Checking Out the Emu Trade in Baltimore County
Visiting this Baltimore County emutorium was my first experience with these large, flightless birds, but I'd read enough about emus to wonder about their intelligence. (On the very day of my visit, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about emus on the loose in Texas, quoting a deputy saying that the birds "have brains the size of peas, and that's on the generous
side.") It made me wonder: If they're that stupid, how could these birds have outlasted their prehistoric peers, the dinosaurs whose legendarily small brains made extinction inevitable? After spending a morning with these big, dim birds, I'm no closer to the answer. Call it dumb luck.
According to the American Emu Association (AEA), the emu is a prehistoric bird thought to have roamed the Australian outback 80 million years ago. When humans showed up, the Aborigines and the emu began a relationship analogous to that of Native Americans and bison. Australia's original citizens looked to the emu for food, shelter, clothing, and--believe it or not--spiritual inspiration.
Humans still look to the emu for food and clothing, and the marketing possibilities for this bird have seduced many American ranchers, some of whom paid as much as $30,000 for a pair. (Recent shifts in the market have dramatically reduced the birds' value, although ranches such as Sparks Emu continue to be optimistic about the financial possibilities.) The May 2 Post article reported that Texas ranchers were so disappointed with the market for emus that they began freeing the birds, who soon showed up along highways and in residential areas.
Emus are raised primarily for their meat, which can be ground or served as steaks and contains only 3 percent fat, compared to an average of 20 percent for beef. In this country, possible markets for emu products are just being tapped. In the Baltimore area, only a few restaurants serve emu; Fells Point's Birds of a Feather offers it regularly, and John Stevens in Fells Point and Linwoods in Owings Mills occasionally have an emu special. (Sparks Emu offers visitors samples of Aussie Jack's Snack Stix--emu jerky.)
The big birds are also prized for their oil, which is praised for its supposed medicinal qualities. I took to it better than the jerky--a cut on my hand Louise treated with a little emu oil was nearly healed by the next morning. She told us the National Football League uses the oil for various injuries and skin problems because it "bonds" with the skin, creating a second protective layer.
Nonetheless, at the moment, as the AEA reluctantly admits, emu farming is mostly about potential. Each ranch has to do what it can to create a market.
Sparks Emus, located just east of Hunt Valley Mall, is a family-run ranch that houses birds of all ages and sizes. Louise is the ranch's jack-of-all-trades. She had promised a complete tour--everything from the unbroken, teal-colored eggs in the incubators to the 120-pound full-grown birds choosing their mates--but wet weather required her to reverse the order of the tour so we'd end up inside the hatchery, where it's warm and dry. She led us first to the open pens, where the full-grown emus live.
"Don't stick your fingers through the fence," she instructed us. "They don't have any teeth, but their beaks are very strong." We approached the gate and gazed at the vast number of strange-looking birds. She reached out to an emu. "Would you like to donate a feather?" she asked, beckoning the dull brown bird to her. "Come on, come here." The emu just stared. "They're dumb as dirt," Louise reiterated.
The emu didn't look terribly bright. He stood just slightly taller than me, probably somewhere around 5-foot-8. His orangish eyes were dull, as was his coat of feathers, a grayish-brown with a sprinkling of white. A patch of sky-blue skin marked his long, gray throat. He stood on two impossibly skinny legs, reminiscent of an ostrich, the emu's distant relative. Louise told us that the emu's legs were incredibly powerful. ("Think kickboxer," she said.) His feet had all the markings of a prehistoric creature, with three long, splayed toes, each capped with a sharp nail. Most of these full-grown emus had just arrived from Texas.
Emus are all-weather birds, Louise explained. They are comfortable in nearly all climates, so the Texas summer is no more of a burden than the Maryland winter. Their only fat consists of a layer just under their skin. This is where the fabled emu oil originates.
While Louise talked, we became aware of a low rumbling sound. At first I assumed it came from a machine, then I imagined something was flying overhead. Louise watched as my friend and I looked around for its source. It sounded like a water-cooler glug, only deeper. It was rhythmic, but warm, and the air practically vibrated.
"It sounds like a rainstick in a 50-gallon drum, doesn't it?" Louise asked with a laugh. "It's the females warning you away."
It's hard to imagine such a sound could be threatening--it seemed much more likely to lull one to sleep--but it was awe-inspiring. Every female in the herd seemed to be staring us down. We took the hint and headed indoors to see the smaller emus.
Louise introduced us to Rachel. All around her were little emus, some still unsteady on their brand-new legs, others already comfortable enough to wander. Rachel explained that her parents, native Australians, own the ranch. She runs the place and takes care of the emus, a full-time job.
Rachel let us watch as she brought the new emus out of the hatchery. The newborns leave behind beautiful teal shells that are sometimes used for jewelry and art. These little birds are adorable, all confused and cuddly. Their eyes are dark but bright, and they haven't yet acquired the asymmetrical dimensions of their elders. When I held one I marveled over how soft and tiny it was. I could feel its little heartbeat.
Rachel pointed out the rubber-matted concourse where she sets the newborn emus to learn to walk before joining their peers as the end of the pen. Before an emu is allowed to test its new legs, Rachel tags the bird with a device that resembles a hole-punch. The tags seemed old-fashioned, but Rachel and Louise explained that attempts at using microchip identification was a disaster, usually making it difficult to slaughter the birds for meat.
And the meat is what emu ranching is all about. I suddenly understood why Louise usually ran the tour from birth to adulthood. The big birds seem distant and dumb, but the little chicks feel too much like pets to imagine them as gourmet fodder, however low-fat they may be.
As if anticipating my thoughts, Louise told us that these birds are most definitely born to be slaughtered. "They're like cows; that's why they're here," she said. "Maybe in their next life they'll be lucky enough to come back as something else."
Still, when Louise led us into the office at the end of the tour, we couldn't eat the Aussie Jack's Snack Stix she gave us. (We did try it later; low fat or no, I didn't like it any better than a Slim Jim.) And as she spread emu oil on my hand, I had the weirdest feeling the baby emus were watching me. I felt as if I should apologize.
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