted me to come right then, but I was totally booked, and by the time I got done it was about 9:00 p.m.” Stonebreaker offered to leave Del Mar at 4:00 the next morning, which enabled him and his assistant Pam Blach to arrive at the station by 6:30 a.m.
“There were cardboard boxes of dead chicks everywhere. It’s so sad to walk in and find that,” Stonebreaker said. He examined some of the live chicks and didn’t find any obvious explanation for the deaths. Possibilities raced through his head: tainted feed, bad water, bacteria in the sand. He moved into the station’s necropsy room and opened up five or six of the dead animals, finding pretty much the same sad state in each. “About midway down in their intestines, there was quite extensive hemorrhaging. They were quite dilated with fluid and gas. The intestines were just shutting down."
About 235 of the little ostriches remained alive but deathly ill (a half a million dollars’ worth of animals). Stonebreaker and Blach gave each bird an injection of multivitamins and Winstrol, an anabolic steroid that the vet has found to boost immune response.
He and Blach then gave all 235 of the birds a second shot of a powerful antibiotic that’s also used on humans. (“It’s only given to people in the hospital for very severe infections.”) The medical team also Started hooking up the sickest of the birds to fluids, and an hour later, another crew came through and put tubes down the throats of all the chicks, to give them a high-complex carbohydrate source called Pediasure.
“It really picked the birds up,” Stonebreaker told me. “Within three hours, we were seeing a vast improvement. The birds were up, running around, doing little pirouettes.” Ever since he had returned to Del Mar, the people at the quarantine station had been calling to thank him “about every two hours,” Stonebreaker asserted, “because this potentially could have wiped them out financially.” He added that his and Blach’s bill for the day was only about $1800, including some supplies, “which is less than what one chick would sell for. But it’s very rewarding to go into a situation like that and see these boxes full of dead birds and then see it turn around.”
We had reached our first destination, about two miles due west of the San Diego Wild Animal Park, the semirural home of a pediatric dentist who’s been raising ostriches as a sideline for a half-dozen years. Stonebreaker explained that the dentist keeps about 100 of his birds on some property in Ramona, but he incubates the eggs and raises the very youngest chicks in back of his home, where he also maintains his best breeding pair. These we found in an area enclosed by some rather dilapidated fencing, down a hillside behind the main house. The large black-feathered male rushed close to the fence at our arrival. He seemed to glare at us. Bald and gray-wattled, he looked like an angry old codger.
Not he but his mate would receive Stonebreaker’s attention today. She was laying lots of eggs, and many were hatching, but at 10 to 14 days the chicks were dying, a sign of problems with the animals’ yolk sacs. Normally, within a bird’s egg, the yolk first nourishes the developing embryo and eventually moves within the embryo’s body in the form of a yolk sac. After the chick hatches, the animal continues to draw sustenance from the yolk sac for about two weeks, by which time the yolk sac should be completely absorbed. But, “When you raise ostriches, you get yolk sac problems,” the vet said philosophically. “There’s one condition called a retained yolk sac, where the body fluids will pull into the yolk sac and it stays big: the chick doesn't absorb it. You have to go in and remove those or the little chick’s whole belly just starts blowing up, as it becomes more and more dehydrated.”
Alternatively, the yolk sac can get infected, and this is what Stonebreaker thought was happening to most of the dentist’s birds. Instead of providing the newborn with nutrition, the yolk sac was “like a purse full of bacteria.” For a while, the birds were tolerating the bacterial attack, “but as it gets near the end, it’s just very concentrated bacteria, and that’s when they get really sick.” Stone-breaker was saving most of the chicks by starting them on antibiotics three or four days after they hatched and then at a week to ten days surgically removing the diseased organ. "They don’t need it,” he stated. To obviate the need for all the medical intervention, however, he was also working on the mother, whose problem seemed to be an infected uterus.
“A lot of times these males actually inseminate bacteria in there when they’re copulating,” Stonebreaker commented. “When they’re trying to mount these birds, they do it on the ground, whereas horses and everything are up in the air. But on the ground, [the ostriches] can pull in dirt and rocks. I’ve gone into the cloacas [the opening leading to the female bird’s reproductive and excretory tracts] and found pebbles and rocks, foxtails. I’ve found pieces of wood. When they’re copulating, they can drag in all kinds of stuff.” This bird’s infected uterus was evidently transmitting bacteria to her eggs sometime before the shell was laid down around them.
So Stonebreaker had directed his efforts to curing the infection in the mother. Several courses of systemic antibiotics had failed, so the next step was to try to flush out the germs and squirt antibiotics directly on the infected organ — easier said than done. As Stonebreaker, a ranch hand, and the dentist tried to sneak up on the female, I was told to distract her peevish mate, which still faced me across the fence. He extended his wings, then slowly raised and lowered them in a guarding gesture. Ostriches may be stupid, but they’re not complete morons, and the female wasn’t about to let the vet and his helpers walk up and stick a plastic catheter into her behind. Soon she was running full-tilt, and it didn’t take long for her mate to join her. The sight made me catch my breath. When the birds’ legs really pump, they look mechanical, like robots gone berserk. The men seemed small and frail next to all that speed and height and feathered mass.
Quicker than I could see it happen, someone slipped a black, sock-like hood over the hen’s head. At once she quieted, and the dentist and his helper held her while Stonebreaker dug through the soft gray feathers underneath her tail. Holding the plunger of a large plastic syringe in his teeth, he used one hand to gently stroke the bird’s cloaca, a glistening pink button-like orifice. With the other hand, he deftly inserted the thin red tubing attached to the syringe. Three separate ducts empty out here (one for urine, one for feces, and one for eggs), and “what I try to do is find the right groove,” Stonebreaker later explained. For the hen’s first treatment, he had even used a portable ultrasound machine to help familiarize himself with her internal layout. “Usually the first one or two times, the birds fight you. They don’t like you messing with their little rear ends. But once they kind of know what’s happening, they usually loosen up.” Indeed the dentist’s hen didn’t balk at this intrusion into her nether parts. It took Stonebreaker only seconds to inject the solution, a mixture of Gentomycin and sterile saline. Then we were off again.
The next stop lay minutes away, down Mary Lane, in a slightly more suburban neighborhood. Here resided Marjorie and Elbert Jones and their emus, Lucille and Ben. As we drove to their home, Stonebreaker filled me in on their collective woes. The elderly Joneses had spent a good part of their savings to buy the two birds, according to the veterinarian, and were counting on chick sales to help pay the mortgage on the one-acre home that they’d bought specifically to launch their avian enterprise. “But the birds are not laying,” Stonebreaker said.
The hen hadn’t laid any eggs in the winter of 1992-’93, when the Joneses had boarded the pair in Texas. In July of 1993, the birds had come to Escondido, but despite months of daily emu sex, not a single egg had emerged by early March. Stonebreaker had done laboratory tests that showed the birds to be free of infection. Now he suspected some blockage in the female’s reproductive tract. Today he’d check his suspicions by doing an ultrasound.
“They’ve been after me a couple of weeks now to do it. They couldn't afford it because the husband got sick with a viral encephalitis. He almost died, actually,” Stonebreaker said. When we parked and got out of the vet’s truck, the old man walked spryly up to greet us. But his face looked sad and closed, as if shuttered against disaster. He told Stonebreaker that though he was feeling better, his wife had just discovered she might have breast cancer and had to schedule a biopsy that day. “We both got cancer,” Elbert said. “Prostate. Breast cancer."
“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that,” Stonebreaker said. “It’s always something.”
“So,” the old man pronounced. “It’s interminable.”
Marjorie proved to be a short, roundish woman with gray hair and an air of serenity. When she showed me the egg-hatching room that she and her husband had readied, she sounded apologetic. “We thought we’d just start small.” The room, though modest in size, had the luminous, well-scrubbed gleam of a nursery prepared for a first-born. The birds’ outdoor enclosures were also impeccable, cleaner and built of a much higher quality fence than that erected by the ostrich-raising dentist. Arranged in a modified “L” shape, the main pen stood only ten paces from the Joneses’ porch; a long side arm wrapped around the house to give the birds a pleasant runway.
On a wooden picnic table next to the enclosure, Stonebreaker swiftly set up his compact ultrasound machine. “Hopefully, we can determine what’s going on, so we can make a decision about what’s to be done,” he said to Elbert. “My biggest concern is that (the hen) didn’t lay last year. If there was something like weather that caused them to take a year off, it should have really pushed them over this year to get going.”
“Yeah, you just don’t go year after year,” Marjorie observed. “Nature doesn’t operate like that.”
“Particularly when they’re still young,” Stonebreaker concurred. The Joneses had been told that the birds were three when they bought them, making them about five now, if the sellers were honest, a point that Elbert was beginning to doubt.
“We were just so new into it. We didn’t know what to ask," Marjorie interjected.
For this procedure, Stonebreaker decided to sedate the female emu. He entered the enclosure cautiously. Emus look considerably different from ostriches. Their heads and (much shorter) necks are Huffily feathered, their bodies a sleek wedge.
Overall they are smaller, but surprisingly harder to handle, many cognoscenti attest. They can buck and struggle violently, and, for some reason, hooding doesn’t calm them. The backs of their legs are tough and knobby and as serrated as a knife.
But Stoncbreaker got lucky and managed to crowd Lucille into a corner without panicking her. There he injected her with Valium. Within seconds she was staggering under the influence of the tranquilizer and could be led to the picnic table like some huge shaggy dog. The vet squirted gel on his probe and applied it to the left side of the bird’s abdomen, near where he judged her ovary must lie (emus, like many birds, have only one ovary, and it’s always on the left). On the adjacent monitor, blue-white images began to coalesce, among them a shape unmistakably ovoid. It was an egg, the vet declared, and Marjorie, sitting on one of the porch steps, echoed, “She’s got an egg. Oh my God. Oh my God.” “Well, that egg will have to go somewhere, won’t it?” Elbert asked, the tiniest hint of hope shading his question. Stonebreaker had to reply that this wasn’t necessarily the case. Scar tissue could constrict an oviduct, forcing the egg to sit there. Eventually it would be reabsorbed; it could become infected. And the worst revelation of the ultrasound was that Stonebreaker did see what looked like scar tissue. “At least we know her ovary’s doing what it should do,” he said. “But if she doesn’t lay this egg in a week or so. I’d say there’s a very good possibility she may not amount to anything as a breeding bird.”
Elbert’s defeated face seemed to sag still further. In the silence that followed, Stonebreaker voiced the unspeakable, “What do you do with a bird like that?”
“I don’t know,” Elbert said, shaking his head. “Where can you sell ’em?”
“Sell ’em to the zoo?” Marjorie piped up. “For people to look at?”
“Possibility,” the vet answered.
“Boy, oh boy.” Elbert breathed out the words. “Been waiting for two years to get eggs. You get tired of waiting after a while.”
Stonebreaker did seem to hold out one straw to the couple. He said he personally owned an extra female emu in Ramona that he might want to breed with the Joneses’ male. They could split the proceeds from any eggs hatched. While he and the old man discussed this, I asked Marjorie what had possessed her and her husband to consider emu ranching.
“Down in Texas we have relatives, and they told us about ’em,” she recalled. “When we went and looked at them, we thought. ‘Oh, that’s what we want to do.’ ” Both had been raised on farms, though “we haven’t been in farming since we were kids, growing up. We’ve been out here for 50 years.’’ When they bought the birds, “I never realized anything could go wrong with ’em,” Marjorie confided. “Just didn’t think. You know.” Despite all the heartache the emus had brought them, she told me she was still “crazy about ’em. They’re not smelly and they’re not dirty. Some things turn my stomach, but these birds don’t. I feed [Lucille) apples out of my hand. She waits for me to peel those apples every day. And I watch ’em mate. They’re real comical in a way. They’ll get to runnin’, and he starts followin’ her, and she knows, I guess, that this is it. So she sits down. And then he just kind of shuffles in back of her. And he’s looking all around, like he don’t want nobody to see ’em, you know!” Marjorie laughed merrily.
Back in the truck, Stonebreaker and I headed for the San Diego Ostrich Farm, down the road from the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Phil Sargent, the South African who introduced Stonebreaker to ratite ranching, no longer owns the property, and the vet sketched out the unhappy tale of what happened to him.
Besides raising ostriches, Sargent also imported thatched African hut-like structures that he sold to zoos all over the country. “He brought in big shipping containers of them,”
Stonebreaker said, “and I guess there were some boxes of ostrich eggs in there.” A government investigation into the egg smuggling followed. “They were looking for all his records and everything,” according to the vet, who as Sargent’s associate found himself being investigated too.
Before leaving the country, Sargent did sell off his hundred-odd ostriches. “He got big dollars for his birds,” Stonebreaker says. Many of them were purchased by the Stehly family in Valley Center. Sargent’s 40-acre property was acquired three years ago by an unlikely newcomer to agriculture, Jacquie Littlefield.
Littlefield is better known for her ownership of the Spreckels Theatre (she inherited the lease on it, along with several other downtown properties, back in 1944). She has collected art throughout her life. But now, “instead of art, we’ve bought birds,” she told me wryly on the morning of Stonebreaker’s visit. She says her inspiration for undertaking this venture came from her longtime companion and business partner, Laszlo Borondy, a Hungarian expatriate who ran an exotic animal business in the San Fernando Valley for more than 30 years. Borondy says he rented animals to the movie studios and also counted Michael Jackson and Jon Peters among his celebrity clients. But he became fed up with all the government regulations affecting animal importation and retired. Littlefield explained, “I would go crazy if he were home all the time. Finally he lit on ostriches” as an alternative enterprise. “Now he’s happy as a clam,” she added with an indulgent smile.
Littlefield today resembles Dinah Shore in her prime; the same blonde pageboy frames a face younger than its owner’s years. This morning she dressed in immaculate white sweatpants and Keeboks and a white sweatshirt made dressy by an abstract design in vivid shades of turquoise, coral, and fuchsia. Her matching earrings and her gold-rimmed Dior sunglasses looked expensive. Borondy, in contrast, wore faded, drooping blue jeans. But the Hungarian’s comments on ostrich ranching couldn’t have been more ebullient. “This is a lovely, lovely thing!” he exclaimed. “It’s a very upcoming business. From four months up, the prices go up $1000 a month!” Neither Littlefield nor Borondy knew that the veterinarian would be coming; on the spur of the moment, Stonebreaker had decided to check on a young ostrich that had somehow slashed its neck the previous Friday (the bird Stonebreaker had sutured by flashlight). Such injuries are common, the vet told me. "We’ve found so many dead birds who got caught on fencing.” This morning, however, Littlefield’s animal seemed to be in good form once again. Before moving on, Stonebreaker paused to admire another ostrich, a large gray female named Lovey in memory of a cherished gray poodle once owned by Littlefield.
“This is the nicest, tamest bird you’d ever want to see,” Borondy commented. He reached out to pet the creature, and she collapsed with a thud. On the ground, she stretched her neck forward, opened her beak, and spread her wings wide. “She wants to mate so bad it’s ridiculous,” someone said. But her male companion seemed uninterested, and Littlefield fretted out loud that the season might pass without Lovey producing any fertile eggs.
Although Littlefield’s farm now counts more than 200 birds (including ostriches, emus, and rheas), a string of bad luck has hampered the breeding rate, Stonebreaker told me as we sped away. “People driving along the road have thrown in bottles and the birds have eaten them. They had a bird with a leg problem that I did surgery on. Also they’ve had some problems with fertility.” Nonetheless the theater owner’s ranch seemed like an animal husbandry paragon compared to the outfit where we stopped next.
Two juvenile ostriches, each about eight months old, were trotting around in a fenced 80-by-120-foot area. This was Stonebreaker’s first visit to the property, located off a remote byway in the community of Menefee. The vet had been warned that the owner would be absent. Two hired hands were running the place, and one of them, a slow-witted young man wearing a baseball cap, approached us.
“What can you tell me about the birds?” the vet asked.
“They’re weird,” the ranch hand said. A moment later, he amplified his judgment. “They’re strange.”
Stonebreaker asked if the ostriches were supposed to be a breeding pair, then added that it looked as if both might be females. (Female ostriches turn gray as they begin to produce estrogen, and both these birds seemed to have some gray among their plumage.) An older man, one with the windblown hair, long beard, and mismatched teeth suggestive of some Appalachian mountain man, had appeared by then and at the suggestion that the “male” ostrich might in fact be a hen, both he and his young assistant laughed uproariously.
It didn’t take long for their story to emerge. Their employer, the owner of the ranch, was prospering in his business (importing saltwater tropical fish), and he had recently embarked upon a birdbuying binge that was driving the two ranch hands to distraction. Already 64 birds had been trucked to the property, including peacocks, pheasants, lories, quail, a black swan, and many other species, most of which were confined in a large aviary. Every week, the owner arrived with more acquisitions, faster than Mountain Man and Baseball Cap could build structures to confine them in. But nothing had boggled the pair more than these ostriches, about which they appeared to know next to nothing.
They gaped as Stonebreaker grabbed the neck of the bird he’d been asked to examine, then hooded her. “You should have seen how long it took us to catch them when they got here,” one exclaimed. The other confessed that they’d thought the birds’ necks were too fragile to be touched.
Stonebreaker laughed this time, then led the bird into a wooden shed built into a corner of the pen. He’d been called because the ranch hands believed the hen had an abscess under one wing. At a glance, however, the vet could see that this was not an abscess, but a broken bone that had formed an angry red knob in healing. Though ugly, it shouldn’t interfere with the hen’s breeding potential, Stonebreaker told the men, and it required no further medical attention.
Stonebreaker moved to her rear end and confirmed that she was indeed a female. He then advanced upon the other bird, which also had been herded into the shed. In the next instant, the vet was flying backward with a moan. On the dirt floor, he clutched at his abdomen, motionless. “Are you okay?” one of the ranch hands asked, but got no answer.
The vet remained motionless for perhaps 30 seconds, then struggled to his feet, winded, but bowels intact. “I broke the cardinal rule,” he said. “Never get in front of them. With these young birds, I get so comfortable being around them that sometimes I just forget.” In a few minutes he had recovered enough to check his attacker’s sex organ — male after all, the gray feathers apparently a vestige of the bird’s juvenile plumage.
Before he left, Stonebreaker pointed out jagged fencing, wet food, pieces of metal the birds might gobble up. He charged $195 for the ranch call and drove away shaking his head. As we headed south again, I asked if he discourages newcomers from getting into the business. “I have people call me all the time and say, I'm thinking about getting into it. I’ve been to a lot of ranches. I see what’s involved. I want you to come out and help me design a facility.’ ” Stonebreaker says he’s happy to encourage such people. “I really want to help out people who are in it for the long haul.” But short-term speculators abound, he attests. “Last year there were so many! They were buying chicks for $1500, $1000, and a month later, they were up to $3000. I had people that didn’t even have the room for them, that had the birds in their kitchens in boxes. They knew nothing about birds. They didn’t know how to feed them. Ostriches need a lot of exercise or else their legs start going out. Ventilation was bad, so they got respiratory disease....”
At another point, I asked Stonebreaker if he thought the ratite boom could collapse. “Could,” he said reflectively. On the other hand, it may turn out to be much more lucrative than cattle ranching, he believes. If it does collapse, what will that mean? “To me, I’ll make the money that I put into it,” Stonebreaker answered. That may be something of an understatement; he told me that this year he hoped to make more money from selling emus than he will from his veterinary practice.
In light of his personal success with ratites, I was struck by something that happened to Stonebreaker last summer. “It was June. We’d had this really strange rain.” He’d gone out to check on a pair of ostriches that he had bought a few months earlier for $45,000. The male wasn’t eating well, and Stonebreaker was concerned. He says he walked into the pen, where the female happened to be feeding. “And she got scared. She went running down the fence line and decided to turn and come back the other way, and as she did, her legs just went right out from under her. I was standing not more than 15 feet from her when this happened!”
He could see that one of the legs was broken.
“Here she was, so helpless, trying to get up. I felt so sorry for her. I tried calling to get a trailer down to that area. But all the trailers were gone. I didn’t have a hitch. I said, 'I can’t wait. I can’t wait. She’s going to be shocky. She’s going to injure her leg even more!’ So I literally grabbed her. I picked up this 250-pound ostrich by myself." He loaded her into the back of his Nissan Pathfinder and started driving back to the clinic. But the bird died en route. “It’s like with a horse. When they break a big bone like that, they bleed. They bleed to death before you can do anything. These freakish accidents do happen.”
Although the hen was insured, Stonebreaker says, “I couldn’t do anything for a week, I was so depressed. It’s like seeing your family pet dog die.” One difference is that the vet did have the ostrich cut up and stored the meat in his freezer. He told me that he’s saving it to barbecue with friends this summer.
Here it was again: What do they taste like? I had been told that an answer might be found at a little butcher shop in Ramona known for offering the flesh of such creatures as rattlesnakes, lions, wild pigs. When I called, the man at Ramona Meats said they could indeed special-order ostrich from the Breezy Hill Meat Company in Bowie, Texas. A week later I found myself writing a check for $83 and taking possession of two pounds of so-called ostrich cutlets.
Several ranchers had told me that the best way to cook the meat is simply to barbecue it. “But don't overcook it,” they all cautioned. I began to worry about the cutlets being too tough; I had visions of my dinner guests' jaws chewing, chewing....
I settled upon the compromise of barbecuing one pound and braising the other to insure at least one tender version. For inspiration, I turned to the ancient Roman cookbook known as Apicius de re Coquituiria. Certain Roman emperors were known to favor the consumption of ostrich brains (600 at a sitting in the case of Heliogabalus, according to one author). Apicius doesn’t mention bird brains but does include two recipes for “boiled ostrich.” The first lists “pepper, mint, cumin, leeks, celery seed, dates, honey, vinegar, raisin wine, broth, a little oil.” With these, I improvised.
To share in the tasting, I invited four friends who I thought would be tough critics. Geoff and Laura devote a sizable amount of their spare time and money to fine food. For some years, they eschewed all land animals’ flesh (for ethical reasons), but now they do consume birds, as well as fish, and Laura ruled that since an ostrich was a bird, they could eat it, red though it might be. Howard and Doinna, my other guests, have had to avoid red meat because of Howard’s high cholesterol levels. They looked forward to experiencing it again without feeling they were taking a health risk.
Before delivering the one pound to the grill, Steve (my husband) and I passed around the raw cutlets. When I had picked them up from the butcher store, they had been frozen into a rocklike solid so darkly red that it bordered on being purple. They looked globby and liverish. But they defrosted into thin slabs that bore a curious texture. “This has definitely been put through some kind of a mechanical tenderizer,” Geoff declared. The uncooked cutlets reminded us all of old-fashioned minute steaks.
Steve whisked them off and returned them, browned and succulent, five minutes later. We served them side by side with the Roman cutlets, which had simmered for two hours. “They’re not bad,” someone commented. “No, not at all,” another chimed in. We scanned for gamy flavors and strange overtones and found none, just something unmistakably beefy, mildly, banally beefy, calling up the memory of a thousand hamburgers eaten over the decades, rather than any single thick, juicy, fleshy slab of roasted cow loin. Steve was perhaps the most critical, declaring that he couldn’t imagine paying more for the ostrich than he would for a cheap grade of beef. “But they certainly do beat tofu burgers,” Geoff allowed. Except for me, the consensus around the table was that the Roman-style cutlets, tender as toast and imbued with the strong bouquet of spices, were best.
I preferred the barbecued ostrich, deep pink within a 16th of an inch of the surface. I could break it into pieces with my fork, and in my mouth it had simplicity, purity. I think it took me back to the food of my childhood. I could imagine buying it again — for less than $40 a pound, but more than minute steak. If I hadn’t known better, I could have sat there digesting the bird and dreaming about becoming an ostrich rancher, dreaming about cashing in on the bonanza to come.