15 March 2017

A brief history of the Chandler Ostrich Festival

As published in: The Arizona Republic
March 10-11, 2017

Ostrich looking into the camera
Gawk at the large birds at the Chandler Ostrich Festival in March. The city's namesake, Dr. A.J. Chandler, is said to have had a farm of ostriches, whose plumes were used in women's hats in the 1900s. Now, the festival has music, food, rides and a score of events. But the main attraction is the ostrich races in which handlers race the birds, which weigh more than 200 pounds, on their backs.
(Photo: Jack Kurtz/The Republic)

Corrections & clarifications: A previous version of the story was unclear about chariot races. The Ostrich Festival no longer features them.

The Chandler Arizonan said “Ostriches are all the rage in Chandler” in 1914 and they’re still the talk of the town more than 100 years later.

The city's 29th annual ostrich festival begins Friday, March 10, and will feature performances by the Gin Blossoms and the Spin Doctors, alongside an assortment of ostrich-themed events.

Ostriches, or Struthio camelus if you’re fancy, have a long history in Arizona and Chandler specifically. But that relationship has caused its share of controversy with organizations such as PETA calling for an end to the event.

But how did the festival start and, better yet, why?

Ostrich Fun Facts:

-- Ostriches have the largest eyes of all land animals.

-- Ostriches are omnivores, meaning they eat meat and vegetables.

-- The first ostriches imported into the United States were brought to California in 1888.

-- All the ostriches in North America are "hybrids" of other breeds and are considered domesticated.

-- Ostriches are the only birds with two toes.

-- An ostrich kick can kill a lion.

-- The North African species of Ostrich is considered "critically endangered."

-- Ostriches are one of the oldest species of birds on the planet.

-- During mating season, female ostriches can lay an egg every three days and mating season lasts five to six months.

-- Ostriches can run at speeds of up to 50 mph for 30 miles.

Source: Paige McNickle, senior keeper at Phoenix Zoo

Ostriches in Arizona

The man most associated with the large flightless birds and Arizona is none other than city of Chandler founder Dr. Alexander J. Chandler.

The doctor was among the first to bring the birds to Arizona after he saw them at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Chandler Museum Administrator Jody Crago said.

Twelve years later, in 1905, the doctor had a large herd of ostriches at his ranch in Mesa and his success spurred other local ranchers to follow suit. Chandler tried to corner the ostrich market but eventually was upstaged by the Pan American Ostrich Farm in the West Valley, Crago said.

By 1914, the Chandler Arizonan was reporting that ostriches "dot the landscape by the hundreds" and there seemed no end in sight for the stream of profits. However, like all good things, it came to an end. The start of World War I slowed the ostrich trade in Arizona and nationally.

Flashy clothes and large feathered hats were falling out of style, especially since Americans were being urged to help in the war effort, Crago said. Dr. Chandler held out hope the feathered fashions would re-emerge, going as far as to keep boxes of "thousands of feathers" in his basement for years, Crago said.

But it wasn't until 1988 that ostriches came back to Chandler in a big way, in the form of the annual Ostrich Festival.

Man riding on the back of an ostrich

The start of a new tradition

The Ostrich Festival replaced what used to be the city's annual spring festival as the city wanted to do something "more unique," Crago said.

The festival commemorated the city's unique connection to the large birds and Dr. Chandler.

The festival was held in downtown Chandler but had to find a new venue as its popularity grew, Crago said. The city eventually decided on Tumbleweed Park for the festivities.

Unlike the birds themselves, the festival took flight and became one of the Valley's most popular events. Festival-goers in 1990 surpassed attendance at the Grand Prix that was taking place in the streets of Phoenix at the time.

The event brought in celebrities with the 1995 film "Waiting to Exhale" starring Whitney Houston, who filmed a scene at the festival.

MORE: Ostriches, beer and folk music this weekend | Letter: Ostrich Festival revels in animals' fear

Even National Geographic and the Travel Channel have filmed at the festival, Terri Kimble, Chandler Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said. Snapple got in on the fun too and added the Ostrich Festival to the list of facts you'd find under their caps , Kimble said.

The festival is expected to bring approximately 100,000 people from Friday to Sunday, Kimble said. The chamber plans to conduct an economic impact study next year to examine the revenue the festival brings into the city, Kimble said.

This year attendees can expect new festivities such as:

  • a high dive show.
  • a trampoline aerobatics show.
  • an area where adults and children can play with drones.

Attendees with small kids can check out the Hatchimals booth as they will be raffling out two of the highly sought after toys each day of the festival, Kimble said.

Ruffled feathers

But the festival has ruffled a few feathers as well.

In 1995, three protesters were arrested after they chained themselves to the announcer's stand and held a banner condemning the popular ostrich races as a form of animal abuse. They yelled "get your head out of the sand Chandler! Animal abuse is not entertaining!"

They also called the act of selling ostrich meat and eggs alongside attractions with the animals "barbaric."

More recently, Tina Reidel started a petition to ask the Chandler Chamber of Commerce to end the event or at least do away with the ostriches. The petition has gained over 1,600 signatures from as far away as Japan and Minneapolis.

Reidel was debating moving to Arizona in 2015 and was researching what to do in the Valley when she stumbled upon the festival.

"I was just appalled," Reidel said when she discovered the festival featured ostrich races.

Ostriche harnessed to a cart
A Jacksonville, Florida, man with an ostrich drawn cart from 1911. (Photo: Public Domain)

Ostrich races up for debate

Chandler's ostrich races are conducted in a style called "featherback," where jockeys ride on the backs of the ostriches and try to hold on as the animals sprint at speeds of up to 30 mph.

Another style is where a chariot is attached to the bird and a rider sits in the back using a broomstick to tell the ostriches to go left or right by putting it in the animals' peripheral vision.

The chariot races were discontinued this year. There was no particular reason, Kimble said; organizers just didn't feel like doing them anymore.

The practice is still common in places like South Africa but only a handful of places in the United States still practice the sport, according to a blog connected with the Travel Channel.

Animal-rights groups claim that ostrich skeletons are not built to be ridden by a 150-pound jockey and say the act causes panic in the animals, leading to emotional and physical distress.

"They are very very strong animals," Kimble said, disputing the claims, adding that only "professional jockeys" are allowed on the ostriches. The 350-pound birds are also allowed to race only once a day, she said.

Reidel, along with others, organized a peaceful protest in 2015 that aimed to "educate" the public on the races.

"Most people don't even know the races are a thing," Reidel said, adding that it "doesn't even fit in with the heritage" because ostriches in Arizona were mainly raised for their feathers, not racing. Reidel said she understands that the event brings families from across the Valley together but said the festival could still take place without the races.

Another group aims to protest this year's festival with protests planned for each day of the event. Robert Franklin is one of the organizers working with groups such as PETA and United Poultry Concerns to do six different protests during the festival.

The protests will take place in a "freedom of speech zone" and protesters have been working with Chandler Police to make sure they have a "safe and peaceful protest," Franklin said.

A local paper said “Ostriches are all the rage in Chandler” in 1914 and they’re still the talk of the town over 100 years later. Wochit

Franklin said he doesn't urge people who may oppose the races to boycott the event, just the races themselves.

"You're going to get those protesters," Kimble said about the protesters, adding that ostriches are a part of the city's heritage.

"Lots of things are part of our heritage that we don't see as appropriate anymore," Franklin said, adding that the group hopes to educate the public who they believe are already distancing themselves from animal entertainment.

Animal rights activists claimed a big win earlier this year when the Ringling Brothers Circus said they'd be closing their doors in May.

"We've come so far, this is 2017 not the 1900s," Reidel said.

In a statement emailed to The Republic, PETA condemned the races saying "a person jumping on an ostrich must seem like a pouncing predator."

Zookeeper interviewed

Zookeeper weighs in

Paige McNickle , a 17-year senior keeper for hoof-stock at the Phoenix Zoo, has never been to the Ostrich Festival so she was reluctant to give an opinion.

However, she knows ostriches and said riding them could be damaging if the jockeys are over 150 pounds.

The jockeys used in the festival's "featherback" races are below 150 pounds, according to Kimble.

"Camels and horses have been domesticated and bred to be ridden but not ostriches," McNickle said. However, she said many of the ostriches used in the festival have been trained for racing.

"Momo would probably love it," McNickle said about one of their female ostriches who "seeks people out" and is constantly looking for attention from keepers at the zoo. However, the zoo's male named Big D isn't always friendly and wouldn't like participating in the races, McNickle said.

"They choose what people they like and don't like," McNickle said. "I think they are intelligent animals."

Despite the detractors, the festival continues to thrive and the Chamber of Commerce is already prepping for the festival's 30-year anniversary in 2018, Kimble said.

"Where else can you go and be entertained the entire day for $10?" Kimble asked.



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Karen Davis
United Poultry Concerns

Ostriches did not evolve to eat flesh. If captive ostriches are eating “meat,” it’s because they are being forced to by their captors in the feed rations. The natural food of ostriches consists of grass, berries, succulents, seeds, and leaves. Time to bid goodbye to all falsifications of ostriches both literal and rhetorical.

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