“See the gentle cassowary
On the plains of Timbuktu
Eating up the missionary
Hat and coat and hymn-book too.”
Attributed to Theodore Hook (1788-1841)
HIGH SPRINGS, Florida––Remembering the cassowary rhyme from childhood, and that “Cassowaries are found mainly in Australia and New Guinea. Never in Africa!”, International Primate Protection League founder Shirley McGreal was nonetheless as shocked as anyone when it actually happened––more-or-less.
Apostle of “alternative livestock”
Marvin Hajos, 75, killed on his High Springs, Florida farm on April 12, 2019 by a cassowary from whom he was reportedly trying to take an egg, was never a missionary, so far as is known. For more than 40 years, however, Hajos was more-or-less an apostle of “alternative livestock.”
Beginning in the mid-1970s, Hajos bred and promoted ratites, the large flightless bird category including ostriches, emus, rheas, and cassowaries. Hajos also bred and promoted llamas, among many other species. His activities often attracted local media attention.
In 1994, for example, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported that Hajos had been breeding ostriches for meat for twenty years.
“Some day,” Hajos predicted, “there will be ostrich in the supermarket right next to the chicken.”
The rarest of ratites in captivity
Most recently, in July 2018, WGFL News 4 television of Gainesville reported that the Hajos family menagerie included ostriches, kangaroos, zebras, camels, parrots, tortoises, and several monkey species, some of them raised for sale to petting zoos and private collectors.
The cassowary, who remained on the property after killing Hajos, was not mentioned, but cassowaries, the rarest of ratites in captivity, seldom are.
For more than a century most published references to cassowaries centered on various versions of the jingle that McGreal remembered, most authoritatively attributed to Theodore Hook by the Leeds Sentinel in 1862, 21 years after Hook’s death.
A probably apocryphal but also much cited account ascribes the cassowary jingle to the poet Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892), 21 years younger than Hook but acquainted with him, who supposedly wrote it to win a literary competition in 1828 or 1829.
One previous documented death
Regardless of authorship, the cassowary jingle appears to have established for the species an enduringly murderous reputation, rebutted in May 2007 by Scientific American writer Darren Naish.
Wrote Naish, “On mainland Australia,” where cassowaries are native, though not abundant, “the most recent recorded fatality occurred in April 1926 when 16-year-old Phillip McClean,” who had tried to club a cassowary, “received an injury to the throat after running from the cassowary and falling to the ground. I’ve also encountered references to the death of a zookeeper named Luke James who was apparently killed by a captive cassowary,” Naish recounted, “but have only read about this online and am not sure as to its reliability.”
ANIMALS 24-7 also failed to find any record of the alleged attack on Luke James.
“Association of humans with food”
“A 1999 study by Christopher Kofron of 221 recorded attacks by Casuarius casuarius johnsonii,” as cassowaries are formally named, “showed that attacks are mostly due to association of humans with food,” Naish continued, not meaning that humans––even missionaries––were apparently perceived as being the food.
Altogether, 109 attacks fell into this category.
Seven cassowary attacks “appeared to be a territorial reaction to the presence of humans in an area where the cassowary was feeding,” Naish recounted, “while 32 were clearly defensive,” including the fatal injury to McClean.
Pecking at reflections
“Cassowaries will also kick or peck at doors and windows,” Naish noted, “sometimes breaking panes of glass or screen panels. In these cases they are presumably attacking a reflection which they perceive as another cassowary,” a common bird behavior.
“They will also kick or chase cars,” Naish mentioned, “again because they appear to associate the human occupants with food. Cassowaries dislike dogs and will attack them without provocation, presumably because feral dogs and dingos often prey on cassowaries. Between June 1996 and February 1997, six cassowaries were killed by dogs in the Cairns area.
However, “Of 35 cassowary attacks recorded by Kofron on dogs, 29 were in self-defense,” Naish summarized.
“Live by the sword, die by the sword”
Marvin Hajos’ death by cassowary was an ironic twist on the maxim that those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword, since Hajos actively contributed to several of the biggest boom-and-bust cycles in the long and sordid history of speculation in “alternative livestock.”
The biggest of all was the boom-and-bust in ratite breeding, centering on ostriches and emus, perhaps because cassowaries were considered too dangerous to keep in large numbers.
Cassowaries slipped by Florida licensing requirements for dangerous animals through an exemption for raising ratites that was originally won, and exploited, by ostrich and emu breeders, of whom Hajos was among the first.
“Similar to having cows”
“If the owners are breeding, there is no permit required,” Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission spokesperson Karen Parker told Gainesville Sun reporter Sarah Nelson. “It’s similar to having cows; they’re considered domestic livestock,” Parker explained.
Quadrupling in five years and doubling in 1993 alone, the U.S. ranched ratite population reached 115,000 by January 1994, including nearly 80,000 ostriches, 35,000 emus, and the occasional rhea or cassowary.
There was no significant market for ratites, other than speculation in breeding stock. The speculators mostly knew that no one else could be convinced to buy into the ratite racket, a pyramid of breeders, dealers, franchisers, and sellers of support services would collapse.
The fall of the Ostrich-man Empire
Then, they hoped, and as Hajos among others predicted, the fall of the backyard Ostrich-man Empire would create another turkey: an alternative poultry product, cheap enough to compete in the meat market, where dead ostrich presently runs around $20 per pound.
Ratite ranching was touted as the potential salvation of family farms struggling in competition with factory farmers: one ostrich could supposedly produce as much meat as 20 chickens, albeit that the feed expense and time required to raise an ostrich to slaughter weight might be closer to the inputs to raise 200 chickens.
Likewise, 30 years earlier, backyard chinchilla ranching was touted as revolutionizing the fur trade. As many as 100,000 retirees, housewives, and hobbyists were sold on the notion that they could raise chinchillas in their spare time under glorified sharecropping contracts with companies that not only sold them breeding stock and essential equipment, but also bought back the pelts after slaughter.
Most of the first would-be chinchilla ranchers soon saw faster profits in becoming chinchilla distributors. They bred chinchillas and sold them to friends, who bred still more and sold them to friends.
The vast majority of chinchilla “investors” lost their vests, and their shirts and shorts, too, because there never was much of a market for chinchilla fur, even at the height of the fur boom of the 1970s.
A notoriously fragile species outside of their native habitat, chinchillas meanwhile died by the million from improper feeding and temperature control, or simple neglect.
From alpacas to mini-zebus
There have been countless other “alternative livestock” breeding speculation rackets since then. Contemporary with the chinchilla boom-and-bust was a boom-and-bust in Shetland ponies. Then came trout farming. Most of the trout farms that didn’t go broke within a few years became canned angling operations.
Touted as pets, Vietnamese potbellied pigs were the most publicized animal boom of the 1980s. Breeding boars and sows, sold for $10,000 apiece at the height of the boom, were abandoned at animal shelters and sanctuaries by the thousands just a few years later. Potbellied pigs now sell for as little as $30.
Smaller bubbles have involved alpacas, peacocks, fainting goats, exotic deer species, mini-zebu cattle, bison, and cattle/bison crosses called “beefalo.”
Each breeding scheme builds on the naive hope that a little-exploited but prolific animal can crash into mainstream husbandry.
Many called, but few chosen
Yet the most recent convert to mainstream domestication was the house cat, 7,000 years ago.
Many other species have been brought into captivity since then, but only mink and fox raised for fur, together with rabbits, rodents and primates commonly used in biomedical research, who are now mostly genetically modified, have achieved even minor economic significance.
The markets for ranched mink and fox pelts, moreover, have crashed so often and so hard that barely half of the almost 100 years that mink and fox have been ranched commercially have been profitable for the mink and fox fur industries as a whole.
Thoroughbred & Arabian horses
Still, the lure of getting rich quick by being the first into a business where animals supposedly do most of the work is sufficient to sucker even people with the background to know better. Thousands of educated professionals bought thoroughbred and Arabian horses during the early 1980s, attracted by tax breaks given to horse investors for several years under the presidential administration of Ronald Reagan, himself a horse breeder.
As more people bought thoroughbreds and Arabians, the fast-rising price of prize studs and dams became a further incentive.
When Congress took away the tax breaks, the market collapsed. Most of the thoroughbred foals bred during the speculation frenzy went to the horse meat market before they were three years old and even eligible to compete in the Kentucky Derby.
Major corporations have been duped, as well. British Petroleum and the Weyerhauser timber empire were among the investors who collectively lost more than $100 million on salmon-ranching ventures in the Pacific Northwest during the 1980s.
Banking on death
If breeding stock booms were just a matter of separating fools from their money, animal advocates might not care. Many animal advocates demonstrate similar behavior, though of altruistic motive, in throwing money at questionable appeals based on the fad cause of the week.
Typically, though, animal suffering is calculated into breeding stock booms.
An unspoken assumption of the boosters, more often than not, is that many of the animals they sell to “investors” will die from poor care before the buyers learn that the market for the end products barely exists, if indeed there is any.
Heavy mortality helps perpetuate the boom phase of the boom-and-bust cycle by keeping breeding stock scarce––until someone finds a way to cut the mortality.
Saving lives no one wanted––except the birds themselves
Hatching failure rates among ratites of up to 75% were reportedly common when the ostrich-and-emu speculation boom began.
However, as the price of young ratites rose, buyers became sufficiently concerned about protecting their investment that they poured money into developing improved incubators, medications, and handling equipment.
Hatching failures and subsequent mortality were reduced by two-thirds or more, to no avail as demand for the birds collapsed.
How the fan-dance started
The ratite boom started in 1986, when Congress overrode Ronald Reagan’s veto of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. The Act imposed an economic boycott against South Africa, then the only major ratite-producing nation.
Ostriches have been ranched in South Africa since circa 1840, when ostrich plumes came into vogue as ornaments to womens’ fashions. Production peaked in 1910 at 746,000 birds.
Feathers then fell out of vogue, except for use in dusting tools.
Ostrich ranching nearly died out completely during the Great Depression.
In 1935, however, the Quaker City String Band wore ostrich-plumed uniforms to wow the judges at the prestigious Mummers Parade held on New Year’s Day in Philadelphia.
Ostrich plumes had been used by female impersonators in the parade since it began in 1901, but the marching band was the first to adopt ostrich feathers as an adjunct to male fashion.
Within a few years costumes for the Mummers Parade alone consumed 150,000 plumes a year, equal to the production of 3,000 birds.
Fan-dancer Sally Rand further popularized ostrich plumes among entertainers during her sensational appearances at the 1938-1939 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.
The entertainment market was just big enough to encourage the Klein Karoo Agriculture Cooperative, of Oudtshorn, South Africa, to successfully seek a legal monopoly on the sale of ostrich skins, feathers, and meat.
Since 1945 the cooperative has run the only licensed ostrich slaughterhouse in the world, stunning the birds by electroshock, then beheading, bleeding, and gutting them much like oversized chickens.
To protect the Klein Karoo monopoly, exports of live ostriches and fertile eggs have remained illegal.
Though moderately lucrative for the participants, the ostrich monopoly was not of major economic significance, even in South Africa, for many years. In 1970, a typical year, only 26,000 ostriches were slaughtered, fewer than the numbers of chickens in some individual barns.
Ostrich leather boots
But then the simultaneous rise to popularity of several ostrich boot-wearing country-western singers and rise of the fossil fuel industry in the U.S. Southwest brought a vogue for ostrich leather cowboy boots, commonly priced at around $300 a pair.
By 1982 the Klein Karoo cartel kept 120,000 ostriches, exporting 50,000 hides a year to the U.S.; when the anti-apartheid boycott took effect, U.S. ostrich hide purchases had just peaked at 90,000.
The boycott slowed Klein Karoo production for a time, but recent output is reportedly up to 200,000 ostriches slaughtered per year.
While Klein Karoo regained control of the ratite product trade after the anti-apartheid boycott ended, there was briefly a small unsupplied demand, and that was all the speculators needed.
A handful of Australian and Israeli emu ranchers, struggling for years, began rapid expansion in the belief that feather and hide merchants would have to turn to them.
But the real explosion of the ratite business came in the U.S. and Canada.
Dairy farmer Dale Coody of Lawton, Oklahoma, touched off the gold rush, purchasing a male and three female ostriches from the Holy Protection Eastern Orthodox Monastery in Oklahoma City in 1983. The monastery flock, kept as pets, were apparently descended from birds imported before the South African export ban took effect.
As one of the few other people with breeding ostriches, Coody expanded his own flock to 50 adults, then sold ostriches to 100 other farmers in 30 states. By 1989, People magazine put Coody’s sales volume at 300 ostriches per year and his gross at more than $1 million a year.
Janice and Clyde Castleberry of Lampasas, Texas, started a parallel boom by using helicopters round up and claim 180 feral rheas, whose forebears had escaped years before from an exotic game ranch.
The Castleberrys acknowledged to media that there never had been much market for rhea products or byproducts, but argued that one could be developed.
“Right now our market is only to other breeders,” Janice Castleberry said.
American Ostrich Association
By then some of the heaviest hitters in exotic animals were involved––especially Tom Mantzel of Fort Worth, Texas, mentioned by James Michener in the acknowledgements pages of his 1985 bestselling novel Texas for having “more sable antelope on his ranch than I ever saw in Africa.”
Mantzel as of 1990 owned three ostrich ranches in Texas, one in an unidentified African nation, and was reportedly starting yet another in Italy. But his biggest contribution to the boom was forming the American Ostrich Association in 1988. It still has a web site, but has only filed one IRS Form 990, in 2012, which claimed income and assets of zero.
The AOA, growing to 1,700 members by 1993, encouraged ostrich speculators to lobby state governments for recognition of the big birds as “livestock,” carrying with it tax breaks and a defacto endorsement of the proposition that ostrich ranching could become genuinely viable.
This in turn produced the Florida wildlife law amendment that enabled Hajos to keep the cassowary who eventually killed him.
American Emu Association
The parallel American Emu Association had just 50 members when formed in 1989. By 1992 there were 1,100. Ten state chapters have filed IRS Form 990 at one time or another, but among them claim income and assets of zero.
The emu market took off as it did in 1989 in direct response to the rocketing ostrich prices. There had never been much demand for emus; unlike ostrich feathers, emu products have never been in vogue. Interest in emus was not just mostly speculative; it was entirely speculative.
But that’s what drew the speculators.
Eat Big Bird?
ANIMALS 24-7 editor Merritt Clifton in January 1994 produced a nationally distributed 6,000-word exposé of the ratite boom that was among the first warnings that it would soon fail.
The hope that the ratite boom would mature into an alternative livestock industry rested upon the myth that growing ratite numbers would encourage the opening of a ratite slaughterhouse, which would in turn generate consumer demand for Big Bird burgers.
Never, though, was there much evidence the public would take to eating Big Bird in any form. Further, the idea that a new industry should create supply long before demand exists runs directly contrary to conventional business wisdom.
Nonetheless, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture informally pledged to put as much as $5 million into promoting an ostrich slaughter industry.
“When they stop laughing, it’s over”
Texas also encouraged the ratite industry, to the point that at the peak of the boom there were 438 emu operations in the state and 350 ostrich farms, purportedly worth more than the entire global trade in ratite products, U.S. speculation in breeding birds excluded.
Agriculture Canada too backed ratites, putting $200,000 into a joint ostrich-and-emu breeding venture in the Abitibi-Temiscaming region of Quebec.
“As long as people keep laughing about this, it’s great,” said ostrich breeders Deborah and Matthew Loving, of Colt’s Neck, New Jersey. “When they stop laughing, it’s over.”
The laughing stopped soon afterward. The ratite bust of the late 1990s shook out approximately 97% of the people who had invested in ostriches, emus, rheas, and cassowaries, and cost the lives of most of the birds.
Africa & Asia
But ratite speculation did not end there. Speculative promotion of ostriches and emus, in particular, has resurfaced repeatedly in Africa and Asia.
Most notoriously, an emu speculation bubble building for five years in India, promoted by then Indian chief minister of state V. Narayanasamy among others, burst in August 2012.
The abrupt collapse left as many as 12,000 bankrupt investors, and more than 15,000 starving birds in Tamil Nadu state alone.
Should the “gentle cassowary” actually appear “on the plains of Timbuctoo,” no doubt an “alternative livestock” missionary will have been there first.
Susan Frances says
This guy had no business breeding these animals. He got exactly what he deserved.
Shirley McGreal says
I love the thorough manner in which you dug into this bizarre story. Keep up the great work!
Jamaka Petzak says
Poetic justice! *Out where I used to live in the Mojave, I saw emus several times. I guess some folks failed to get the message. And I had never heard of Sally Rand until I typed and edited a manuscript of a biography about her.*
This in-depth article puts all of the mainstream media stories, which just seem to focus upon the “crazy pet” and “only in Florida!” angles, to shame!