Elusive emu in Eldersburg

Visitor: The large, flightless Australian bird made itself at home in a neighborhood until caught by animal control officers.

December 30, 2003|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Her neighbor, who rushed in with news of an unusual sight, didn't know exactly what kind of a critter was prowling their quiet Carroll County neighborhood. But Carol DeLisle had worked as a youngster at the Baltimore Zoo and the downtown aquarium, and she has read about Australia in hopes of one day traveling there.

She knew an emu when she saw one.

Early yesterday afternoon, the emu -- about 5 feet tall, with black, white and tan feathers and, DeLisle noted, "long eyelashes" -- was still making itself at home behind a split-level house in Eldersburg. But no one seemed to be any closer to solving the mystery of where it came from.

And though the big bird seemed disinclined to leave, it was time for it go later in the day -- even if its captors had to come equipped for battle.

When DeLisle first saw the bird on the afternoon of Christmas Day, she assumed it had escaped from a farm. While she and her neighbor were talking, the bird easily hopped a split-rail fence to the next yard in the court -- and took a position by a glassed-in porch.

"He really liked looking at himself in the glass," she said. "Lonely, I would assume."

She tried to feed the emu with exotic bird feed mixed with tangerines and other fruits and vegetables. The neighborhood children named the bird. Some called it Harvey, others Edward or Eddie.

Some in the neighborhood, at a loss to explain where the bird came from, called Colleen Layton, who runs Frisky's Wildlife and Primate Sanctuary on 4 acres in the Howard County community of Woodstock.

By yesterday, she had found someone willing to care for the emu until its owner could be found, and she was willing to help with the bird's rescue.

Layton, whose menagerie includes coatamundi and a diabetic hybrid monkey, said, "This was my first emu."

Officials from the Humane Society of Carroll County said they had reports of the large bird in the area for about two weeks, including one that it had been hit on busy Route 26 and others sightings from farther south.

The society has received about a dozen emu complaints over the past couple of decades, said Nicky Ratliff, the humane society's longtime executive director. She recalled the time that an emu running amok on the Westminster airport runway had to be killed.

About eight years ago, she said, the emu was a hot, new investment, promoted for its low-fat meat.

A breeding pair then sold for $25,000 -- but now might be picked up for $10 at auction -- and some are just turned loose.

She said it was unusual that the bird would stay in one place for several days. There was nothing keeping it in the back yard, which was fenced on only three sides. The birds are flightless and usually weigh more than 100 pounds, but that doesn't mean they aren't agile. They can jump almost 6 feet, run 35 mph and, she said, "turn on a dime."

They are "great big fast chickens," Ratliff said.

The emu are not dangerous unless cornered -- when they could kick with a toe that "could eviscerate you," she said.

Tranquilizing them risks harming the animal because it may whip its long neck and cause brain injuries.

The officers who set out yesterday to corner, subdue and catch the Eldersburg emu brought a lasso and a section of wire fence used as a sort of portable corral.

"The fence technique is very useful," said Brian E. Rupp, a 16-year veteran who completed a large-animal rescue class in March and has had several emu encounters. "They can disembowel you if you're not careful. I have a 5-inch scar on the back of my leg from one of these guys."

Cornered, the bird fell on its side, struggled to its feet and stalked off in an apparent huff.

Rupp and colleague Mark Miller and several neighbors waited, then the officers shooed the emu toward the fence. Eventually they were able to throw a small hood over its head.

In the struggle, a piece of split-rail fence was broken.

A black cat in a cage appeared only mildly curious as the large bird was loaded into a van, thrashing once before being driven to the animal control shelter.

There, said Rupp, it will be placed in a stall to calm down from the stress of capture. Then, at least for now, it will be let free in a pen with a pony for company.

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