OSTRICH AND EMU SPECULATORS: Will they get rich quick or just get the bird?

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, Jan/Feb 1994:

DALLAS, Texas––More than 115,000 giant flightless
birds––ratites––roam North American pastures, including 80,000
ostrichs, 35,000 emus, and the occasional rhea. Ratite numbers
have doubled since last year and quadrupled since 1991. At the
present rate of breeding, stoked by speculation, the ratite popula-
tion could double again this year, and perhaps next year, too.
But many of those “pastures” are little more than back yards.
There is as yet no significant market for ratites other than specula-
tion in breeding stock. When no one else wants to cash in insur-
ance policies, mortgage property, and drain life savings to buy
ratites at spectacularly inflated prices, the pyramid of breeders,
dealers, franchisers, and support service vendors will col-
lapse––maybe not this year, but almost certainly soon.

Then, the biggest speculators hope, the fall of the back-
yard Ostrich-man Empire will create another turkey: an alterna-
tive poultry product, cheap enough to compete in the meat mar-
ket, where dead ostrich presently runs from $6 to $13 a pound.
Wholesale ratite slaughter would undercut the current prices not
only of ratite meat but also of feathers, hides, and emu oil, an
extract used in some cosmetics. (The typical emu yields five
quarts.) The bigtime speculators claim lower prices will spur con-
sumer demand. But again, low prices could just kill the ostriches
and emus who have been laying the golden eggs in the hottest ani-
mal-based get-rich-quick frenzy since chinchillas a generation ago.
Ostrich ranching is touted as a revolution in the livestock
business, and the salvation of struggling family farms: one ostrich
will produce as much meat as 20 chickens. Likewise, 30 years
ago, backyard chinchilla ranching was supposed to revolu-
tionize the fur trade and enrich retireees, housewives, and
hobbyists, who could raise the costly animals in their spare
time on glorified sharecropping contracts with companies
that not only sold them breeding stock and essential equip-
ment, but also bought back the pelts after slaughter. But
most of the would-be chinchilla ranchers saw faster profits
in becoming fellow distributors. They bred chinchillas and
sold them to friends, who bred still more and sold them to
friends. The ranched chinchilla population soared; as many
as 100,000 Americans invested before the bubble burst.
Most of them lost their shirts, because there never was
much of a market for chinchilla fur, and was even less of a
market once the antifur movement took hold. Notoriously
fragile, most of the chinchillas meanwhile died of improper
feeding and temperature control, or simple neglect. They
were used as gambling chits in a continent-wide poker
game. When it ended, the surviving chinchillas reminded
the rueful losers of their own greed and gullibility––until
they too lost their skins, at pennies on the dollar.
Banking on death
There have been countless other breeding specula-
tion rackets since chinchillas, many of them still going.
Contemporary with the chinchilla boom-and-bust was a
boom-and-bust in Shetland ponies. Then came trout farm-
ing. Most of the trout farms that didn’t go broke within a
few years became canned angling operations. Touted as
pets, Vietnamese potbellied pigs were the most publicized
animal boom of the 1980s; breeding boars and sows who
fetched $10,000 apiece a few years ago now go for $300 or
less, and hundreds of potbellies have been abandoned at
shelters or sold for slaughter. Smaller recent bubbles have
involved peacocks and fainting goats, while ongoing bub-
bles likely to burst soon center on bison and deer.
Each breeding scheme shares the naive hope that a
thus far little-exploited but prolific species can crash into
mainstream animal husbandry. Speculators assert that even
sheep and goats were once considered exotic, though there
is no historical evidence behind the claim. In fact, the most
recent addition to mainstream domestication was the house-
cat, 5,000 years ago. Dogs, sheep, goats, pigs, horses,
cattle, and poultry all preceded cats into domestication;
while many other species have been raised in captivity
since, only mink and fox, together with rabbits, rodents
and primates commonly used in biomedical research, have
achieved even minor economic significance. The mink and
fox markets, moreover, have crashed twice, once in the
early 1960s and again recently. Fewer than 40 of the 70
years that mink and fox have been ranched commercially
have brought across-the-boards profits.
Still, the lure of getting rich quick by being the
first into a business where animals supposedly do most of
the work is sufficient to sucker even people with the back-
ground to know better. Thousands of educated profession-
als bought thoroughbred horses during the early 1980s,
attracted by tax breaks given to horse investors for several
years under the presidential administration of Ronald
Reagan, himself a horse breeder. As more people got into
thoroughbreds, the fast-rising price of prize studs and dams
became a further incentive. When Congress took away the
tax breaks, the market collapsed. Most of the foals bred
during the speculation frenzy went to the horsemeat market
before they were three years old and even eligible to com-
pete in the Kentucky Derby.
Major corporations have been duped, as well.
British Petroleum and the Weyerhauser timber empire were
among the investors who collectively lost most than $100
million on salmon-ranching
ventures in the Pacific
Northwest during the 1980s.
If breeding stock booms were just a matter of sepa-
rating fools from their money, humanitarians might not
care––but often animal suffering is calculated into the equa-
tion. An unspoken assumption of the breeding boom boost-
ers more often than not is that many of the animals sold will
die from improper or inadequate care, or inherent frailties of
the species, before anyone finds out the market for the end
products isn’t even a fraction as big as was touted. Indeed,
the heavy mortality helps perpetuate the boom phase by
keeping breeding stock scarce––until someone finds a way
to cut the mortality. That’s happened with ratites, and is one
reason the boom is near an end.
Big and hardy as adults, ratites breed at an extra-
ordinary rate. Females typically lay from 30 to 60 eggs per
year, beginning at about age three, but hatch only a frac-
tion. In the wild, the eggs suffer heavy predation, includ-
ing by ants who tunnel into them from below while the
mothers keep vigil against larger foes above. Either in the
wild or in captivity, chicks who hatch successfully are noto-
riously suceptible for about three months to disease, acci-
dent, and predation (in captivity, chiefly attacks by neigh-
borhood dogs). Loss rates of up to 75% were not uncom-
mon when the speculation boom began. However, as the
price of young ratites rose, buyers became sufficiently con-
cerned about protecting their investment that they poured
effort into developing improved incubators, medications,
and handling equipment. Some veterinarians became ratite
specialists. Hatching rates overall have improved to about
60%. Some of the most experienced farms now achieve up
to 92% fertility and 84% hatching. Chick loss rates now run
from 25% to 35% among the bigger operators, reaching
50% among the amateurs.
The fan-dance begins
The ratite boom started in 1986, when Congress
overrode then-president Ronald Reagan’s veto of the
Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The Act imposed an
economic boycott against South Africa, then the only major
ratite-producing nation. Ostriches have been ranched in
South Africa since circa 1840, when ostrich plumes came
into vogue as ornaments to womens’ fashions. Production
peaked in 1910 at 746,000 birds. The economic unrest and
political instability in Europe that preceded World War I
brought a slump, which became a complete crash after the
war broke out and cut off transportation to many of the
major markets. Ostrich ranching might have died out com-
pletely during the Great Depression, as the major remaining
market was for dusting tools. In 1935, however, the
Quaker City String Band wore ostrich-plumed uniforms to
wow the judges at the prestigious Mummers Parade held
New Year’s Day in Philadelphia. Ostrich plumes had been
used by female impersonators in the parade since it began in
1901, but the marching band was the first to adopt ostrich
feathers as an adjunct to male fashion. Within a few years
costumes for the Mummers Parade alone were using up to
150,000 plumes a year, equal to the production of 3,000
birds. Fan-dancer Sally Rand further popularized ostrich
plumes among entertainers during her sensational appear-
ances at the 1938-1939 Golden Gate International
Exposition in San Francisco. The entertainment market
was just big enough to encourage the Klein Karoo
Agriculture Cooperative, of Oudtshorn, South Africa, to
successfully seek a legal monopoly on the sale of ostrich
skins, feathers, and meat. Since 1945 the cooperative has
run the only licensed ostrich slaughterhouse in the world,
stunning the birds by electroshock, then beheading, bleed-
ing, and gutting them much like oversized chickens. To
protect the Klein Karoo monopoly, exports of live ostrich-
es and fertile eggs have remained illegal.
Though moderately lucrative for the participants,
the ostrich monopoly was not of major economic signifi-
cance, even in South Africa, for many years. In 1970, a
typical year, only 26,000 ostriches were slaughtered, a
lower number than the population of many individual
chicken ranches. But then the simultaneous economic rise
of country-western music and the American Southwest
brought a vogue for ostrich leather cowboy boots, com-
monly priced at around $300 a pair. By 1982 the Klein
Karoo cartel kept 120,000 ostriches, exporting 50,000
hides a year to the U.S.; when the boycott took effect,
U.S. ostrich hide purchases had just peaked at 90,000.
Hide prices averaged under $500 apiece. Ostrich feathers,
depending on quality, wholesaled at $150-$300 per pound.
Nearly half the price of both hides and feathers was the cost
of transporting them to the U.S.
Those figures are substantially the same today.
Klein Karoo slaughtered 92,000 ostriches in 1990, as the
boycott was eased, and 150,000 in 1993. The Klein
Karoo flock, after the slaughter, numbers about 160,000,
up 25% in the past decade. The average wholesale price of
feathers is still about $150 per pound, despite the claims of
some speculators that they fetch $1,800 per pound at retail.
Meat prices have also held even. The slaughter value of an
ostrich in South Africa is $330; in the U.S., it would be
$1,250. Transportation still accounts for most of the gap.
While Klein Karoo seems to have regained control
of the ratite product trade after several years of uncertainty,
there was briefly a small unsupplied demand, and that was
all the speculators needed. A handful of Australian emu
ranchers, struggling for years, began rapid expansion in the
belief that feather and hide merchants would have to turn to
them. Though not closely related to ostriches, and only half
as big, emus are also ratites, a generic rather than familial
definition, and have evolved similar qualities to fill approx-
imately the same biological niche. The 19 licensed emu
farms in Australia boosted their holdings to 4,000 birds by
1990, when 1,000 were slaughtered for trial marketing.
The slaughter value proved to be only $150 apiece, and was
expected to dip to $116 a bird within another year, when
the flock was supposed to have increased enough that
11,000 to 15,000 could be killed. That apparently didn’t
happen. Australian emu speculators confidently predicted
the export of 80,000 emu carcasses a year by 1997. This is
also unlikely.
Israeli investors too became involved, building up
a flock of 8,000 ostriches by hatching eggs that were appar-
ently bootlegged out of South Africa.
Holy Protection
The real explosion of the ratite business came in
the U.S. and Canada. Dairy farmer Dale Coody of Lawton,
Oklahoma, touched off the gold rush. Coody had purchased
a male and three female ostriches from the Holy Protection
Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Oklahoma City in 1983.
The monastery flock, kept as pets, was apparently descend-
ed from stock imported before the South African export ban
took effect. Coody correctly guessed that economic pres-
sure on South Africa to end apartheid would eventually cut
off the source of ostrich feathers and hides. Further, he dis-
covered the high price of ostrich leather boots and ostrich-
feather cheerleading and baton-twirling outfits were suffi-
ciently well known to convince many fellow farmers that
ostriches were an unrecognized gold mine. An economical-
ly unsophisticated group of potential investors wouldn’t stop
to think that the price of the specialty goods was high only
because of the limited number of ostriches, and would fall
with any big jump in production. Finally, Coody correctly
supposed that the Holy Protection monastery wouldn’t be
eager to sell further breeding stock, thereby creating com-
petition for itself, if it once realized there might be value in
having a near-monopoly. As one of the few other people
with breeding ostriches, Coody was in the right place at the
right time to cash in––not by selling ostrich hides, meat,
and feathers, but by selling eggs, chicks, and breeding
pairs. He only had to move fast, before other people with
breeding pairs did the same thing. By 1987 he’d expanded
his own flock to 50 adults, while getting 100 other farmers
in 30 states into the ostrich business. That was just the
beginning. By 1989, P e o p l e magazine put Coody’s sales
volume at 300 ostriches per year and his gross at more than
$1 million a year.
Doug Stickler did almost as well. He bought four
ostriches from Holy Protection in 1986, just before the boy-
cott of South Africa took effect. By September 1990,
Stickler had sold 300 chicks in all, at $500-$3,000 each.
Inevitably, rivals began promoting other ratites in
the same manner. Janice and Clyde Castleberry of
Lampasas, Texas, started a parallel boom by using heli-
copters to help them round up and claim 180 feral rheas,
whose forebears had escaped some years before from an
exotic game ranch. The Castleberrys acknowledged that
there never had been much of any market for rhea products
or byproducts, but argued that one could be developed once
the supply could be raised to equal the wholly untapped
potential demand. “Right now our market is only to other
breeders,” Janice Castleberry explained to media, “and we
rarely have any products in enough quantity to sell.”
A present from the USDA
Ratite speculation really caught fire in mid-1989,
after the USDA reinforced the South African trade embargo
with a ban on the import of ostriches and ostrich feathers of
South African origin to prevent the spread of a particular
variety of tick. The ban was somewhat academic, since
feather imports were taking a circuitous route through other
countries, and the Klein Karoo cartel wasn’t about to export
any live ostriches anyway. However, the ban did come at
the right time to reassure ostrich investors that they wouldn’t
be undercut by the end of apartheid.
By now some of the heaviest hitters in exotic ani-
mals were involved––especially Tom Mantzel of Fort
Worth, Texas, noted in the acknowledgements of James
Michener’s 1985 bestselling novel T e x a s for having “more
sable antelope on his ranch than I ever saw in Africa.”
Mantzel as of 1990 owned three ostrich ranches in Texas,
one in an unidentified African nation, and was reportedly
starting yet another in Italy. But his biggest contribution to
the boom was forming the American Ostrich Association.
The AOA provided an umbrella beneath which
ostrich speculators could lobby state governments for recog-
nition of the big birds as “livestock,” carrying with it tax
breaks and a defacto endorsement of the proposition that
ostrich ranching could become genuinely viable. The AOA
also set up a mechanism through which the few breeders
who might have genuine commercial prospects could mar-
shal the dues and contributions of others to finance research
into the solutions to their problems––such as the high mor-
tality rate. Finally, the AOA established a vehicle to help
breeders find ever more buyers. Of the 425 members active
in 1989, only 200 to 250 actually had any ostriches, with
flocks totalling just 5,000. This was five times the estimated
U.S. ostrich population of only one year before. The rest of
the AOA membership were would-bes, drawn in through
the sort of sales psychology Robert Redford and associates
demonstrated in the chapter of their film The Sting headed
“The Shutout.” It wasn’t the opportunity to get rich quick
alone that enticed Redford’s greedy victim: it was being
denied an apparent opportunity that others cashed in on.
The AOA entered 1992 with 1,000 members,
owning about 10,000 birds, and ended the year with 1,700,
owning 20,000. There were then an estimated 2,500 ostrich
ranches in the U.S. all told, according to AOA executive
director Susan Cook Adkins. Fast growth continued.
Currently there are as many as 4,000 ostrich ranches in the
U.S., with a total of up to 80,000 birds.
The parallel American Emu Association had just
50 members when formed in 1989, with an estimated 1,500
breeding pairs of emus. By 1991 there were 700 members,
and a year later there were 1,100, with 30-35,000 birds.
The geometry of growth tells as much as the raw
figures. In 1987 the typical ostrich owner had 20 to 25.
AOA members averaged 11.76, because nearly half of them
had no ostrichs. Today, the typical ostrich owner has no
more than 20, and AOA members still average 11.76.
Note the diminishing average flock size as the
number of ostrich owners increases. The average owner,
rather than building up to numbers viable for agribusiness,
is selling eggs and offspring as quickly as possible to reap
profits while they still can be found.
Because emus are smaller and less costly, emu
owners can usually afford to buy and keep more––but from
1989 to 1992, the typical emu flock remained at 30 birds,
even as the total number of birds increased 23.3-fold.
The average announced sale price for breeding
pairs of ostriches or potential breeding pairs further illus-
trates the trends:
Year High Low Average
1987 $ 15,000 $ 5,000 $12,000
1988 $ n/a $ n/a $12,000
1989 $ 50,000 $15,000 $31,250
1990 $ 75,000 $ 5,500 $46,250
1991 $100,000 $ 5,000 $50,000
1992 $100,000 $ 3,000 $39,750
Up to 1989, the average ratite investor was still a
farmer looking for a more lucrative form of livestock. The
highs and lows of the market rose together. Then the get-
rich-quick crowd muscled in, ranging from professional
speculators who knew exactly how to buy low, drive a price
up, and sell high, to desperate gamblers who often literally
needed to sell their acquisitions in order to pay for them.
The high prices shot up––and the lows fell. While the farm-
ers mostly dealt in established stock, as they had in buying
and selling cattle and pigs, the speculators and gamblers
speculated and gambled on eggs, chicks, and fledglings.
Younger, less proven and even unproven pairs brought less
money––albeit substantially more money than actual market
potential would have suggested was wise. Moreover,
because by 1989 the impetus had become turning a fast
profit rather than establishing a new business, more pur-
chasers were willing to sell for what they could get immedi-
ately, rather than waiting a few months in hopes of doing
better. The professionals in particular knew the bubble
couldn’t last. The high and average prices of ostriches con-
tinued to climb for another two years, as the lows slipped
farther, but by the end of 1992 the number of people selling
low had increased to the point that the average significantly
eroded. (1993 data isn’t yet available.)
The emu market took off as it did in 1989 in direct
response to the rocketing ostrich prices. There had never
been much demand for emus; unlike ostrich feathers, emu
products have never been in vogue. Interest in emus was
and is not just mostly speculative; it was entirely specula-
tive. But that’s what drew the speculators.
Look out below!
There were plenty of warnings all along that ratites
were not the quick way to wealth they appeared to be, nor
even a likely way to make a modest living, if one got stuck
with a flock when the boom turned to bust. Veterinarian
Robert Kane, of Plentywood, Montana, was among the
early skeptics. In 1989 The Wall Street Journal took its first
notice of ratite speculation. “This looks a lot to me like
what we had with chinchillas 20 years ago,” Kane told
reporter Scott McMurray. “We had at least three breeders
here who lost all their investment.”
“It just can’t be anything more than a pyramid
scheme,” added Texas A&M extension poultry specialist
William Cawley, when The Wall Street Journal f o l l o w e d
up about one year later. “The people who get in early make
all the money. A lot of poor people at the bottom are going
to get hurt.”
Confirmed University of Missouri alternative agri-
culture expert Brenda Dykes in a 1991 interview with the
Philadelphia Inquirer, “With a breeder’s market, if you’re
one of the first people in you’re going to make a mint. But
as more and more people get in, you build up the breed,
and then there’s too many on the market. It’s simple supply
and demand.”
Even Coody and the others who built the specula-
tion fervor were remarkably candid about that. “Ten years
from now there will be no $50,000 pairs,” Coody admitted
in interviews, while claiming ostriches would “still be
mighty profitable.”
As far back as 1990, Susan Cook Adkins accu-
rately projected that breeder and chick prices would stay
high for only 18 months to two years, and then “drop fairly
rapidly for another five years,” as ratite numbers grew and
the most gullible investors were plucked.
Pennsylvania emu speculator Dawn Kopecki was
even more frank in a July 1993 edition of the Allentown
Morning Call: “People are refinancing their farms, taking
out loans and advertising for investors,” she explained, “so
they can become emu breeders and catch the bandwagon
before it leaves.”
“As long as people keep laughing about this, it’s
great,” added ostrich breeders Deborah and Matthew
Loving, of Colt’s Neck, New Jersey. “When they stop
laughing, it’s over.”
The price of eggs
Tom Mantzel himself has projected that the price
of emus will fall to just $180 per chick by 1995, while the
authoritative Who’s Who In Live Animal Trade and
T r a n s p o r t suggests ostrich eggs will bottom out at $50
apiece. That may be conservative. Eggs have always been
the most volatile part of the ratite market. Egg prices ranged
from $20 to $500 in 1989, and from $35 to $1,000 in 1992.
(Ostrich eggs go far higher than emu eggs because ostrich
egg fertility can be detected by shining a bright light through
the translucent shell; whether an emu egg is fertile is any-
one’s guess.) Suckers buy high, thinking they’re getting a
bargain because even the most costly eggs still go for a frac-
tion of the price of a fledgling, let alone a proven breeding
bird. More experienced purchasers, aware of the risk that
eggs may not hatch, hold out for better deals. The widen-
ing discrepancy between the highs and lows paid for eggs
reflects the widening gap between people who know ratites
and people who just think they do.
But people caught up in get-rich-quick schemes
usually don’t read The Wall Street Journal, listen to nay-
sayers, or do careful market analysis. They’re more inter-
ested in well-touted success stories, like that of Tom
Broome, of Panela, Texas, who paid $2,400 for first two
ostriches, then sold them 18 months later at the height of
the boom for $20,000. More recently––in November
1992––Ken and Vickie Enoch of Paducah, Kentucky,
bought a pair of 3-month-old ostriches for $7,500. In July
1993 they sold them for $23,000. “We’re taking our profit
and reinvesting it in more birds,” Ken Enoch said. “We’d
be crazy not to. These birds have been increasing in price
by more than $1,000 a month.”
Gamblers rarely quit while winning. A growing
infrastructure draws them into the game. Early ratite pro-
motion came chiefly through advertisements in established
animal trade publications, such as the Rocky Mountain Feed
& Livestock Journal and Animal Finder, whose editorial
content evolved to favor ratite speculation in direct propor-
tion to advertising interest. The first ratite niche publication
was apparently Ostrich News. Begun as a four-page
newsletter with a circulation of just 100, it now boasts more
than 5,500 paid subscribers. Rivals include O s t r i c h
Marketplace and the AOA’s Ostrich Report.
Ostrich syndicates appeared circa 1989, resem-
bling those that sell bull and horse semen––and chinchillas.
Bordelon Breeders International of Fort Worth, Texas, was
an early major player, offering shares of 33% and 50% in
ostriches who remained on the property. A 33% interest in
a breeding pair ran $15,000 or more. Hosting frequent sem-
inars for potential clients, Bordelon sold $332,000 worth of
ostriches and shares in last six months of 1989 alone.
Also emerging were ratite brokerage firms, pro-
viding international computerized marketing service, and
even ratite auctions televised nationwide on cable.
Upping the ante
By now there are just two sorts of people in ratites:
those who know they’re gambling, and those who don’t.
Among the former category are the Lovings, who made
their first fortune speculating in real estate and securities;
ex-horse breeders John and Rachel Sheets of Odessa,
Texas, who acquired 70 ostriches in 1989 and set up incu-
bating facilities for 600 to 700 chicks; and fellow ex-horse
breeders Joe and Sue Dotty of Breezy Point, Minnesota,
who bought 14 ostriches in 1988. By 1989 they were deliv-
ering their sales pitch to as many as 60 potential customers
at a time. Other high-profile breeders who appear to under-
stand the gamble include retirees Gwen & Bob Lairsey of
Blackshear, Georgia, who have banking background; real
estate agent Marilyn Calder, who brought the ostrich racket
to Connecticut and won a long legal battle with neighbors
who objected to the racket her birds made each morning;
and Gary and Kay Heady, of Grass Valley, California,
who turned to ostriches after breeding Rottweilers,
Schnauzers, and potbellied pigs, following some years of
attempting to flip real estate.
It isn’t clear that most other ratite investors see the
whole picture:
David Yoder, of Kalona, Iowa, is breeding
ostriches in preparation for his expected retirement in 1997.
Todd and Linda Deen of Bangor, Pennsylvania,
inherited and refinanced the family farm, then replaced
domestic pigs with potbellies, domestic goats with pygmy
goats, and have gone into rheas, the lowest-priced and least
popular ratites, expecting each marginal pursuit to be more
lucrative than the struggling mainstream livestock markets.
Jeannot Quirion, a seasonally employed steel-
worker in Garthby, Quebec, paid $10,000 for a breeding
pair of ostriches in 1991. He lives farther north than ratites
have ever been successfully raised before.
Wes Thomas, a 47-year-old construction worker
in Wyoming, Ontario, recently bought four ostriches and
two emus. He hopes to sell offspring to struggling live-
stock, tobacco, and tomato farmers. “I got pages of names
of farmers from across Canada who have called to say
they’re fed up with trying to make ends meet,” Thomas
reports. “They’re looking at this thing as a new alternative.”
These are the people who are most likely to get
hurt: little people, of ordinary means and limited knowl-
edge, if any, of commodities trading.
Ratites in myth and legend
The hope that the ratite boom will mature into an
alternative livestock industry rests upon the myth that grow-
ing ratite numbers will encourage the opening of a ratite
slaughterhouse, which will in turn generate consumer
demand for Big Bird burgers.
Bob McKean, of Sonoma, California, began
speculating in ostriches in 1987, after 12 years of breeding
quarter horses. “We estimate that a breeder has a 10-year
chance to raise and sell breeding stock,” McKean told
George Snyder of the San Francisco Chronicle, “before a
large national population is reached and the new markets in
hide, meat, and feathers are developed.”
The requisite population was then supposed to be
100,000 birds. That figure could easily be reached in
1994––but the only visible motion toward building a ratite
slaughterhouse so far came from Arizona entrepreneur Al
Tulliani in 1990. Tulliani applied to the USDA for a permit
to set up a slaughtering plant in Tolleson, Arizona. He
hoped to kill 100 ratites a month, he said, expecting to pay
breeders $1,000 apiece for surplus stock. He claimed a
Paris firm was ready to buy 240 slaughtered carcasses from
him. He said the meat would retail at $95 a pound, more
than ten times the actual going price. He had only one
ostrich on hand, and the sources ANIMAL PEOPLE con-
sulted haven’t heard from him since.
Breeders now tell potential investors that the req-
uisite population to set up a slaughter industry will be
150,000 to 200,000 birds. A.D. Whitehurst of Vernon,
Florida, a past president of the Florida chapter of the AOA,
puts it even higher, at 250,000. University of Kentucky
poultry specialist Tony Pescatore estimated in mid-1993
that a viable slaughter industry would need at least five
more years to develop––if it ever does.
Even when there is a slaughterhouse, there is still
no evidence the public will take to eating Big Bird in any
form. “At this point it’s very speculative. It it is yet to be
shown that ostrich meat can compete in the marketplace,”
warned Michigan State University animal science professor
Cal Flegal recently in the Detroit News.
The idea that a new industry should create supply
far ahead of demand runs contrary to conventional business
wisdom. But ratite speculators point toward growing gov-
ernment involvement as alleged evidence that ratite ranch-
ing can succeed. While Arizona and Arkansas so far are the
only states to recognize ratites as livestock, making ratite
ranchers eligible for tax breaks and subsodozed loans, the
Louisiana Department of Agriculture has informally pledged
to put as much as $5 million into promoting an ostrich
slaughter industry if the eventual slaughterhouse is sited in
Texas also encourages the ratite industry, in keep-
ing with a tradition of welcoming exotic animal ranching
going back to the 1930s, when World War I flying hero
Eddie Rickenbacker and well-heeled friends took advantage
of Dust Bowl land prices to start a string of canned hunting
preserves. There were 486 licensed exotic animal ranches in
Texas when the ostrich boom began. There are now nearly
1,500, including 438 emu operations and 350 ostrich farms.
By 1989 the ratite business in Texas alone was worth from
$7 million to $15 million a year, according to Texas A&M
Department of Agriculture marketing analyst Angelo
Picerrello. By now there is more money in Texas
ratites––almost all of it tied up in speculation––than in the
whole global trade in ratite products except breeding stock.
Agriculture Canada too is backing ratites, having
recently put $200,000 into a joint ostrich-and-emu breeding
venture in the Abitibi-Temiscaming region of Quebec.
But other jurisdictions are more skeptical. The
California Assembly Revenue and Taxation Committee, for
example, has repeatedly refused to give ostrich feed the
sales tax exemption now given to feed for cattle, sheep,
and conventional poultry.
Critics of government meddling in commerce
often claim the use of public capital in support of untested
enterprise is the recipe for a boondoggle. Arizona, Texas,
Louisiana and Agriculture Canada have all lost big on other
exotic livestock ventures. Louisiana, for example, along
with Florida, has pushed both alligator ranching and a
revival of alligator hunting in recent years. First speculation
in alligator eggs and breeding stock put many would-be
ranchers under a heavy debt burden; then a gator-hunting
boom undercut the market, which is now undergoing a
shakeout so severe that about a third of the alligator ranches
in business at the beginning of 1993 were out of business by
year’s end. Apparently the decision-makers grossly overes-
timated the markets for alligator hides and meat.
Of the government agencies at all levels that have
become involved in ratites, only the Animal and Plant Health
Inspection Service of the USDA seems likely to turn a buck.
Anticipating that the ratite boom will extend to imported
breeding stock, once the way is opened to admit more import-
ed eggs, chicks, and breeding pairs, APHIS periodically
accepts bids from investors who want to run private quarantine
stations. Successful bidders must deposit $10,000 in faith
money before even getting started. By mid-1992 there were 30
private quarantine stations open and permits had been issued to
75 more operators. Announcing that bids on yet another 13
openings for new quarantine stations would be considered,
APHIS received 20,000 applications from 2,000 people (who
could each bid on all 13 openings.) Said Billy Johnson,
APHIS deputy administrator for veterinary services, “The
response overwhelmed us. The lottery to select the winning
bidders had to be postponed for more than a month to allow the
applications to be processed.”
The ratite balloon could deflate with either a bang or a
whimper, depending upon whether it simply runs out of hot
air or a dramatic event precipitates a panic. Conditions capa-
ble of producing a panic are underway, as control of the
South African government has shifted with the end of
apartheid, and the black politicians just coming to power have
no allegiance whatever to either Klein Karoo or the Boer
establishment of which it is a symbol. Independent ostrich
breeders have grumbled for years that, as consultant John
Harrison puts it, “The archaic controls on slaughtering &
marketing are costing farmers up to $30 million a year.” The
Transvaal Ostrich Producers Association has threatened to
buck the Klein Karoo monopoly by opening its own slaugh-
terhouse––illegally if necessary, says chairman Wilhelm Le
Clus, DVM. Shut out of legal profits from the U.S. ostrich
boom, some South Africans have made Namibia a conduit for
smuggling ostrich chicks and eggs via night flights from
secret airstrips, the leading Namibian newspaper, the
Windhoek Advertiser, revealed in May 1993. A black home-
land set up by South Africa, Namibia exists under South
African dominion with limited self-rule. After the expose,
the Namibian government legalized ostrich exports for a
month, then reimposed the export ban, under South African
pressure, in July.
Smuggling continues not only through Namibia,
but also through Bophuthatswana, a parallel homeland, and
Zimbabwe. If the smuggling ever gives way to unrestricted
legal trade, which could be as soon as the new South African
government decides it would rather tax lucrative exports than
protect an industry that could be overwhelmed soon by for-
eign competition, a glut of ostriches available from South
African breeders at a third to a tenth the going U.S. prices
might leave thousands of investors with costly creatures they
don’t want––and perhaps can’t sell to anyone at any price.
Ostrich speculator Kenneth Roberts, of Rush
Springs, Oklahoma, several years ago expressed the most
pernicious misconception behind the ratite bubble, which is
also why humanitarians are increasingly anxious about the
aftermath when it bursts.
“Basically you treat them like stray cats,” he said.
“All they require is food and water and a half acre.”
Feeding a ratite costs approximately as much as
feeding a cat: from 50¢ a day for an emu to 86¢ a day for an
ostrich. At those prices, the cost of feeding either one to
slaughter weight is close to the actual slaughter value. Many
people who can’t unload ratites profitably may decide they
can’t afford to keep feeding them. They may then continue to
treat the big birds like cats, either killing them by crude
means or turning them loose to go feral. Almost certainly,
birds who should never have been bred will suffer right along
with embittered people who lose their life savings. The only
consolation for humane onlookers will be that even more of
the birds would suffer, in the manner of all livestock, if the
ratite business ever does actually establish itself.
––Merritt Clifton
[Clifton details bison and deer speculation in the Winter]
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