Rise and Fall of the Ostrich Industry

A personal account of a business in southeastern Arizona that took flight briefly only to hit the ground with a thud.

Sometimes on a quiet summer evening I still expect to hear them. There were a few years when every summer night you'd hear the booming call of male ostriches in the countryside outside of Willcox. They were everywhere you'd look, tens of thousands of them. I've often heard old-timers around here talk of when Willcox was a center for shipping cattle and how on evenings you'd hear cows waiting to be loaded on train cars bawling all night long. I think those old-timers must listen close sometimes on quiet summer nights, still expecting to hear cows, like I expect to hear ostriches. They might actually hear a cow now and then. But I don't ever hear ostriches anymore. Except for a few owned by a petting zoo and one kept by a pet store owner, ostriches are gone from this valley. The rise and demise of the ostrich industry in southeast Arizona--which began with such promise--took all of about eight years to play out.

On my first day of work at Pacesetter Ostrich Farm, back in 1993, I climbed into one of the owners' big, new diesel pickup trucks and we headed out to large, empty fields with strong, tall fence panels all around. There was a stock trailer parked there, hooked up to another new diesel pickup. My new boss positioned me on the back of the stock trailer, which put me behind the doors as they opened. There were about a dozen birds for the handlers to unload. My first experience with the largest birds on Earth began when the trailer started shaking from side to side as the ostriches came thundering out. When the first one hit the ground, I peeked out from behind the trailer door. The big male ostrich whirled around to face me, his wings extended and feathers sticking straight out from his body like a pin cushion. He must have been about seven feet tall, but with his head held high and mouth open wide, hissing, he looked at least 12 feet tall. He stared at me defiantly with reptilian eyes. My god, I thought, this is a dinosaur.

And, indeed, they haven't changed much since prehistoric times. Ostriches have scales on their legs and at the tip of their wings they have a claw. You can imagine how in their evolutionary past they used these claws on wings that were once arms. They kick forward, like a karate kick, and can disembowel a lion in the wild with a single kick. There is a hook-like claw that grows out of the largest of their two toes on each foot. Unlike animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years, ostriches have been raised and kept by humans as livestock just since the mid-1800s. They are still quite wild. Many people who worked with these birds considered them stupid. I didn't find them stupid at all, just wild. If they were stupid, they wouldn't be as curious as they are. One quickly learned not to wear jewelry or watches in a pen full of young ostriches. More than once I saw birds pluck an earring right off someone's ear. They'll pull the buttons right off your shirt if you let them.

Ostriches first arrived in the Willcox area in 1992. There was a nationwide interest in ostrich breeding at that time. The birds were promoted as the next big meat market. High in protein and iron and low in cholesterol, the red meat interested American consumers who were becoming ever more concerned with their diets. Leather made from ostrich skin was highly valued as not only attractive, but more durable than the skin of other animals. Ostrich feathers were prized during Carnaval in Brazil. Investors were encouraged and people who had never owned animals in their lives suddenly became ostrich owners. Of course, many of these people never handled or cared for their birds. They paid others, such as Pacesetter Ostrich Farm, to care for their ostriches and also collect, incubate and hatch eggs and raise and sell the offspring.

Ostriches usually don't take kindly to humans stealing their eggs. Most ostrich farms left a clear space at the bottom of fencing where those collecting eggs could scramble to get out of the pen quickly. Some of the birds, especially the roosters, would become enraged at someone stealing their eggs. They'd charge the fence trying to kick the thief. I saw roosters attack and jump on golf carts and even charge a jeep and truck. Fencing for ostriches has to be much stronger than for horses or cattle.

When I first started at Pacesetter, I helped take care of the first 125 chicks the owners brought to the farm. The eggs had been imported from South Africa and incubated and hatched at a quarantine/incubation facility in Los Angeles. Pacesetter didn't yet have its own incubators. My first sight of these 2-month-old chicks was in a stinking Quonset hut with a cement floor. We'd lay rubber mats down at night when the birds slept. We'd let them outside at dawn. By then the place was an awful mess. We always had to be careful moving them out in the morning because the floor was so slippery that if they moved too fast they'd fall down. Leg injuries were common. So was illness, or failure-to-thrive syndrome. Ventilation in the hut was poor and the longer the birds stayed in there the fouler the air became. Rainy days were a nightmare, because small chicks had to stay in the barn. We caretakers would spend the entire day constantly cleaning the floor to keep chicks from slipping all over the place and eating feces.

A new chick barn was under construction, funded by investors' money, and we who worked with the chicks just tried our hardest to keep them alive until it was completed. It wasn't easy. Each one that grew sick or weak was medicated and tube-fed. The veterinarians working with ostriches were kept busy taking blood samples, doing autopsies, seeking to come up with vaccinations and treatments for new diseases and parasites. At the time, each chick was so valuable, worth between $2,500 and $3,000, that drastic measures were performed to attempt to save each one that became ill, including surgeries and intravenous fluids. Most of these died anyway. Once an ostrich stops eating, it is difficult to convince it to do otherwise, though not impossible.

The first chick I saved was a scrawny thing I named Fluff. The young bird was nothing but bones, feathers and eyes. Those big eyes ostriches have seem to grow even bigger once a sick bird becomes dehydrated. Their body shrinks to almost nothing but those eyes remain large and luminous. Fluff was medicated and fed with a tube down her throat three times a day for almost three months. Though severely stunted, for some reason that chick never lost her will to live. Slowly she grew. She would follow me around the pen and became a pest trying to get into my pockets and constantly in my way when I was raking. When Fluff no longer needed medication and tube-feeding and was put out in a large field with others, she still would follow me around whenever I was there feeding or watering. She loved to drink water from the hose when I filled buckets. She also enjoyed me giving her a shower with the hose so she could lay down in the dirt and take a muddy dust bath. Her feathers grew faster than her stunted body and the last contact I remember was when I had a co-worker hold her so I could cut off the long wing feathers that were so heavy they were causing her wings to drag on the ground.

I lost track of her because chicks were arriving en masse. A fertile egg was selling for $1,000. Six-month old chicks were going for about $6,000. Adult breeding pairs were selling for between $25,000 and $50,000. Pacesetter began incubating and hatching eggs collected on the farm as well as importing eggs from South Africa and hatching them in LA. More ostrich farmers moved into the area. Old farms were bought up and restored. More people invested in breeding ostriches, and pens and barns were constructed as fast as farm labor could get them up.

Those were good times for the valley. The ostrich-breeding boom flourished over the next three years. Both my husband and I were employed in the ostrich industry. He raised chicks, collected eggs and handled big birds, and I incubated and hatched chicks. I got damned good at it. And my legs and arms grew strong from moving the 3-to-5-pound eggs in and out of incubators. I had to determine the sex, vaccinate, band a leg and shoot a microchip into the neck of every chick I hatched at Pacesetter. During incubation, each egg had to be candled and weighed each week and its growth had to be charted. An ostrich egg loses weight as the chick inside it grows. If it was losing it too fast, it had to be moved to an incubator with higher humidity. If it was losing weight too slowly, it was moved to a incubator with less humidity. Each egg had numbers written all over it, and there was a paper chart as well as a computer chart. The number of birds at Pacesetter alone quickly grew from hundreds into thousands. Other farms popped up all over Southern Arizona.

I left Pacesetter in '95 to begin working as a newspaper reporter, but I continued to incubate eggs and hatch chicks for two other farms during the next two years. My kids got used to the sight of hatchlings with problems sitting in cardboard boxes under heat lamps tucked into corners of our home. For awhile, even the staff of the Arizona Range News became used to the same sight as sometimes I'd bring them to work with me to keep an eye on them. Ostrich chicks are quiet and don't eat or drink for the first four or five days, so not even my editor cared that I had them around.

I liked them a lot. They were funny animals that made me laugh. I loved having their feathers around, even put some in my hair and hat and hung them from the rear view mirror in my car. I painted ostrich egg shells. My gardens thrived with ostrich manure and crushed ostrich egg shells for fertilizer.

There were individual birds that will always stand out in my memory. Like Shortneck, a deformed chick hatched with less than a third the natural length of an ostrich neck. We had to provide a tray for Shortneck to eat off of since he couldn't reach the ground. He was an escape artist and we'd find him everywhere. Shortneck died suddenly when a low-flying airplane flew over and he ran into the fence. I cried when I found him dead. A co-worker, who spoke little English, picked up his body, held him in his arms and turned to me with misty eyes. "Shortneck, beautiful bird," he said.

We invested a lot of energy and caring into the chicks. I remember a guy who worked for weeks with a weak little chick he named PeeWee. The day he found PeeWee dead, drowned in a water bowl, he threw the dead chick up against the barn wall, screaming at it for dying, scaring a woman worker so badly she went screaming out of the barn, thinking he had lost his mind.

We all tried so hard in those early days to save every one. One summer afternoon, when I was working for a farm owned by South Africans, a thunderstorm quickly descended on the valley. We only had a few minutes to rush into the fields to frantically scoop up about 100 hatchlings, deposit them in buckets, run to a pickup, dump them in back, and drive them to shelter, all while rain pelted us and lightning flashed all around. If they had remained just a few minutes more in the field they would have drowned.

Working for South Africans was interesting. One of my employers, an intense guy named Austin, told me he lived, worked and breathed ostrich. He meant it. He was a short, strong man who would stride up to an adult male ostrich that was giving someone trouble, leap off the ground, grab its head in one hand and knock it senseless with the other. His boss was a fourth-generation ostrich farmer whose family had been one of the original ostrich farmers in South Africa. Those guys knew ostrich farming like they knew how to walk.

Even before I worked for them they gave me a half-blind, 3-month-old male chick. They knew if anyone could keep him alive, I could. They also gave me a crippled female chick they knew would not survive much longer because they thought it might help the male make the transition to living in my yard easier. The female lasted a few weeks but by the time she died the male had adjusted to living outside my bedroom in a makeshift pen under the shade of two old almond trees. I named him Stevie because the way he held his head and moved reminded me of Stevie Wonder.

Stevie became a pet in every sense of the word. Everyone in the family liked him. The cats rubbed against his legs. Even our Doberman seemed to like hanging around him. Stevie loved to eat leaves from our fruit trees. He'd look you in the eye, then look at the leaves out of his reach, then look you in the eye again, his way of asking for some. Stevie had a serious problem other than partial blindness. Sometimes he would try to look at you with his good eye and would suddenly experience an odd spasm where his neck would twist until his head was upside down and then he would start spinning backwards. He would usually spin until he fell down. We knew he was doomed because the bigger he grew the harder he fell.

Summer turned to fall and Stevie continued to grow as the nights grew cold. We started putting him in a shed at night and when it got really cold or rained we put a heat lamp over him. The first weekend in December, we were getting ready to leave for the day, and I had just fed Stevie some fresh alfalfa. As he started to eat he had one of his spasms and began spinning backwards. I didn't pay any attention to it because it was unpleasant to watch and I had already learned there was nothing I could do to stop it. I went to get the hose to fill up his water bowl and when I came back he lay flopping on the ground. He had caught a leg in the fence and snapped it almost in two. I ran into my house sobbing and told my husband he had to go out and kill Stevie and he had to do it right away because he was suffering so.

Sitting on my couch with my head in my hands, weeping, listening to my kids crying "oh no, oh no," I realized I had loved that bird as much as any pet dog or cat. It's true, you can make a pet out of an ostrich, but I don't recommend it. It took me two days to dig a hole big enough to bury Stevie.

I read once in a book that cranes were the most skilled dancers in the bird kingdom. Whoever wrote that never watched an ostrich dance, especially one in love and showing off for its mate. To watch baby ostriches dance is beautiful. I will never forget once when I had the radio on loud and a hundred or so chicks all started dancing to the music at once. They shifted their bodies from side to side, wobbled their necks to follow their body motion and started spinning around with their wings held in the air, stopping every so

Often to kick, then resuming the spinning again until they were so dizzy they'd fall down. As soon as their balance was restored they'd get up and start dancing again.

The only other young animals I've ever seen do that are human kids. Baby ostriches remind me a lot of children. They are curious, full of energy, precocious and sometimes naughty.

The ostrich industry in southeastern Arizona continued to grow until the market was saturated and the value of ostriches began dropping dramatically. Those who bought into the industry just before the bottom dropped out lost their investments. Everyone began selling their birds and prices dropped even more. Early on in the boom, fortunes had been made. But near the end, fortunes were lost. Farmers ran out of money to keep feeding birds they could not sell and they didn't want to pay for them to be slaughtered and the meat processed.

Many birds were killed in their fields, skinned and the meat and the rest of the carcass burned or buried. The leather was still worth something. One couple paid my husband to kill their rooster and hen for their hides and put the meat in their freezer. They had paid $65,000 for a trio of birds about four years before that. One hen had died shortly after the purchase. The couple had never farmed or raised animals before. I still don't know how they could have eaten that meat without choking.

Those who had raised ostriches in southeastern Arizona had proved the birds could thrive here, but they had failed to prepare for the time when there would be too many ostriches and the price would drop. As prices fell, farmers blamed each other for not doing their part to promote their products. There was a lot of squabbling. A lot of ugly rumors circulated. Threats were made. Punches were thrown.

During the last days, the ostrich farms, including Pacesetter, were selling off everything. I remember one day when a farm just down the dirt road from us was selling off its fence panels. Dust hung in the air from all the trucks and trailers full of panels driving by. My husband and a neighbor were working at plucking and skinning a male ostrich they had just killed at that farm. The carcass was hanging from poles out behind the house. There were piles of feathers everywhere. All our dogs had ostrich legs to chew on. In the midst of all this our 5-year-old daughter came running in the house, yelling, "Mom, there's an ostrich running down the road!" I walked outside to see a big hen running for her life, toward the mountains. In the distance I could see a pickup full of men from a nearby farm speeding in her direction. I knew there was a cattle fence between that hen and the mountains and I wondered if she could make it over. I watched as she approached the fence and saw her make it past. There was nothing else between her and the mountains.

Later an electric company worker went out to that farm to cut the current for non-payment of the electric bill. He was astounded by what he found. There was nobody there, except 300 hungry adult ostriches with no food or water and about 80 dead ones.

It's been about six years now since I've been around ostriches. One day I figured I had handled about 8,000 ostrich eggs, successfully hatching about 2,000. I never dropped an egg. Not one. Near the end of last year I needed part-time work and called the manager at the farm that had been Pacesetter. The new owners raise horses and cattle and I worked there a couple of months cleaning stalls in the barn where I once raised ostriches. At first, it seemed strange to see horses instead of birds in the pens. I felt a little sad that first day there and kept expecting to hear the soft little sound that young ostriches make when they're scared or lonely. Now and then while raking, I'd uncover a dusty feather or two. The first time I stopped and stared at the feather for a moment, picked it up and looked at it closely. I always liked the way ostrich chick feathers twisted into a relaxed spiral shape, like a soft curl. I let the feather go and watched the wind blow it away, then went back to raking horse manure.

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