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A Viva! report on ostrich farming
by Juliet Gellatley BSc (Zoology), Director of Viva!




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.

Nomadic Instincts

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.

Family Interaction

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 ritual.

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.

Skeletomuscular Problems

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 weight.

Abnormal Behaviour

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: " 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 environments."

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.

Dietary Problems

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."

Live Transport

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 scream."

First-Hand Accounts

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 faces.

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 handlers.

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 cut.

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 kill.

3. They are killed by being shackled and having their throats cut.

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 single ostrich.

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.

Healthy Alternative?

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.

The Industry

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 to £1,000.

Supermarket Sales

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."