My Stint as “The Ostrich Vet”

Perhaps you are familiar with the ostrich craze that swept America in the 1990’s? These enormous non-flying land birds from Africa were seen as the ultimate in sustainable goods : High protein, low fat meat, extracting up to 60% of useable food from the average bird. Standing over 6 feet tall and with the average male ostrich weighing 250 lbs, this meant over 125 pounds of steak per bird. The hide could be used for high-end leather handbags and shoes while the feathers are highly sought after by the costume, millinery and fashionista trade. Very little of an ostrich goes to waste. Add in the calculation that an adult female can produce upwards of 35 eggs per year (read $$$$) and you’re talking some real possibilities here. The fact that support facilities and  processing plants for meat and feather production didn’t exist in the United States did not dim their enthusiastic reception here.


Ostriches are birds. So SOMEBODY had to provide their medical care. Enter the Avian Veterinarian. Now way back when, when I was bucking for the honor of becoming a Board- Certified Avian Practitioner, I was champing at the bit for this very opportunity. I lucked out! Several ostrich farms set up business right here in Merced County! Smaller farm holders jumped on the wagon and introduced other ratites, the Emu and Rhea, also large land birds. Emus hail from Australia and may be viewed at our own Applegate Zoo as Good Citizen ambassadors from our sister city in Australia.


Where to start? Well, first you must catch your ostrich. As most farmers lacked any kind of facility and cattle chutes don’t fit ostriches, I had to rely on a sweatshirt sleeve. Just roll a cut-off sleeve over your arm. Offer something to the curious ostrich and as it stretches its head over the fence quickly grab the beak and slide the sleeve over its eyes. Once blinded, the bird will quiet down and become very docile. I did this successfully exactly once. All other times, if it could out run me  – at speeds of 40 mph – it did. One farmer called me out to examine his limping ostrich. I blocked half the afternoon and off we drove, my assistant and myself, way out past Winton. No one thought to ask if he had confined the bird. I wasn’t used to making ranch calls and we just assumed he would supply the cowboying, we the medical expertise. I was wrong. The bird was running freely over quite a large section of hilly pasture, dotted with rocks. If the bird was limping it wasn’t obvious to me as it disappeared out of sight behind a thicket.


Fortunately for me most of the birds I was called out to examine were very ill and non-mobile. Unfortunately for the birds, an adult ostrich that is down is highly likely to die.


So when adult bird medicine proved less than successful I turned my interest to egg and juvenile problems. The eggs didn’t hatch. If they did, the yolk wouldn’t properly absorb into the abdomen (kind of like your belly button not closing up properly. Only they needed the yolk to live off the first few days, both for food and maternal antibody transmission). If they made it past the first day they had to be trained to eat by another ostrich or they’d starve. Without enough exercise their legs turned crooked and they couldn’t walk. Juveniles had to be dewormed and some contracted the pox virus just like local chickens, developing black spots on their face and beaks. Everywhere I turned it was a mess.


We were all scrambling for answers. Ostrich care was a hot topic amongst veterinarians, with an ostrich-only conference formed to address their unique birdy needs. On the drive to Las Vegas to attend this conference our car over-heated in some desert town where I was stuck with three children under 6 years of age and a husband who knew nothing about cars and wanted lunch. Neither a gas station nor a fast food place was to be found. The husband asked for an airport because it wasn’t fun and he wanted to go home. I couldn’t even find him a Greyhound bus. (Yes, I looked). It was not an auspicious start to the conference, which I eventually attended…..I found few answers to the medical problems of ostriches but heard a lot from veterinarians investing in them. The hotel provided only showers in which to bathe small children and I gave up in defeat and came home. A few short weeks later I was called out in the early morning to an ostrich that had been brought down by a pack of stray dogs. I drove out to the farm through a torrential downpour. The bird lay in the mud, exposed to the rain. So was I. He had a deep laceration on one side with no other visible wounds. I deemed he had a decent chance of survival, so we decided to sew him up and treat him for shock and infection. Using local anesthesia, I was able to care for the wound. Someone fashioned a shelter out of hay bales and tarp. Surgery completed, I slid and slipped my way through the rain and mud back to the car, sterile instrument tray tucked under my arm. The hair spray on my head had clumped together in tufts not unlike moist cotton candy. I looked like mud. And then I felt the little creatures running over my head, little ostrich lice. Now I know as well as the next person that lice are “species-specific”, that they couldn’t actually, like, BREED on me. They were just having a little fun. One shower and they’d be gone. I knew that. Nonetheless, it was at that moment that I questioned my dedication to the ostrich.


My ostrich practice faded away (just say “no”) and it was all a mute question when the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) decided that ostriches were not birds but livestock and therefore I wasn’t covered as a Small Animal/Exotic practitioner to provide care. I didn’t fight it.


Christine B. McFadden, DVM



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