Spring 1997 Poultry Press

November 10, 1996 Brandywine Farms Hemet, California

Ostrich Investigation
by Cherylynn Brown

This ostrich hen's neck was torn by a metal round-up hook (photo by Cherylynn Brown)

The ostriches were going to the San Diego Airport for transportation to Brussels, Belgium that day. The average value per bird was $875.

As we drove down the dirt road we passed a double decker cattle truck packed with ostriches. Their heads extended a couple of feet out of the top of the truck. All mouths were open and their eyes looked wild and fearful. . . .

Chip has to finish loading the rest of the birds going to the airport, a total of 165 birds. One large trailer is filled with ostriches. I take photos and count 17 birds in the back compartment, about 8 X 12 square feet. Several birds jump into each other and try to run through the wall while crying a high-pitched scream.

Handling the Ostriches for Transportation

I take pictures of the following scenes:

  1. Birds standing with black cloth wrapped around their faces.

  2. A person holds a metal hook on a 8 to 10-foot pole while another helps him corner the ostriches. Together they work to put black cloth tubes over the ostriches' heads. Even with the tubes blinding them the birds try to walk or run.

  3. One bird has a broken wing. She is being sold for less.

  4. As the ostriches are being forced toward the truck, they jump and try to run, swinging the farm workers around. The workers hold onto their tail feathers, ripping them out by the handful. They grab them at the face by the beak. They wrestle the birds into a hold by the neck, then force them to the gate, then into a pathway leading to the truck.

  5. I see ostriches fighting Chip and his helpers as they push them onto the truck. One ostrich, whom Chip calls "Schizy," drops her mask and struggles away from the handlers.

  6. Chip is angry at her as she sits down refusing to get up and enter the truck. He kicks her several times in the thigh with the toe of his boot. She cries but does not try to stand or run. Chips looks over at me and sees I see him kicking her. He attempts to cover his action by saying she fell on his foot and hurt it.

  7. He stands back and tells her, "You can get up now." She sits there. He grabs her wing and tries to lift her. She refuses. Ruben comes over and kicks her in the butt a few times. She cries but stays sitting. They pull her on her wings and neck, but she will not move.

  8. So Chip and two workers push her to the opening of the truckdoor as she sits on the ground. They put their hands under her feet and lift. She is half way in the air and she kicks her feet away from them. They grab her body and wings and force her on the truck. She sits hanging off the side of the door. They push her in most of the way and shut the door behind her to push her the rest of the way in. A bunch of tail feathers are caught in the door. Her tail feathers are hanging out as the truck drives away.

    The Incubators

    Chip tells Ruben to show me the incubators in his bedroom. One can hold 1,000 eggs, another 500. The incubators have hard plastic cubicles on trays where they keep the eggs, which hatch in 42 days. Neither is in use so I ask if they also let the ostriches hatch the eggs. Fred said they can but Chip doesn't want to let them.

    Uncooperative = Stupid

    Fred says, "Ostriches are so dumb." He says when they load the ostriches they try to go in the other direction every time. The job is exhaustive because the birds are too stupid to cooperate, he says.

    Ruben goes to a metal cabinet. He takes out a needle, thread, an Ostrich Master, antiseptic spray, and a bucket of soapy water. He has to stitch up the ostrich who had her neck ripped open by the hook in the attempt to send her to Brussels.

    Dead and Dying Ostriches

    We drive to an area I had not seen yet. Fred points to an ostrich sitting in a corner of a pen holding 50 birds. He says if she doesn't get up today, tomorrow she'll be dead, because they go fast when they go. It can be because of depression, loneliness, or simply the will to die. There's no way to force them to eat and some stop eating and let themselves starve to death.

    I ask why one male had a large lump on the top and back of his head. Ruben says he was hit. It would not have been another ostrich but that they run into the fences and mess their heads up easily.

    Many birds have almost no feathers on their backs. Fred says it's because the others eat them. Signs of stress: eating feathers, lack of feathers, pacing along fences, lumps and bruises on their heads and bodies from running into the fence trying to escape.

    Fred wants me to see the dead pile. We park and walk over to where three ostriches lie dead. One is full grown and has had his chest eaten away by a wild animal. One was three months old and died in transit. The third just sat down one day and never got back up. Fred said seven died last week and showed me where they were buried. I take a picture of the site.

    Herding Damages----Surgery

    We drive to where Ruben is trying to catch the bleeding ostrich hen in the driveway between pens. After her neck was torn wide open in an attempt to catch her with the metal hook, the buyer rejected her.

    The skin of the neck is so soft it cannot be made into leather and it feels delicate like the skin of a house cat. The cut opened her neck so that the muscles covering the neck cartilage are totally exposed for about 14 inches. Ruben stops her and puts an electric device trademarked as an "Ostrich Master" on her beak.

    She falls to the ground as an electrical hum is made by the machine that lasts about 90 seconds. The sound stops and her run slows, but she won't lie down or let anyone hold her. She runs past us several times and regularly gets her leg caught on the wire fence. Twice she falls so that her neck hits the wire causing her to become tangled and frightened as she struggles to get back on her feet.

    Finally Ruben catches her and grabs her beak as she fights to get away. He clips the wire on her upper beak and turns on the electric juice. She falls to her knees and when Fred attaches the second wire under her tail near her rectum, she drops to the ground. As she continues to resist, the electricity is turned up to 19 on the dial. Now she hardly moves.

    Ruben shows me how this process works by having me put my hand on the base of the ostrich's head near the cut on her skin. I can feel the electric current flowing through her. It feels strong. As I hold my hand on her for 30 seconds I feel the electricity being absorbed into my hand, like having my hand in water where an electrical charge is.

    Ruben washes her wound with soapy water and his gloved hands (I watch him cut the suture wire with bare dirty hands) and sews her up with stitches about a half inch apart. To call a veterinarian costs $150-$200 just to sew her up, he says, so they save money by doing it themselves. They learned to do it this way because of the times the doctor arrived just to charge them for the news the bird was going to die. A dead bird is loss enough without paying for the vet, who usually cannot save the bird's life.

    Ruben is tying up a knot in the suture and Fred slaps the hen on her thigh and says, "Now you're going to go for meat. You could have gone to Brussels," and he laughs at her grave error. The hen rolls over to the inside of the wire fence, stumbles onto her feet, and dashes to the back of the pen.

    Feeding

    Fred takes me in the van along the pens holding up to 500 birds on this property totaling 80 acres including the house, parking, etc. Pens 5 and 6 are about 30 X 60-80 feet each where they put the thin or sick birds. Here they get "vitamins" in their food to keep them alive long enough to get them to the slaughter plant. I see 12 to 20 adult ostriches looking unhealthy and miserable in the sick pens.

    We go to the young ostrich pen. The young ostriches are pretty with their camouflage patterned feathers.

    About half of the ostriches in the adult pens have bare backs or buttocks. I am told the ostriches eat them off each other because they are bored. Ostriches like to eat a variety of foods they are not offered in their daily farm feed. Fred adds there is no way to force an ostrich to eat once they decide to stop. He says it is sad that these birds are so depressed they will stop eating and starve until they die. The farmers remedy the situation by slaughtering the starving bird before it stops breathing. Otherwise they must count the dead bird as a loss.

    Aggressive Ostriches

    In a pen next to the sick pen are two adult males who are said to be very aggressive. That is why they are kept separate from the rest of the herd. This is the smallest pen--30 X 50 feet.

    Fred gets out to show me how aggressive these two are. He enters the pen and picks up a large thin stick. He breaks off pieces and throws them sharply at the ostrich closest to him. The bird jumps back and freezes. Fred continues to throw pieces of stick causing the bird to lunge away until both male ostriches run to the corner of the pen farthest from Fred. After quitting his attempted demonstration of how mean ostriches can be, Fred excuses their behavior by saying they did not attack him because of the truck engine sound.

    Improper Fencing

    The pens have two types of fencing. One is made of single strands of wire about 16 inches apart running horizontally to posts 6 to 8 feet apart. This type of fence results in broken necks and legs of many ostriches. They suffer injuries from the impact of running into the fence which does not evenly distribute the impact. The owner has not replaced this fencing despite loss and damage of birds.

    The second type of fence is made of small wire squares. All the pens holding baby chicks have this type of fence because of coyotes. The babies I saw spent most of the time running along the side of the fence in a pacing fashion. In the pen with the youngest chicks was a full grown female. She was the only happy ostrich I had seen all day and her face was very beautiful. Fred said she was picked to watch the babies because she was considered the most protective. She would chase away any animal that might try to enter the pen to eat one of the young.

    Feathers, Egg Shell, and Steaks at the Farewell

    I put an armful of tail and wing feathers pulled out during catching into my car. I cannot pick up all of them because there are so many. They have no plans to use them so I say I want to wash the poop off and put them in a vase when I get home. The base of the feathers still has fresh blood and skin tissue attached and lots of small bugs with a soft yellow back and small head.

    I ask if they de-feather the birds periodically and am told the owner wanted them to, but they refused because the job would be very hard to do. They show me the freezer in the corner of the office and hand me a sample of packaged ostrich steaks. Chip owns a slaughterhouse as well as the farm and the address is on the package. They encourage me to come back or call if I have any more questions. A few weeks later I visit the slaughterhouse and videotape the slaughter.

What Can I DO?
  • For information about obtaining this U.S. ostrich slaughter footage contact Cherylynn Brown, PO Box 5469, Beverly Hills, CA 90210 (310-395-6337).

  • Stop the sale of ostrich meat. Promoters are targeting health-food stores. Distribute UPC's brochure about ostriches and emus, "Nowhere To Hide." Show Cherylynn Brown's video of Brandywine Farms and The Humane Society of the United States' new video, Ratite Slaughter. Expose the horror behind the hype.
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