Before coming to VINE Sanctuary, emus Tiki and Breeze spent several years sharing a small pen with another emu, never having the opportunity to exercise their legs or break the monotony by ranging freely. One day, their female companion escaped and became locally famous before dying while being recaptured. The retired dairyman who had bought the three 150-lb birds as pets for his grandchildren agreed to release Tiki and Breeze to sanctuary.
Emus are large, flightless birds native to Australia. Their long, strong legs can reach speeds of over 40 mph, and their clawed feet (backed up by the muscles of those legs) make formidable weapons. Emus rarely fight, though, preferring flight and subterfuge to keep them safe. Their dappled brown and black feathers blend easily into shadowy foliage. An emu asleep looks like a rock or a pile of leaves. An emu’s head rising, feathers flared, from that lump looks just like a cobra getting ready to strike!
Emus are taller than any other bird save ostriches. Since they’re about the height of the average U.S. woman, it’s a familiar yet unsettling experience to walk with an emu on either side of you, like walking down the sidewalk with friends—but they’re birds! With sharp beaks!
Maybe that’s why people are so scared of emus, even though it’s people who have been the aggressors in most human-emu interactions. The first people to migrate to the continent now known as Australia hunted emus with spears and nets, and by poisoning their drinking water. Later European immigrants to the continent upped the assault on these flightless birds, who they saw not only as sources of meat and fat but also as impediments to “progress” (by which they meant total subordination of nature to human whims). At one point—we are not making this up!–the Australian government used soldiers with machine guns to track and kill emus who, returning in the course of their usual migrations, trespassed onto lands now wanted for cash crop agriculture.
While once viewed as pests when living free in the land where their species evolved, emus have come to be increasingly prized as sources of meat and oil here in the United States. Here in Vermont, they are classified as farm animals and (mis)treated accordingly, with only the most minimal regulations concerning humane treatment of animals applying to them.
The people who brought Tiki and Breeze to sanctuary meant well—as did the woman who inadvertently killed their companion while trying to capture her—but were so afraid of them that they handled them too roughly. Breeze arrived injured as a result, and we were not sure if he would ever walk again. Collective creativity saved the day. With the help of our vet and other experts we devised a treatment plan for what seemed to be a nerve injury. Breeze spent weeks receiving daily massages plus physical therapy in an ingenious sling that allowed him to both stretch and exercise the injured leg. He was not happy about his confinement or the sling—and neither was Tiki, who paced and paced alone around the perimeter of the property. But gradually Breeze regained enough strength and agility to be allowed to join his friend in ranging freely.
We were all so happy that day! Or, rather, the emus and the people were happy, and the chickens probably were relieved to have that big bird out of the barn. The cows, on the other hand, now had one more emu to worry about. Until they got used to them, the cows regularly fled whenever they caught sight of an emu. The sight of a herd of 1,000+lb cows running from a scrawny bird can be comical—and astonishing. One day, about a dozen cows were dozing and chewing their cuds when an emu came into the view of one of them. In an instant—too quickly for the human eye to process—all of those cows were standing in an adjoining field.
Eventually, as cows will do, Jasper and Poncho discovered the emu’s food. Soon and very soon, they and others were regularly raiding those tasty tidbits of alfalfa. Several cow-emu standoffs ensued. We tried various strategies to keep the cows out, eventually building an emu shelter and feeding station angled so that skinny emus, but not huge cows, could enter.
Problem solved? Not quite. Contrary to popular belief, sheep are both persistent and clever. While cows can’t get into the structure, sheep can squeeze in. And, even though the feed bucket is hung higher than sheep can reach, Basil (aka “Baa Baa Bad Sheep”) has figured out how to butt the bottom of the bucket with his head, to make the food bounce out.
Tiki and Breeze could easily run them off, and would do so if they were anywhere near as fierce as some people believe emus to be. And so, emu feeding has become a matter of tricking sheep. That’s right. Every morning, the sheep wait for us to bring out the emu food, and every morning we use subterfuge to fill the bucket without them seeing us doing so. We also take food right to Tiki and Breeze, wherever they happen to be. Sometimes, as in the picture below, Kathy and Cheryl invite the emus into their yard for a sheep-free (if sometimes chilly) picnic.
We’re still getting to know Tiki and Breeze as they come to trust us, but we can say that Tiki is the more outgoing and intrepid of the two. He’s the one who will come and stare at us very pointedly if, despite our efforts, the sheep have stolen their food again. He and Breeze both enjoy showers from the hose in the summertime, and Breeze likes mud puddles very much. They both enjoy tramping through the woods, and we are so glad to be able to provide a safe place for them to stretch their long legs and be themselves.
Tiki and Breeze both have sponsors, but many other sanctuary residents do not. Click here to learn how to sponsor a sanctuary resident.