Emu: Flight of fancy or food for thought?


April 28, 1996|By MIKE BURNS

WHEN I WAS working in Argentina years ago, one of the striking features of the pampas, or the open plains, was the rhea -- a large flightless bird with long legs that looks like a small ostrich.

The rhea ran wild on the grassy savanna, mixing with the cattle and occasionally grazing with the sheep. For occasional sport, or for entertainment of city-slicker guests, the cowboys of the estancia might display their skills in throwing the bola (three stone balls on the ends of a leather cord) to entangle the legs of the fleeing birds and bring them down.

At dinner one night, my rancher host served what he said was roasted rhea, along with more bountiful and flavorful plates of grilled beef, lamb and sausages. The bird tasted like tough, dry dark turkey meat that needed a pungent sauce.

In the touristy shops of Buenos Aires, soft and durable handbags and belts of the bird's hide were among the offerings. "Ostrich" was the typical quick explanation of the shopkeepers for Americans who did not speak Spanish or pursue the matter. The rhea's feathers are not as attractive as the ostrich's plumes, but they were sold as curios in shops.

These recollections of the marginal utility of the rhea, even where it is raised relatively wild, emerged last weekend with the story of the flap over a Mount Airy woman's effort to raise emus on her Carroll County farm. Avian-rights protesters held a demonstration against emu ranching, charging that it is an inhumane exploitation of wildfowl.

The emu is an Australian cousin to the ostrich and rhea, offering the potential commercial advantages of low-fat red meat, supple hides and fluffy hairlike feathers.

Key word is 'potential'

The key word is "potential," because breeding pairs now cost several thousand dollars, suitable processing plants are few and there is little call for the exotic meat. In fact, there is the suggestion that emu-raising may be a type of pyramid scheme in which breeders make money selling to other breeders until there is no one left to buy the animals and no consumer demand for the animal products.

The United Poultry Concerns picketers made that point. They also claimed that these large birds are defeathered and killed in great pain, because they are not stunned before slaughter like hoofed livestock (in order to better preserve the feathers). It is senseless to raise such animals for such a terrible end and for so little human benefit, they argue.

That's a justifiable consideration in the propagation of any domestic animals, or in the taking of wildlife. That's why there are rules for "humane" slaughter of livestock. The worldwide campaign against whale harvests is founded on the premise that production of pet food is not ample justification for killing off the planet's largest mammals.

Diana Beuchert has about 100 emus on her Carroll farm, raising them in the hopes of creating a sustainable, marketable flock of poultry. She's not at the stage to bring them to consumer market (except to sell to other breeders). There's no acceptable slaughterhouse in this area.

If the demand for emu meat, and byproducts, can be established in the United States, then Mrs. Beuchert may be seen as a sort of pioneer in the agricultural field, perhaps as commercial turkey farmers earlier in this century. If not, she will be faced with the hard decision of what to do with her growing flock of hungry, long-necked Aussies.

Domestication of wildfowl for agricultural purposes is not unusual. Chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys were once wild species, after all. If emus can serve as useful providers of legitimate human needs, their commercial domestication may be worthwhile.

At the same time, you have to wonder about the growing fad of raising exotic animals on domestic farms. Alpacas and llamas are high on this list of favorites, so are swans. At what point does this hobby become a burden, the animals unwanted or unbearable pests, the goal of a new livestock venture unachievable?

UPC's mission

As for the United Poultry Concerns group, headquartered in Montgomery County, it will continue to ruffle feathers wherever poultry is raised or used. It's opposed to the entire poultry industry, whether the product is eggs or flesh, and to cruel sport with birds.

While it exposes cruel and inhumane practices in the production of commercial fowl, UPC's ultimate objective is to stop eating birds and instead to respect them, even pet them, as fellow creatures on earth. They've picketed Frank Perdue and fighting-fowl breeders, set free chickens on the way to the abattoir and vigorously promoted (non-egg) vegetarian diet.

Another of UPC's campaigns, however, seemed to make its point about emu ranching. Giant Food stocked some emu meat in its McLean, Va., gourmet department last year, but shortly discontinued the (very expensive) product due to lack of demand. The animal protection group claimed that its protest letters showed Giant that emu just wouldn't fly.

Mike Burns is The Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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