As the livestock officer in Liberty County, Texas, John (Bubba) Abshier has been called to round up thousands of stray critters. He's roped cattle on the railroad tracks, horses on the freeway, and even a pair of wild hogs meddling in a chicken coop.
But last summer, Mr. Abshier got a call he'll never forget.
"Bubba, you better come on down here," Deputy Sheriff John Haines told him. "There's a lady with a giant bird in her yard, and it just stomped her dachshund."
That bird, it turned out, was a full-grown emu, and it took Abshier and Deputy Haines several hours to rope the six-foot, 120-pound fowl, tie it down, and load it onto a trailer. In the process, Abshier recalls, the bird managed to punt him about 15 feet.
"I didn't know the first thing about catching an emu," he says, "but I learned right quick."
Indeed, Abshier's had plenty of practice lately. Ever since the breeder market for emus collapsed last year in the middle of a severe drought, some ranchers here and across Texas have apparently decided to set their
birds loose rather than continue to feed them.
Emus are known to wander the range in their native Australia, but Abshier says the farm-raised variety have little chance of surviving wild in Liberty County, northeast of Houston. Food is scarce, he says, and the birds are easy prey for bobcats, coyotes, and motorists. Most of the emus Abshier has caught don't have much meat left on their breastbones.
"They're domesticated animals," he says. "They're kept in close quarters and they get hand-fed. It's irresponsible to dump them. It makes me mad."
According to Pierce Allman, director of the American Emu Association in Dallas, there are about 1 million emus in the United States, mostly in the South and West. Although he insists the number of abandoned birds is small, he acknowledges that the problem is most serious in Texas.
Back in the mid-1980s, when Americans first started avoiding beef for health reasons, Mr. Allman explains, many ranchers here began buying emus, along with their distant cousins - ostriches and rheas - in hopes that their lean red meat would win back some of the consumers who'd switched to poultry. In addition, some people who didn't know anything about livestock started scooping up birds in hopes of making a fast buck. At the peak, he says, breeding pairs of these spindly legged birds, classified as ratites, fetched as much as $45,000.
But the buying and breeding spree soon backfired. Slaughter facilities failed to keep pace, and supermarkets were slow to make room for the expensive meat. Today, breeding pairs won't fetch more than $3,500 - and one bird can be bought for as little as $75.
Emu and rhea breeders fared the worst. Unlike ostriches, which are popular entrees in Europe and enjoy a ready market for their leather, emus and rheas produce far less meat and don't offer much else to consumers. Although Allman says byproducts like emu jerky and emu oil show great promise, their introduction into mainstream markets is still years away.
Harold Dudley, an emu rancher in Kaufman, Texas, bought several birds three years ago to keep busy when he retired. After three years of building pens and fences, incubating the avocado-sized eggs, and struggling to administer shots, he's looking for a buyer. "It wore me out," he says. "If there had been a ready market, it might have been different."
Although the vast majority of the nation's 6,000 emu ranchers are either sticking with it, turning their birds out to pasture until the market rebounds, or selling them, the number of emus left to lope across the Texas countryside seems to be increasing.
CHARLES SEXTON, a biologist at the Valconies Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge near Austin, says he's been spotting emus strutting through the hills with greater frequency.
Abshier, at least, is ready for them. A stocky man with bright blue eyes and an iron grip, he has been riding and roping as long as he can remember. Whenever Abshier gets a call, day or night, he loads his horse, Sally, into his trailer, orders his two best yellow cur dogs into his pickup truck, and rolls out.
Roping an emu, he says, is a little different from catching a bull. "You gotta rope 'em fast," he says. "Emus have real good peripheral vision, and they can hear that rope swinging, so you gotta come around quick. If they get going, they'll outrun a horse."
Once he's roped the bird, he says, he lets the loop slip down until it covers the bird's stubby wings, at which point they usually stop running and squat down.
Loading the bird into a trailer is another matter. To keep the birds from pecking and kicking, Abshier says, he plops a cotton glove over their heads. Since emus are too heavy to carry, he'll straddle the birds from behind, grab their wings and walk them to the trailer. "It's kind of like pushin' a wheelbarrow," he says. Since last summer, Abshier has caught and penned 16 of the birds.
It wasn't always so easy, though. On one occasion, Abshier roped a rhea around the neck, which only made the bird fight harder, nearly strangling itself. After trying to subdue it for an hour, he says, Deputy Sheriff David King took a desperate approach he won't soon repeat.
"He Tarzaned it," Abshier says, describing Deputy King's wild, but ultimately successful, flying tackle. "He spent the rest of the day pulling dewberry stickers out of his pants."