A few seconds after the doorbell rang my son Aaron knocked on the bathroom door, “Mom, there’s a state cop at the door”.
Although it was only the middle of October and not yet seven o’clock in the evening, I had been taking a bath because I was cold. “I’ll be right there,” I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice.
I jumped out of the bathtub and donned my sweat pants and sweat shirt as quickly as I could. My husband, who had been working away from home that week, was driving home from New Jersey that evening. In rural Pennsylvania where I live, the State Police are often the ones who knock on doors delivering horrible messages about loved ones who have been involved in car accidents. A million thoughts – most of them terrifying – were racing through my mind as I exited the bathroom and met my son in the hallway.
He also looked worried and confused as he said, “I didn’t do anything.” I quickly realized that he had no idea that the state trooper might be there to deliver bad news. Because of that, I knew that no matter what the trooper told me, I had to remain calm and watch how I reacted and be careful about what I said and how I said it. I couldn’t lose my composure because Aaron was two steps behind me and he would hear everything.
Opening the door while hoping for the best but expecting the worst, I was taken aback when the trooper asked, “Sorry to bother you ma’am, is that your ostrich in the front yard?”
I looked in the direction that he was pointing and sure enough, there in the dark, under the trees, sat an ostrich. I was so relieved that he was only there to ask me about an ostrich that I back-handed him in the upper arm and said, “You scared the crap outta me!”
And then I panicked. I had just hit a State Police Officer, so much for maintaining my composure. I was mortified and terrified that I could be arrested or at the very least, get a ticket. The look on my face must have said it all as the trooper began chuckling. “My husband is on the road, driving home and I thought…”
He interrupted me, “Oh no. Oh no, I’m so sorry, ma’am. I’m not here about your husband. I don’t have any information about your husband, I’m so sorry to scare you. I’m just here about the ostrich.”
Aaron and I joined the trooper on the front porch where the three of us stood, staring at the ostrich. I assured him it was not ours and that I had no idea to whom it belonged. I explained to him that we had only recently moved into the house and still had not met all of the neighbors, but that I was certain that none of my immediate neighbors had any ostriches.
The trooper told us that they had received numerous calls about the ostrich from people who lived along our road as it had been in several people’s yards and had been running on the road causing several motorists to swerve out of the way. Although it was sitting in our yard now, the trooper expressed concern that it would get back up and head towards the road again.
“If it heads towards the road, do you care if I shoot it?” he asked.
“I don’t care if you shoot it, it’s not my ostrich. But if you kill it, what will you do with the body? You can’t leave it here.”
“Oh – I didn’t think of that,” he said.
Over the next few minutes, he got updates from headquarters. There was another ostrich loose that had been confined in a fenced-in backyard down the road. He was told that they were trying to locate the owner of the birds and that backup was on the way. Backup. For ostriches.
After resting for a while, the ostrich stood up. As it started to move the trooper asked if I minded if he drove his car in the grass to try to herd the ostrich away from the road. I told him that would be fine. We have a very large front yard and the road is about 100 yards away from our front door so there was plenty of open space for him to try to guide it away from the road.
As the ostrich started to move towards the road, he headed it off each time. Finally, the ostrich took off running around the side of the house, headed for the backyard. My son and I ran inside the house and turned on the floodlights. As we did, we saw our German Shepherd, Kelly, barking madly at the ostrich, which was headed straight towards her kennel. She was full-on upset to see this animal coming at her, and she stood her ground and barked until the ostrich got about 25 yards from her. When she got a good look at what she was dealing with, Kelly stopped barking and ran into her doghouse and not another peep was heard from her until the whole incident was over and she was brought into the house for the evening.
I’ve seen ostriches in zoos and on television, but when you see them in your yard, next to things you know, like a kennel with six-foot high walls, it is only then that you realize exactly how big they are. It seemed enormous. It’s feet seemed enormous. And those feet helped it run fast. It ran past Kelly and kept going. Once it got to the pool, it stood behind it, peering at us over the fence that surrounds the pool deck.
While it was resting there, the backup arrived. The second state trooper parked his car in the driveway, leaving his headlights on to see the ostrich. The other trooper, who had herded the ostrich into the backyard, parked just off to the side of him, and left his headlights on. Both troopers then turned on spotlights that were attached to the side of their cars so that they could track the ostrich through the dark backyard as she moved.
Suddenly, people began arriving all at once. Several neighbors from across the road came over, many of whom drove so that they could use their spotlights – usually used for spotting deer at night – to keep an eye on the ostrich. My immediate neighbors, one of the few we had actually met because they live next-door, also drove over. When they arrived, they rolled down their window to use their spotlight as well. Their spotlight was homemade out of an old aluminium pot that had a big light fashioned somehow in the middle. My neighbor sat in her car, holding her spotlight by the pot handle out of the open car door window, following the ostrich’s movements.
At some point while all of this was going on, two firetrucks arrived and because there were so many cars in the driveway, they parked along side of it, in the grass. They also had spotlights and headlights blazing.
The ostrich moved into the fields next to our house and was running around, not knowing which way to go. The fields were lit up with all of the spotlights and headlights and the ostrich looked like a movie star attending a movie premier, with flashes of light following it around. Some who were not manning spotlights, were stationed in the field to deter the ostrich from running towards the road. While all of this was going on, my son and two of the neighbor boys began playing a pickup game of basketball at the bottom of our driveway.
As I stood there taking in the whole scene, it occurred to me that my husband Steve, who was due to arrive home at any moment, would probably be terrified to see all of this as he approached the house so I went into the house and called him on his cell phone. After telling him that there was an ostrich in the yard and describing the scene to him, including that the driveway was full of firetrucks, police cars and our neighbors cars he asked, “You’re not letting them drive on the grass, are you?”
I couldn’t believe it. I was in the middle of the madness and all he cared about was the grass. “Yes I’m letting them drive on the grass. You know why? Because there’s a friggin’ ostrich in the yard!”
After hanging up the phone, I realized that I hadn’t seen my daughter since before I got into the bathtub. At sixteen, she usually disappeared into her room every evening to listen to Broadway tunes. I went upstairs and found her there, in her own little Broadway world, oblivious to what was going on outside. “Hey, there’s an ostrich in the yard. The driveway and yard are full of police cars, firetrucks, neighbors. You might want to come outside and see this.”
She looked at me like sixteen year old girls do, as if she was saying, “whatever,” without actually saying it. “Seriously, look out your window,” I said.
I went back outside, followed by my daughter, and saw my son and the two neighbor boys were no longer playing basketball. All three were standing next to one of the state police cars. My son was manning the spotlight while the two neighbor boys were looking through the car’s open window. As I arrived I heard the one neighbor boy say to his brother, “No, you touch it.” Inside the car was a running computer and a shotgun.
I said, “Nobody is touching anything. Get away from the car before you get arrested!” in my best scary mommy voice. My son said that the trooper had asked him to man the spotlight, and I said that was fine but none of them had better touch anything in the car.
As I stood there keeping an eye on the boys, the ostrich farmer and a farm hand, finally showed up in an old, green pickup truck. They were driving around looking for their lost ostriches when they saw all the lights and vehicles in our driveway and yard.
The farmer said the ostriches had gotten out when he was walking out of the gate to their fenced-in area. He said the farm hand had started the truck and it backfired, and the noise of it scared the birds which ran right past him through the open gate. He said the one in our yard was the female. When told there was another one cornered down the street in a fenced-in yard, he said that one, a male, could wait until this one was returned home. He said that once she was caught they would cover her eyes so that she couldn’t see. He said that once her eyes were covered, he could walk her onto the back of his truck and drive her home.
Although the farmer seemed to have a plan, he warned us all not to get too close to her. He said, “See her feet? She can gut you like one of those velociraptors in Jurassic Park.”
He said if people could chase her towards him and the farm hand they would capture her and blindfold her. He said if she was kept moving, if she didn’t sit and rest, she would get tired and be easy to catch. His plan sounded good in theory, but the reality turned out to be a whole lot different.
The state troopers, the firemen, the farmer, his farm hand and some of the neighbors, formed a circle in the field to try to confine the ostrich. As the ostrich ran in circles, and began to tire, the farmer yelled out, “We’ve got to jump on her back to get her down!”
As she slowed down, the two troopers jumped on her back and she did go down to the ground. But when she saw the farmer and farm hand running in her direction, she got up, knocking one of the troopers off of her back. But the other trooper, who was lying face-down across her back, hung on and he rode her that way for about twenty yards before falling off.
She began running in circles again but she was so tired that it was not long before several of the men were able to jump on her back and bring her down to the ground. Once she was down the farmer laid across her back as well and shouted encouragement to the others saying, “Don’t let her get up! No matter what, don’t let her get up!”
The farm hand, a Barney Fife lookalike who did not appear to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, pulled a blindfold out of his pocket. He tried several times to put it across the ostrich’s eyes, but she kept moving her head and it would slide off of her before he could get it secured. Finally, after several tries, he had the blindfold on.
By that time, everyone, including the ostrich, was out of breath as they lay there in a big pile. The ostrich was on the ground with the troopers, a fireman, a neighbor and the farmer still on top of her and all were breathing heavily. The ostrich lay there for a minute or so and tried to get up, but Barney Fife held her down by the neck and she collapsed down. Then she tried again. And again. She tried to get up several times and every time she tried to get up, the men on her back would shift, or one of them would slip off and get back on. But Barney Fife, who was holding her neck to the ground with both of his hands, would not let go, so each time, she thumped back down on the ground. But after one such attempt to get up, followed by her thump to the ground, Barney Fife said, “She’s dead.”
Barney had been holding her neck on the ground in an attempt to keep her there, but despite the men on her back, she had gotten enough of her body up off of the ground, that with her neck held securely to the ground, her neck broke. She died instantly.
All of us stood there in shock. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe she was dead and I couldn’t believe Barney Fife hadn’t let go of her neck. As I was standing there absorbing it all, I saw my husband Steve walking towards us; he had made it home. I went up to him and said, “She’s dead. He broke her neck.”
The two of us walked back over to the ostrich. I asked the farmer what he was going to do with it and he said he would butcher it, that he raised them for meat. “But first,” he said, “we have to get her loaded in the truck.”
I looked at the ostrich then. I mean I really looked at her. She was beautiful and scary at the same time. Her feet, the feet the farmer had warned us about, did indeed look dangerous. They were large, with two toes with wide, thick talons. Her feathers were beautiful, mostly black with some white, but very fluffy. Her one eye, still open, was black and about the size of a cue ball. It had long eyelashes and it was beautiful.
As I was looking at her, I was aware of the men having a conversation about how exactly they were going to lift such a big animal into the truck. Eventually, one of the firemen appeared with a full-sized piece of plywood. They set it up at the end of the truck bed as a ramp and attached a rope to the ostrich and pulled her up the ramp and into the bed of the truck. Once loaded, the farmer and Barney Fife left to take her back to the farm. They needed to unload her from the truck bed so that they could use the truck to transport her mate, once caught. (I learned later that they got him home safely.)
Once the farmer left, so too did the neighbors, the firemen and the police. As the kids and I headed back into the house, Steve walked out to the front yard to retrieve his truck. He had parked it there when he arrived home because the driveway was full of other vehicles. So full in fact, that he had to park it in the grass.
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