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Desert ostrich ranch is a shadow of owner's dreams

Hometown U.S.A.: Picacho, Ariz.

D.C. 'Rooster' Cogburn was creating a large-scale operation that he thought could help feed the world and leave a legacy. Then an accident spooked his birds and changed everything.

January 10, 2010|By Nicole Santa Cruz
  • An up-close and personal look at an ostrich.
An up-close and personal look at an ostrich. (Joshua Lott / For The Times )

Perched at a picnic table in jean overalls, D.C. "Rooster" Cogburn nodded in and out of a nap under the midafternoon sun, his chin resting on his chest.

Nearby were gigantic beige ostrich eggs, ostrich feathers and cotton T-shirts featuring the words "Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch," souvenirs for the tourists.

But not today.

Hundreds of feet away, semitrailers and cars buzzed on Interstate 10. Cogburn's son-in-law, Craig Barrett, silently stood behind the wooden counter, the entry to the ranch.

Cogburn once had a dream right out of frontier days, but with a modern twist. He wanted to create one of the grandest ranches in the West -- a ranch for ostriches. To Cogburn, Arizona's dry climate and abundance of alfalfa translated into the ostrich capital of the nation.

But after an unpredictable accident, the ranch has been reduced to a roadside attraction. For $5, visitors can feed the ostriches. An extra feature? They can also see deer, donkeys and rainbow lorikeets up close.

Cogburn, a polite gentleman with traces of his native Oklahoma in his accent, was raised to be diligent. His father always told him, "If your work's no good, then you're no good as a person." It's the credo that he lives by, and it's what he has preached to his two children.

By 29, Cogburn owned an amusement park in Arkansas. Over the next 20 years, he performed and trained animal acts in major rodeos in the United States and Canada. People said he had a sixth sense for training animals. By 40, he was retired and looking for something new, so he bought a couple of ostriches.

"I had no intentions of getting in the ostrich business," he said. "I was just playing."

He came to see the ostrich industry as an untapped gem, a way to feed the world and leave a legacy. He envisioned exporting ostrich chicks, eggs, feathers and leather, and compared his pioneering venture to the turkey industry. In 1920, no one would produce commercial turkeys, he said, and now there's turkey ham, turkey sausage -- you name it.

The same thing could be done with ostriches, he thought.

For years Cogburn perused Arizona for the perfect plot to raise South African ostriches. Under clear skies, in the midst of the tumbleweeds and prickly jumping cactuses that separate Phoenix and Tucson, Cogburn thought he had found it. He purchased a 600-acre farm at the base of Picacho Peak, dotted with tall lime-green saguaros and paloverde trees.

Cogburn did his homework. He researched the animal's breeding patterns and made multiple trips to Israel, South Africa and Namibia to observe ostrich farms and learn about the various bloodlines.

He helped form the American Ostrich Assn., and said he invested close to $1 million on top-of-the-line breeding facilities. Vendors were interested in his exports, he said. Before long, the association says, the ranch was one of the largest ostrich outfits in North America, boasting 1,600 birds.

The Cogburns felt they were on the verge of something new, and were excited about the future. Until Feb. 3, 2002, Cogburn's 63rd birthday.

Around 7 a.m., he sat down for a cup of black coffee, while his wife, Lucille, readied for church. Suddenly, a ranch hand was banging on the door, screaming. Spooked ostriches were stampeding the fences, running in circles.

"When you've got hundreds of ostriches running 35 mph, they will kill you -- they'll hit you so hard," Cogburn said.

He later learned that two hot-air balloons had launched near the ranch, frightening the birds. For Cogburn, the minutes-long incident was like an Oklahoma tornado. About 7,000 feet of fence was stomped into the ground. Four birds died the next day.

Over the next nine months, he had to have more than 800 ostriches slaughtered at a processing plant in Utah because of injuries and declining health. The remaining birds refused to breed, and today 400 remain.

In 2003, the family sued the balloonists and lost. Cogburn unsuccessfully asked for a new trial and has been appealing to various public officials for help.

Recently, as the sunlight turned golden on a late afternoon, Cogburn drove his white truck around the back of the ranch and explained all that he'd been through. Besides the emotional torment, he's now a diabetic, and his blood pressure is too high.

His face turned a vibrant pink.

"Where do you go from here?" he said, his blue eyes clear and pure. "You don't."

He drove past the empty outdoor chick pens and four barren large-scale barns built to keep chicks at night. He walked through the family's 5,000-egg incubation facility, now dusty and cold.

"All the infrastructure that we built here just trickled between our fingers," he said.

The family survives on the revenue from the roadside attraction. Danna Cogburn-Barrett, Cogburn's daughter and the right-hand woman of the ranch, takes care of the day-to-day responsibilities of the farm, including a tour of the spread on a monster truck.

On a recent afternoon, visitors included college students decked out in flannel pajama pants chuckling at the silly birds. Children nearby frolicked with feed in their tiny hands, ascending to a wooden platform to feed the 8-foot-tall birds over a fence.

Zoe Cook, 6, eyed a bird suspiciously before pouring feed into a bin. In school, she learned about the ostrich's powerful big toe.

Cogburn-Barrett stood nearby smiling, watching the children play. "There's nothing more rewarding to me than seeing families having wholesome fun."

Cogburn-Barrett, who calls her father a genius, still has hope. She said the roadside attraction has been drawing more tourists.

"I do want to rebuild," she said. "The difference is, my dad's 70 and I'm 44."

nicole.santacruz@latimes.com

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