Heads in the sand?

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Have you ever had a close-up look at an ostrich? Do you have any idea how big those rascals really are?

Have you ever had a close-up look at an ostrich? Do you have any idea how big those rascals really are?

The first time I ever saw one in the flesh was when the owners of a 7-foot-tall, 350-pound female ostrich called me for help. It seems the big bird had stepped on something and had a raging infection in her foot. The owners couldn't catch her. Actually, they were frightened to death of their own birds.

As I peered into a chicken-wire fortress, I noticed that the tall bird's boyfriend was in the same three-acre compound. He must have stood 8 feet tall.

My assignment: Enter the enclosure, wrestle down the giant creature, remove whatever might be stuck in her foot, give her a shot, treat the abscess – and do it all without help from the couple who owned her.

Oh, they were full of advice, but that was as far as it went. They were not about to touch anything.

Their constant stream of advice was the farthest thing from my mind as I sized up the situation.

The first thing I noticed was the size of the toes on that bird. The biggest one must have been 7 inches long, with a rock-hard, razor-sharp toenail on the end. I realized I should be more afraid of the feet than the head.

Then I saw the drumsticks. To carry around 350 pounds, you need big drumsticks. I guessed that this beast defended herself with her legs.

My next question was, which way does she kick? Backward like a horse, or does she strike forward like a rooster? I went with the latter theory and decided I would just treat her like a big chicken.

When I entered the pen, much to my surprise, both ostriches just sidled up to me and started pecking on anything that was shiny – first my ring and then the button on top of my cap. This gave me a chance to size up the foot injury at close range. It was bad.

I realized there was no way I was going to be able to pick up that foot. Every time I tried to touch it, she opened her mouth so wide her face disappeared and gave a mighty hiss.

I left the pen and headed for a cell phone. I had no idea how to sedate an ostrich, but figured someone did. They guy on the phone had very little advice – just the correct dose of anesthetic, a chuckle and a warning to "give the shot in the muscles of the breast."

I quickly discovered that I couldn't chase down an ostrich, even one with an abscessed foot, so I decided to hide behind a bush in a small gully, wait for her to come by, stick her with the injection and wait for her to fall asleep.

Things were looking good.

The owners waved a food bowl outside the fence to attract the bird's attention. She saw it and headed that way, right toward my hiding spot. That's when I noticed that the gully was just deep enough that I wouldn't be at the right angle to reach the breast muscles.

By then, however, I was committed. I jumped on her, reached under her left wing and gave the shot while my legs dangled off her right side. This bird was actually carrying me! None of me was touching the ground, and that made me uncomfortable. I hopped off and tumbled to a stop, as the owners cheered me on.

That's when I saw him coming.

Oh yes, him. The once-docile male ostrich suddenly had become possessive of his girlfriend. He spread his white-tipped wings and came at me full of bad intentions. At the end of about 10 running steps, I learned that you cannot climb chicken wire.

Things were getting desperate. There was no way I could outrun this guy. Nothing left to do but fight, so I looked around for some sort of weapon – a stick, a rock, anything – to defend myself. Nothing.

I had no choice but to face him.

What would you have done? Without even thinking, I just braced myself and started yelling at him.

"Hey, get outta here!" came pouring out of my mouth as I waved my arms and kicked dirt.

That was all it took. He folded up and ran the other way as if he'd seen a ghost.

My heart was pounding, and I was shaking all over. All I could think as I trotted toward the gate that offered freedom was, "Eight years of school for that?"

The female bird responded well to treatment once we got the thorn out of her foot.

Those people didn't own ostriches much longer, as I recall.

As for me, I still have dreams about giant, white-winged birds chasing me around a chicken-wire pen I can't climb out of.

Dr. Brock owns the Brock Veterinary Clinic in Lamesa, Texas.

Bo Brock, DVM

Editor's note: This column was edited and reprinted from the October 2001 edition of DVM Newsmagazine.

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