Ostriches succumb more often to disease and have a much
higher death rate than other domesticated farm animals,
according to the Council of Europe. They go on to say
that ostriches are "not domesticated but are still principally
wild animals and are extremely susceptible to stress."
But those selling the meat disagree. They claim that
ostriches are reared in humane conditions and that although
they are transported live to the abattoirs, the animals
are not subjected to undue stress or inhumane treatment.
Viva! launched a campaign against the trade in ostriches
in 1996. In mid-1998, the British Domesticated Ostrich
Association acknowledged Viva!'s success, stating: "In
the past we had employed a PR agency to counter the Viva!
campaign which has caused damage to the industry but due
to costs the Association had to drop the use of a PR agency.
(Ostrich Talk, 7:2, summer 1998.)
Due to Viva!'s campaigning against 'exotic' meats, Tesco
and Booker withdrew from selling ostrich meat in 1997.
That year Somerfield also stopped their introduction of
ostrich meat in 520 stores. In January 1999, Sainsbury's
stopped stocking ostrich after a three-year campaign by
Viva!. In the same month Asda took immediate action to
withdraw from the trade after receiving information from
Viva!. Currently the only national supplier of ostrich
meat is Waitrose. This report explains why reassurances
from supermarkets are meaningless and why they should
not be permitted to decide the fate of the world's wildlife.
Ostriches are the oldest living birds on Earth and belong
to a family of flightless fowl called ratites. Their relatives
include the emu (Australia), rhea (South America), cassowary
(Australia) and kiwi (New Zealand).
Just to see them takes your breath away. They look like
some awesome prehistoric creature with their long powerful
legs and dinosaur-like feet. To watch them move is an
incredible sight. In full gallop they reach 40 mph, covering
25 feet in a single stride. Farmed birds, on the other
hand, can run from one end of an average sized paddock
to the other in just six strides.
Ostriches are nomads, designed by 60 million years of
evolution to roam over vast tracts of grassland and desert.
They are the only bird to have two-toed feet which are
cloven, like camels, with well padded soles, designed
for exploring the desert and for running at speed.
This is their main self-defence, along with a formidable
karate kick. Ostriches always kick forwards and down,
lifting their foot as high as a person's face. With its
large single claw this mighty bird can disembowel a person
with one downward thrust. Not surprisingly they are officially
classed as Dangerous Wild Animals.
Ostriches have beautiful, big brown eyes and their upper
eyelids have tiny feathers, which resemble long eyelashes,
designed to protect their eyes from the fierce glare of
the desert sun. They have superb sight.
On the open veld, the ostrich's long neck and small head
act as a periscope, turning in all directions to continually
spy out the land while its large body remains hidden behind
a rock or a bush. Animals seeking safety, such as zebras,
choose to graze amongst these superb lookouts.
Ostriches live for up to 70 years and spend their gregarious
lives in small, scattered herds eating grass, berries,
succulents, seeds and leaves. Wild birds reach sexual
maturity at four years - farmed birds at just two to three.
They can mate all year, but the peak season is from autumn
until spring. During this time the male strays away from
the group with one or more females to perform the courtship
With outstretched wings he trips the light fantastic
before changing into a swaying break dance. He then crouches,
sways his wings like gently lapping waves and taps his
head on his back, from one side to another. A responsive
female droops her wings and flutters them languidly.
The female will not lay an egg until the male has carefully
formed a hollow in the ground for it. All the females
then lay their eggs in this one hollow until there are
10 to 15, and the male and senior female incubate them
for six weeks.
In the wild, the male ostrich is a good father and very
defensive of his chicks. At the approach of an enemy,
he causes a distraction by fleeing from the nest, pretending
to be hurt. With limp wings he slides to the ground, seeming
to collapse. He repeats the performance until satisfied
he has led the intruder far enough away and then miraculously
recovers and runs away at speed. The female also tries
diversionary tactics but if it all fails, the male attacks
furiously, lashing out with his deadly kicks.
Dancing in the Wild
Ostriches are the only birds to dance at times other
than at mating. Holtzhausen and Kotze from South Africa
say: "Especially in the early morning, a few birds in
a group will suddenly receive a mystic, inaudible cue
and begin to dance in circles on tip-toes, with outspread
wings. Very soon the whole group will join spontaneously
in the twirling dance. This may be a primeval urge or
simply an expression of the joy of being alive."
The Captive Bird
Ostriches have been farmed only since the 1860s - mainly
in the Cape Colony in South Africa. Originally it was
for feathers to meet the demands of European fashion.
It became very profitable, with feathers ranking fourth
in South Africa's export sales. But in 1914, with almost
one million farmed birds, the industry collapsed virtually
overnight with the outbreak of World War I.
About ten years ago, moves began to start ostrich farming
in Britain, the USA, Australia and Continental Europe
but on this occasion it is largely for their meat and
skin for leather fashion items. Currently, UK farms are
building up their stocks of breeding birds. The female
naturally lays up to 15 eggs, but on the farm her eggs
are removed so she continues to lay - 40, 70 or even 100
eggs a year. They are mechanically incubated and the chicks
never have the protection and care of their parents. Ostrich
farmer Gary Allen says: "We hope, with our feeding regime,
to have an ideal carcass weight at 12 months or less."
The industry aims to kill a bird with a natural life span
of some 70 years at less than one year old.
It is an industry riddled with problems. A chick in the
wild is never left alone by its parents. It needs that
strong feeling of security for to be abandoned in the
wild means certain death. As farmed chicks never see their
parents they imprint on humans. However, those who tend
them are rarely with them for long and the chicks feel
deserted. Dr F W Huchzermeyer of the Onderstepoort Veterinary
Institute explains the result:
"Whenever ostrich chicks find themselves deserted they
call with a gentle "kr kr kr". To the uninitiated it gives
the impression that the birds are happy and content. Far
from it, this is the sound of utter despair and distress."
(Ostrich News, Winter 1997.)
If 'desertion stress' is repeated often enough it triggers
stomach ulcers and lowers the chick's immune system, making
it susceptible to disease. Or frequently it simply starves
to death. Huchzermeyer explains another drawback: "Ostrich
chicks reared without parents are notoriously slow to
recognise their feed". This is yet another cause of stress.
The end result is an extraordinarily high death rate amongst
chicks - commonly 50 per cent and sometimes 100 per cent.
Clive Madeiros, of Banbury Cross Veterinary Practice,
specialises in farmed ostriches and writes for Ostrich
News, the British Domesticated Ostrich Association's magazine.
He says: "The single most common problem seen on all ostrich
chick farms is feet and leg troubles.......the unique
anatomy of the ostrich, along with its rapid early growth
- 30cm from day old to 2m within five to six months -
make them particularly prone to feet and leg problems."
(Ostrich News, Spring 1996.)
Poorly formed bones lead to dislocated joints and fractures
as a result of living conditions - chicks running into
obstacles because of boredom or losing their footing on
slippery, muddy surfaces. Mr Madeiros says: "The ostrich
is very sensitive to joint, ligament, tendon and skeletomuscular
pain and injuries in this area often lead to lameness,
loss of appetite and depression. These secondary symptoms
can themselves often lead to death."
As with broiler chickens, high protein feeds can also
cause leg problems. The feed makes the birds grow so fast
that their young bones become deformed under their excessive
Dr Judith Samson of the Ratite Management Centre, Canada,
says that farmed ostriches show many examples of abnormal
behaviour. Feather picking, where a bird aggressively
pecks feathers from the back of a pen mate, is again brought
about by "stress and boredom". Dr Samson says: "...it
is most severe in winter months because of prolonged confinement".
(Ostrich News, Winter 1996.)
A housed ostrich may also stargaze, lifting its head
up and back until it touches its spine. Dr Samson says:
"Severely affected birds will have difficulty walking,
eating and drinking because of the position of the head.
This behaviour occurs commonly in inadequate facilities
where pens are too small and/or too dark."
The cure? Simply to allow the bird outside but Dr Samson
admits there is increasingly less chance of that: "If
ostriches are to become a viable agricultural alternative,
they will have to be reared intensively under confined
Toe and face pecking are also unknown in the wild. Writing
in Canadian Ostrich and Ostrich News, Dr Samson says:
"..toe and face pecking can lead to mutilating wounds
where entire eyelids are pecked out. This aberrant behaviour
is most notorious in young chicks. Although causes are
unknown it has been suggested that stress and boredom
are predisposing factors."
Fly catching is another stereotypic behaviour seen only
in captive birds. They seem to be trying to catch imaginary
flies and their movements are constantly repeated. Again
it is stress or pain which is the cause.
It is often said by ostrich farmers that the birds are
stupid because they eat anything - coins, gloves, pencils,
spanners, barbed wire fencing and even nails. The result
is impaction or perforation and often death. Dr Huchzermeyer
in Ostrich News gives the real reason: "This abnormal
behaviour appears to be triggered by stress. The main
causes are overgrazing of available pasture, insufficient
grazing, insufficient energy intake, lack of fibre and
chicks not having been taught what to eat."
Hardly surprising, the Journal of the American Veterinary
Association concludes that: "A major deterrent to the
transition from breeding to livestock production is the
huge death loss rate in ostrich chicks."
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."
Loading and transportation makes the birds "unsettled
and nervous". It also asks the rhetorical question: "what
do you think happens to a bird standing on two legs if
you slam on the brakes?" Fighting, pecking or stepping
on one another causes injury or even death, particularly
if loaded too tightly.
Ostriches are not only transported to abattoirs but breeding
birds are now being subjected to live export. Birds have
recently been seen being loaded onto ferries at Dover
and Hull and arriving from Belgium. One observer saw 165
birds being loaded onto a trailer and described it for
us: "Seventeen birds were in the back compartment, about
8 x 12 square feet. Several birds jumped into each other
and tried running through the wall while crying a high-pitched
Cherylynn Brown took pictures of the following scenes
at Brandywine Ostrich Farms in Hemet, California in 1997
and made these observations:
1. Birds standing with black cloth wrapped around their
2. A person holding a 10-foot, metal-hooked pole while
another helps him corner the ostriches. They try to put
black cloth tubes over the bird's heads but even the blindfolded
ones try to run.
3. As the ostriches are forced towards a truck, they
jump and try to run, swinging the farm workers round.
The workers hold onto their tail feathers, ripping them
out by the handful. They grab the birds by the face or
by the beak and wrestle them into a hold by the neck,
then force them to the truck.
4. I see ostriches fighting a handler called Chip and
his helpers as they push them onto the truck. One ostrich
called Schizy drops her mask and struggles away from the
5. Chip is angry at her as she sits down and refuses
to get up. He kicks her several times in the thigh. She
cries but does not attempt to stand.
6. He grabs her wing and tries to lift her. She refuses.
He kicks her in the behind. She cries but stays sitting.
Chip and another worker pull on her wings and neck but
she will not move.
7. So Chip and two workers push her to the opening of
the truck door as she sits on the ground. They put their
hands under her feet and lift. She kicks and they grab
her body and wings and force her on the truck. She sits
hanging off the side of the door. They push her in most
of the way and use the door to push her the rest of the
way. A bunch of tail feathers are caught in the door and
are hanging out as the truck drives away.
Ostrich meat sold in Britain sometimes comes from the
US. Despite having similar slaughter pre-stunning regulations
to the UK, our evidence to the contrary is sickening.
We have video footage of the slaughter of emus in a specialist
ratite slaughter plant. It shows birds having CO2 gas
masks placed over their heads. Some jump high into the
air, obviously greatly distressed, and shake off the masks.
A frustrated worker goes into the pen and hits a bird
repeatedly on the head with a hammer but even this fails.
The final scene is of a fully conscious bird being shackled
by its leg and hung upside down before having its throat
There is utter confusion in the trade about how birds
should be killed. Ostrich News recommended that the birds
should be transported to the slaughter house the day before
and be left hooded overnight. When being killed they should
remain hooded, be hobbled and taken to the killing point
where water should be poured over the hood and an electrical
sheep stunner applied before their throats are cut. The
stress of this process on a wild bird already prone to
the condition can be imagined.
Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries & Food (MAFF) advice
on slaughter amounts to nothing more than 'non-statutory
guidance'. In other words, killing is a free for all.
MAFF makes it quite clear that killing ostriches is a
difficult, stressful and dangerous business and this is
supported by our own research. MAFF is also far from clear
about how it should be done.
Suppliers themselves are in complete confusion and ignorance
over the issue. In a letter to Viva!, one of Britain's
leading retailers claimed: "(Ostriches) are killed instantly
by stunning and then applied captive bolt to the head."
This is a confused and meaningless explanation.
1. Stunning does not kill the birds, it stuns them.
2. The captive bolt is the instrument used to stun, not
3. They are killed by being shackled and having their
This is one thing that MAFF is reasonably clear about
and states that the captive bolt pistol is an unsuitable
method of stunning ostriches and "should not be used other
than for emergency slaughter."
It is starkly clear that it is very difficult to kill
these huge, magnificent animals. One slaughterer said
it took him "two hours of violent struggle" to kill a
MAFF proposes to allow the slaughter of ostriches in
some red meat abattoirs - none are currently licensed.
There are however four premises which are dedicated to
the killing of ostriches - one in Shropshire and another
in Scotland. They are governed by the Welfare of Animals
(Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995. But this just
means that ostriches have to be stunned before being killed
and they do not give any guidance as to how to deal with
these animals. As already mentioned, stunning methods
used can be inadequate and cause immense pain.
Retailers claim that ostrich meat is a healthy alternative
to beef. However, ostrich is NOT low in cholesterol. It
has 57mg per 100g - almost the same as beef. In light
of the most recent research linking meat to cancer, ostrich
can be considered in the same health threatening category
as other red meats.
Ostrich meat can transmit many diseases to humans including
salmonella, E coli and campylobacteriosis. It decays incredibly
rapidly and can only be kept unpackaged for one day! This
fast deterioration allows bacteria to flourish.
In the early to mid-90's many small ostrich farms sprung
up in the UK - often owned by people with no previous
experience of farming. The British Domesticated Ostrich
Association (BDOA) estimated there were 5,000 breeding
hens which should have produced 100,000 slaughter birds,
amounting to 3,000 tons of ostrich meat in 1997. The price
varied from £9 to £15 per pound.
However, there was simply no market for such a huge quantity
of meat, particularly so when the nationwide stockists
Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Somerfield withdrew from
the trade. In 1997 we were told of the birth of an equivalent
to the MLC, called Osmarque - the Ostrich Meat Marketing
Company - in an attempt to reverse the flagging sales
of ostrich. It has established a small network of slaughter
houses and cutting plants and is trying to encourage sales
of the meat (at a time when government is recommending
a large reduction in the consumption of red meat). However
- in October 1998 Scotland's first ostrich farm was forced
to close due to the low sales of the meat and a slump
in the price of skins. Others have subsequently closed
and others are reported in the Scottish press as being
under threat. On Radio Four in January 1999, it was reported
that the price of a breeding trio had crashed from £30,000
Waitrose are the only remaining supermarket chain to
sell ostrich meat in 'selected stores'. When Tesco withdrew
from the trade in 1997 they claimed that what market there
was had collapsed. Somerfield have scrapped plans to sell
it nationwide due to "negative public response" initiated
by Viva!. Asda tried it twice - in 1996 but sales were
low and they withdrew it and in 1998-9 when they withdrew
within one week of Viva! contacting them (in January 1999).
Iceland has no plans to stock it.
Congratulations go to Safeway, Marks & Spencer and
the Co-op, however, as they are the only supermarket chains
to take a moral stand. Not only do they say there is no
customer interest but have declined to stock exotic meats
for ethical reasons. Safeway say: "Due to our own ethical
concerns, we have never considered stocking these meats
and have no plans to do so." The Co-operative Wholesale
Society says: "There is very little demand for such products
and we are also concerned over the animal welfare issues.
We do not have any plans to stock exotic meats."