Winging it as virus threatens emu farms

Disease: Ranchers proceed with caution after one of the hardy birds is found dead of West Nile in Howard.

September 20, 2002|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

When a Howard County emu chick died of West Nile virus in mid-August, a myth died with it.

"We all thought emus didn't get West Nile virus," said Diane Brown, who raised the chick with 22 other birds on her family's farm in Highland.

That's the latest emu myth to bite the dust. The bird that many had hoped would provide the red meat of the 1990s -- and that once fetched up to $40,000 per breeding pair -- never fulfilled its promise. Many emu ranchers abandoned the business as prices sank to less than $100 per pair.

Ranchers who weathered that decline believe the industry is on the verge of turning around because of a growing market for emu oil, derived from fat on the birds' backs, which supporters claim can cure anything from joint pain to stretch marks.

But now that emus are known to contract West Nile virus, ranchers are watching their birds for strange behavior, fretting about whether to vaccinate their flocks and hoping that the disease doesn't turn into another obstacle.

"We're not panicked, but we're terribly concerned because we don't know that much about the disease and how it affects emus," said Pat Sauer, executive director of the American Emu Association, a national trade association.

"We really thought we would have a big year," Brown said.

That emus, a relative of ostriches, can contract the West Nile virus surprised many ranchers who were attracted to the birds for their hardiness. Native to Australia, the birds are raised as far north as Canada and almost never get sick, according to ranchers.

"We didn't even have a vet for them," Brown said.

Officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said they have not received an official report from Maryland officials who announced that West Nile caused the death of Brown's bird. CDC officials said it is likely the first such case in the country.

Emus were brought to the United States during the 1930s, mainly as specimens to be kept in zoos. During the late 1980s, the birds began gaining popularity as a healthful food, and some hoped that emu meat would rival beef. Others promoted the bird's skin, which can be used for leather, and their feathers, which are used in decorations.

But the short-lived emu craze cooled, and prices sank as ranchers discovered that Americans were not buying emu steaks.

There were reports of emu ranchers setting their stock free or giving them away. Two Texas emu ranchers admitted that they tried to dispose of their flock with a baseball bat in 1997, killing 22 of more than 100 birds before they were stopped by police.

`No money' in emus

Although the emu industry is concentrated in Texas and other southwestern states, Maryland's has had its share of hardship.

Fred Bias, who owns Flatland Farm in Welcome in Charles County, spent about $40,000 to buy and fence in his flock of nearly 100 emus. He had hoped the craze would last, and he was encouraging local schools to buy emu hot dogs as a lunch item.

"It seemed like a good investment that would take off," he said.

But Bias gave away his last two birds about three weeks ago, and has converted his fields into horse pastures.

"There's just no money in [emus]," he said.

Emu supporters say the crash was inevitable, as less-dedicated ranchers dropped out. During the high point of the emu craze in the early 1990s, the American Emu Association had about 6,000 members. That number has dropped to 650.

"I don't want this to come out the wrong way, but [people who are ranchers now] are the kind of people we want in the industry," Sauer said.

The Browns have lived on their land, called Carlhaven Emu Farm, for several generations and bought their first six chicks in 1996 for $200, planning to raise emus as a way to preserve the family farm. They have spent about $4,000 to increase their flock, which is kept in pens near the family's garden.

To visitors, the sight of 3-foot-tall emu yearlings running in a herd near the lettuce patch is surreal, as if the set of Jurassic Park had relocated to Howard County.

"It does take a little while to get used to," Brown said as she fed an emu raspberries from her hand.

Raising the birds has been a challenge, the Browns said. Emus lay their dark-green eggs during the winter, generally at dusk. Although this behavior is suitable in the birds' native Australia, it is more problematic in Maryland's cold weather, which can cause the eggs to crack.

Each female can lay up to 45 eggs a year. About four months every year, the Browns bundle up and take flashlights to hunt the grapefruit-sized eggs.

"Kind of like Easter in the winter," said Alison Brown, Diane Brown's 23-year-old daughter, as she walked through a pen recently.

No vaccine for birds

The most vexing problem is West Nile virus. The Browns had noticed that one of their chicks wasn't eating and that its legs were wobbly. Then the bird began arching its neck awkwardly, almost like a swan, running with a strange, high-stepping gait. It died soon after.

While the bird was being tested for West Nile virus by state officials, two others birds, an adult and another chick, began acting strangely and stopped eating.

Both animals have recovered, although the chick is now knock-kneed and runs awkwardly after its brothers and sisters.

"We're probably going to have to put him down," Diane Brown said as she watched the bird straggle behind the flock.

Although the Browns fret about their birds, they can't do much else: Scientists have developed a vaccine for horses, but nothing exists to protect birds. Some scientists have tried the horse vaccine on birds, but the Browns are not interested.

Other Maryland emu ranchers also are concerned. "It does seem like it's going to be a problem for [emu ranchers] ... so we have to wait for a vaccination," said Jim Royer, who is raising nearly 50 emus on his farm in Sabillasville.

"Everything would be perfect if it wasn't for West Nile," Alison Brown said.

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