With humanity’s deplorable historical practice of keeping other sentient beings captive, and breeding them to exploit their bodies as commodities, it is not surprising that the biggest birds on planet Earth have become humanity’s victims too. I am not talking about hunting big flightless birds to extinction, as happened with the Dodo in Mauritius, the moa in New Zealand, and the mihirungs in Australia. I am talking about farming them for their bodies and eggs, without transforming them into domestic animals through artificial selection.
From the ten bird species with the biggest individuals still alive today, from the maximum mass of 156.8 kg (346 lb) in the case of the common ostrich to 20 kg (44 lb) in the case of the king penguin, nine have been farmed by humans, and most are still farmed today. Not surprisingly, the bigger the animal, the more flesh, fat, skin, feathers, or eggs people can sell for profit.
However, of these big birds still alive in modern times, none have become a domestic bird genetically different from their wild counterparts, as all still are wild animals, who just happen to be kept captive, bred, and killed by farmers for profit. All of these belong to a group we call the “ratites”, and include Ostriches, Emus, Rheas and Cassowaries. Many people consider them as the closest thing we have today to dinosaurs because although all birds are descendants of dinosaurs, most have changed a lot from those big walking creatures…but the ratites not that much, as they are still big walking creatures themselves.
Ratites, for being still wild animals, are bound to suffer more than domesticated animals when kept in captivity, as wild animals suffer when kept in zoos. This article will unveil the truth about their lives on farms.
Who Are the Ratites?
A ratite is any of a diverse group of flightless, mostly large, long-necked, and long-legged birds of the infraclass Palaeognathae (also called paleognaths or palaeognaths). It is composed of the Orders Struthioniformes (ostriches), Rheiformes (rheas), Casuariiformes (cassowaries and emus), Apterygiformes (kiwis), and two other extinct groups.
Unlike other flightless birds, the ratites have no keel on their sternum — hence the name, from the Latin ratis (“raft”, a vessel which has no keel). Without this to anchor their wing muscles, they could not fly even if they could develop bigger wings. Ratites have no crop (a pouch other birds have near the throat that is used to store food before digestion) or gallbladder.
The ratite species native to Africa are the ostriches. There are two species of ostrich still alive today, the common ostrich (Struthio camelus) and the Somali ostrich (Struthio molybdophanes). The common ostrich is the more widespread of the two living species and is the largest living bird species in the world. Ostriches live in open arid and semi-arid habitats such as savannas, both north (Struthio camelus camelus) and south (Struthio camelus australis) of the African equatorial forest zone. The Arabian ostriches in Asia Minor and Arabia were a subspecies of common ostrich who were killed to extinction by humans by the middle of the 20th century.
The Somali ostrich occurs in the Horn of Africa, having evolved isolated from the common ostrich by the geographic barrier of the East African Rift. The common ostrich’s Masai subspecies (Struthio camelus massaicus) occurs alongside the Somali ostrich in some areas. Escaped common ostriches in Australia have established feral populations that compete with native ratites.
Ostriches are the only ratites with two toes (the others have three or four) and have very big eyes to be able to spot predators at a great distance. If they are attacked, they can run very fast, at a speed of 55 km/h for a long time with short bursts up to about 70 km/h, which makes them the fastest-running bird on Earth. Ostriches have a distinctive mating dance, where the male (who has a black and white colouration different from the female) flaps his wings, sways his neck, and makes loud booming sounds. The common ostrich lays the largest eggs of any living bird, and females can distinguish their own eggs from the others in a communal nest. The eggs are incubated by the females by day and by the males by night, for 35 to 45 days. Ostriches are plant-eaters (mostly seeds, shrubs, grass, fruit, and flowers), although they can also eat invertebrates and small reptiles.
Common ostriches normally spend the winter months in pairs or alone, but the rest of the year they live in nomadic groups of 5 to 50 birds, and territorial males fight for a group of two to seven females in a territory between two and twenty square kilometres. Ostriches become sexually mature when they are two to four years old and live for up to 40 years in the wild.
The ratite species native to South America are the rheas (also known as ñandus). There are two species, the greater or American rhea (Rhea americana), found in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, and the lesser or Darwin’s rhea (Rhea pennata), found in the Altiplano and Patagonia. Some consider there is a third species, the Puna rhea (Rhea tarapacensis), found in northern Chile. They are smaller than ostriches, and they have grey-brown plumage. They are also herbivorous, preferring broad-leafed plants, but they also eat fruits, seeds, roots, and on occasion small animals. Rheas are also polygamous, with males courting between two and twelve females, but females are serially polyandrous (females could mate with other males after having laid eggs). They are less aggressive than ostriches, and they do not display a mating dance. Rheas live for up to 15 years in the wild.
The main ratite species native to Australia is the emu. Emus have soft brown feathers. They forage for a variety of plants and insects but have been known to go for weeks without eating. Females can mate several times and lay several clutches of eggs in one season. Emus form breeding pairs during the summer months of December and January and may remain together for about five months. Female emus court the males, who do the incubation and hardly eat or drink while doing it, losing a significant amount of weight. New parents help their baby hatch by using their beaks to break the shell after 4-6 weeks of incubation. Emus have an uncanny ability to detect water from hundreds of kilometres away, and they typically perform a mass migration every seven years, looking for greener pastures. Emus are bigger than rheas but smaller than ostriches, and they live for up to 20 years in the wild.
We will not discuss here the last two groups of living ratites, the cassowaries from the tropical forests of New Guinea (Papua New Guinea and West Papua), the Aru Islands (Maluku), and northeastern Australia, and the kiwis from New Zealand, as they are endangered and not commercially farmed (although the former has been farmed before and there is the odd farmer here and there who may be trying to farm them again).
Farming Ostriches, Emus, and Rheas
For a long time, it has been believed that the first ratite to be farmed was the ostrich, but in 2021 it was reported that eggshell fragments of cassowaries found at two prehistoric sites in Papua New Guinea suggest that humans may have been farming cassowaries as early as 18,000 years ago. Other ratites may have been farmed many centuries ago at a low scale, but we know for certain ostriches have been commercially farmed since the 1860s in the Cape Colony in South Africa (originally for feathers to supply the European fashion industry. However, in 1914, this industry collapsed because of World War I, to be restarted in several African countries in the late 20th century. At the end of the last century, Britain, the USA, Australia, and the EU started farming ostriches to produce meat and leather, but the industry has not boomed there yet.
Most farmed ostriches are slaughtered at around one year of age for their flesh to be sold as meat, feathers to be sold for fashion or cleaning machinery, and skin to be sold as luxury leather. The tendons of ostrich legs are also used to replace torn tendons in humans.
The British Ostrich industry started in the late 1980s, and The British Domesticated Ostrich Association was founded in 1992 to support the growing new industry. At the end of the 1990s, there were around 400 ostrich farms in the UK. However, Viva!’s successful campaigns against “exotic meat” led the supermarkets Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, and Somerfield to stop selling ostrich flesh, so the industry never managed to take off in the UK.
However, ostrich farming is still practised in more than 50 countries. In 1992, over 150,000 ostriches were slaughtered worldwide, 95% of which in South Africa (where the skin of the animals has traditionally represented around 80% of the economic value of their dead bodies). In 2008, the number of farmed ostriches in the world was estimated to be 371,000 (100,000 of these in South America). Killing numbers have been declining since 2002, and more dramatically after 2011 and 2017, as farming was affected by Avian Influenza. In 2018, the EU banned South Africa from exporting ostrich and other wild animals’ flesh but lifted the ban in 2019.
Emus and Rheas have been farmed much more recently. The earliest emu farm in Australia was in the 1930s at Dromana, Victoria. After a long hiatus, in 1970 two Swiss families began commercial emu farming in Kalannie, Western Australia and in 1976 a government-backed farm was established in Wiluna, WA. However, local farmers had been raising ostriches in Australia before, for their feathers (an ostrich farm was established at Murray Downs near Swan Hill, Victoria, in 1874). In 1987 relevant legislation was passed in Australia to allow commercial farming of emus, and the first were killed in 1990. By 1994, all Australian States were permitted to commercially farm emus. Emus are primarily farmed for their flesh, skin and in particular, their oil, which is sold as an anti-inflammatory (one emu’s body can produce about 25 pounds of flesh and two gallons of oil). The oil is taken from the fat stored on the emus’ backs after slaughter. Today, there are more farmed emus in India and America than in Australia.
The commercial breeding of the Greater Rhea, and Darwin’s Rhea, is a comparatively recent industry that started in South America in the 1990s and its development is by far lower compared with the other Ratites. They are farmed for their flesh, eggs, oil (used for cosmetics and soaps) and skin (to be used as luxury leather). It has been reported that in 2021 there were over 15,000 rheas in the US.
What’s Wrong with Farming Ratites
Farming animals is wrong in itself, as is a form of animal exploitation that should be abolished for being unethical, but there are many specific wrong things in farming any ratite species.
As ratites are still wild animals who have not been genetically modified by domestication, they are even less adapted to captivity than pigs, cows, goats or chickens. They have complex social and behavioural needs that cannot be met in farm settings, so they suffer from stress, boredom, frustration, aggression, injuries, diseases, and premature death.
When wild animals are kept in captivity in zoos, their struggle to cope with the situation is often manifested in the form of stereotypic behaviour, which is a type of abnormal behaviour characterised by repetitive movements with no apparent function (such as pacing, circling, head bobbing, neck twisting, or hair/feather self-plugging). As ratites are wild animals we can observe such type of behaviours when kept on farms in small paddocks or pens with dozens of other birds (a far cry from the space they would be able to roam in the wild).
For instance, ostrich pick each other’s back and tail feathers, abnormal behaviour triggered by stress, overcrowding, boredom and occurs more frequently in winter due to the long closed period where they have no access outdoors in some latitudes. Toe and face picking, when the ostriches peck even each other’s eyelids, can be a serious problem too. Stargazing is another abnormal behaviour caused by confinement, where the birds permanently raise their head, and put it on their back (after a while it is difficult for them to walk, eat and drink). Fly catching is another stereotypic behaviour in which the birds seem to be trying to catch imaginary flies. All these stereotypic behaviours are part of what is often described as zooochosis (the mental health problems zoo animals experience after years of captivity).
Farmed ratites may also swallow metal objects resulting in gut perforation and even death, and it is believed this is caused by stress, insufficient grazing, lack of fibre in their diet, and insufficient energy intake.
Ratites also suffer physiological stress when forced to breed more intensively than in the wild, where females would naturally lay up to 15 eggs. In farms, as the eggs are removed (causing distress to the mothers) they continue to lay 40, 70 or even 100 eggs a year.
Being reared apart from their family, ostrich chicks succumb readily to disease and have a high mortality rate of 67% (a higher death rate than other farmed animals). Ostriches are very sensitive to stress, and this high mortality is often directly linked to conditions on the farms.
Like in all animal farming, disease is also a problem. They can suffer from avian influenza like other farmed birds, as well as Avian pox, Newcastle disease, fading chick syndrome, tibiotarsal rotation, and libyostrongylosis (the only ostrich-specific transmissible disease). Chicks also suffer from enteritis (inflammation of the small intestine) when reared on concrete floors and are not able to develop their normal intestinal flora. The high protein feeds can also cause development problems in ratites’ legs because the birds grow so fast that their young bones become deformed under their excessive weight. Ticks and lice infestations can also occur on farms.
Ratite feathers are sometimes taken from living birds, and the painful process is repeated when they grow back. Usually, the birds are blindfolded while this occurs so they cannot fight back.
Because they are wild animals standing on two legs, transporting them also causes them a great deal of distress. According to the American Ostrich Association: “Transportation is dangerous and stressful for both man and beast. Most injuries are related to activities of handling and transport.”
And then, of course, we have the slaughter. Despite ratites in the wild live between 40 and 15 years depending on the species, in farms ostriches are usually killed at eight to nine months old (and other ratites at 12 months at the most). Most ostriches are killed in abattoirs by head-only electrical stunning, followed by bleeding, which requires at least four workers to hold the bird down. Other methods used are shooting a captive bolt pistol followed by pithing (inserting a rod through the hole in the bird’s head and stirring the brain around) and bleeding.
Undercover investigators have filmed the brutal handling and killing of ostriches in South Africa. In 2016, investigators from PETA visited incognito the South African abattoirs of two of the largest producers of ostrich flesh in the world, Mosstrich and Klein Karoo (KKI). The footage they took showed the birds being roughly handled into a large machine which held them down, then being electronically stunned, and eventually, their throats cut. At the time, PETA Managing Director Ingrid Newkirk said, “Smart, sensitive and curious young ostriches are treated like victims in a horror film simply because someone wants a bumpy Birkin bag or a pockmarked Prada purse. PETA urges shoppers to bag the skin and choose from the many high-end, ultra-fashionable and animal-friendly vegan accessories on the market.”
As usual with any type of animal farming, the problems of the ratite farm industry go beyond the animals themselves into public health and the environment. The flesh from ostrich is high in cholesterol (57mg per 100g), almost the same as flesh from bulls, and ratites flesh can transmit many diseases to humans (salmonellosis, E coli, campylobacteriosis, etc.).
Regarding environmental damage, ratite farming has a high carbon footprint (much higher than any plant-based farming), contributing to our current climate crisis. A conservative estimate suggests that for every kilogram of ostrich flesh produced, an average of 2.79 kg of CO2 equivalents are emitted. Although this is much lower than the 20.44 kg for sheeps, 15.44 kg for cows and 4.62 kg for pigs (as ratites are non-ruminant animals with comparatively low methane emissions) is still 0.46 kg CO2e more per kilogram of flesh than chicken flesh (2.33 kg of CO2e).