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Emus: The Craze That Didn't Fly

After a fast start, the idea of selling the big birds as a lowfat meat source didn't get off the ground. Many Texas ranchers lost their investments. Now, you can't even give the creatures away.

December 16, 1997|JESSE KATZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

COLLEYVILLE, Texas — This is how insane the emu market was a few years back, just before the Vinson family got into the business of raising flightless birds:

An unhatched chick could fetch up to $4,000. Mature breeders were being insured at more than $50,000 a pair. Microchips had to be embedded under each animal's skin to guard against rustlers. And boosters, flush in their diamonds and denim, seemed to be at every livestock show in the nation touting the lean red flesh of this ostrich-like creature as "the meat of the future."

This is how insane the market is today, now that the novelty has worn off and America still favors a nicely marbled sirloin:

Thousands of emus are roaming the Texas countryside, set loose by ranchers unwilling to spend another dime on feed. Hundreds of others have been allowed to starve to death, their emaciated remains found in breeding pens that once drew eager investors. And the Vinsons? They became a symbol of the industry's frustration this year after police caught them "euthanizing" their worthless flock--with an aluminum baseball bat.

It happened here in Colleyville, a rural suburb of Fort Worth, where two physician brothers, Stephen Vinson and Russell Vinson II, housed more than 100 emus in their father's backyard. What looked like a lucrative venture had quickly become a money pit, costing the family thousands of dollars a year just to keep the gangly, 5-foot-tall, 100-pound critters alive. They tried to sell them, to give them away, to get a slaughterhouse to pick them up.

"Nobody wanted them," said the Vinsons' lawyer, Bill Magnussen. "So they tried to do away with them in the most humane way possible."

That entailed heading out one fine June morning with an Easton 2 1/4-inch diameter "Big Barrel" slugger and whacking the birds over the head--an unwieldy feat that one Humane Society official compared to hitting a baseball at the end of a Slinky. Stephen, a 43-year-old emergency room doctor, allegedly did most of the swinging. Feathers flew. Blood splattered. The emus shook and stumbled and vomited. They were dragged to a trailer and dumped in a pile. By the time a horrified neighbor summoned police, 22 carcasses were ready for disposal.

"The emu's a great bird," said Don Feare, a Fort Worth attorney who lobbied, unsuccessfully, to get the Vinsons prosecuted for animal cruelty. "It's the idiots who own them that are the problem."

An Expensive Lesson for the Birds' Breeders

These are ugly days for the emu industry, roused from a decade of champagne wishes and caviar dreams to face the morning-after. Instead of giving beef a run for its money, the bird has sucked dry most ranchers who have touched one, an expensive lesson in the fine line between a visionary and a fool.

In Texas, the emu capital of America with roughly a quarter of the nation's emu breeders, membership in the state association has dropped from a peak of 2,700 to 320. The Ratite Marketplace--a national trade magazine catering to devotees of the emu, ostrich and rhea--has shrunk from 350 pages to fewer than 50. Like so many other animal fads, hope ultimately revealed itself as hype, leaving behind a mess of unwanted birds, squandered pensions, civil lawsuits, even criminal indictments.

"I was one of the greedy ones who got carried away with it," conceded Ray Summers, a Lubbock rancher who both rode and fueled the wave of prosperity that enticed many a retiree to bank his life savings on Australia's national bird.

He was so taken with the fast cash--prices tripled during his first three years selling emu chicks--that Summers penned a testimonial for the Ratite Marketplace in 1994, marveling at his almost foolproof formula for success. "I can't personally figure out how to lose money in the ratite business," he told readers in Volume 4, Issue 26. "If you have land, or friends or relatives that do, then get to be a part of this industry. You won't be sorry. This is your opportunity now."

The next year he bailed out, convinced that the market had become too speculative. A good number of friends and relatives stayed in and lost their shirts. "I really feel sorry for them," said Summers, 62, who walked away with a tidy profit. He insists that his cheerleading was always sincere, if shortsighted. "Everything grew overnight, just as well as it fell overnight. We weren't smart enough business people to plan for the future of the bird."

Industry leaders are convinced that it still has a bright one, albeit more distant than they had first imagined. They view the shakedown of the last year or so as a natural, although indisputably painful, correction in the market--a process that is weeding out get-rich-quick schemers and finally allowing true believers to get down to work.

"If you haven't approached it in a scientific or businesslike manner--and you're not in it for the long haul--you're going to go broke," said Norbert "Stan" Stanislav, vice president and general manager of the Neiman Marcus store in Fort Worth.

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