My Year of Fear

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Tryin’ to catch me ridin’ birdies. Pt. 1

on April 8, 2012

When I tell people about this project, the first question everyone asks is, “So are you going skydiving?” The second question is usually either “Why are you doing this to yourself again?” or “Are you really sure you want to do that?” But then the third question is, “Did you say you’re going to ride an ostrich?” Fourth is, “Ride an ostrich?” Fifth: “You can do that?” Then the sixth question is: “Bareback or western?” Finally the seventh (and typically last) question everyone asks is, “Why would you want to ride an ostrich? Seriously.”

I want to do that because: it’s scary. Therefore it goes on the list. Years ago I heard about how they have ostrich races in South Africa and I thought it sounded terrifying. I have no idea why this took off (no pun intended, because ostriches cannot actually take off) in South Africa, of all places, but it’s a thing people do and it’s frightening, what with the big ostrich hooves and giant beaks that will peck your face off. Also my mom was bitten by an ostrich once, or possibly it was a llama, and she rode that story for a good 25 years after the actual event. So therefore I was determined to ride one. An ostrich. Not a llama. Nothing against the llama.

Many people I knew, of course, were of the opinion that this was a stupid, stupid, very stupid idea. Sherman Alexie was one of them. With more passion than I’ve ever seen him exhibit to date, he constructed a compound-complex argument why I should not pursue this idea, citing primarily the giant dinosaur feet and the face-pecking, but I remained unswayed. So he decided to show me exactly why I was wrong by presenting me to an actual ostrich.

Those of you living in Arizona have probably already heard of Rooster Cogburn’s Ostrich Ranch, as had I, but I had never been there, since I am not the wacky-adventure, free-spirited hijinks sort of person. If you don’t know it, it’s, well, a ranch, as you could probably guess, of ostriches, out along the highway. (The ranch is, not the ostriches, although the ostriches being on the ranch by definition are also along the highway, except they live in pens. On the ranch. Along the highway.) You pay your admission and get a cup of alfalfa-looking pellets that you can feed to all the different animals there, including goats, deer, donkeys, and of course the ostriches. I was not aware that ostriches and goats had identical nutritional requirements, but then again I am not a professional tourist rancher.

Most of the animals there are kept in adorably accessible pens, except for the goats they put up in a pen about 50 feet up, so you have to put food in a little cup attached to a pulley and hand-crank it all the way up to them. I’m still not sure what the ASPCA would have to say about that.

The ostriches, however, are kept in their own uniquely designed pen. According to the Rooster Cogburn website, and I would have no reason not to believe them, this is The Ultimate Ostirch [sic] Interaction. There’s a little bucket-y kind of thing where you can just drop food in on one side and never have to be in ostrich danger. But then there’s also this option:

THRILL SEEKERS

Place feed in the center of your hand. Hold your hand flat, close to the fence and down low. Raise slowly and make the ostrich reach over & down to get the food.

NOTE: Ostriches do not have teeth but they can peck.

Pecked by a beak weighing easily as much as my own head? This is horrifying and damn scary. So by the rules of the year, why did I not allow the ostriches to eat from my hand? Because it’s the Year of Fear, not the Year of Doing Stupid Shit That Will Get Your Face Pecked Off. Or My Face Pecked Off. Or Anyone’s Face Pecked Off. No Faces of Any Kind Pecked Off.

So we opted for the middle ground, literally, which was to walk over to the raised wooden platform that allowed us to stand about crotch-height with the birds, which was extremely exciting, and to toss food into the metal pans along the top edge of the fence of the pen. That is, we could put food there whenever we could actually get close enough to the pans. The ostriches there are all thoroughly conditioned that weirdo strangers staring at them = suppertime, so thousands of them crowd right up to the fence and snake their snakey necks out past the pans and into the walkway as far as they can go and try to eat any fingers you’re not using. I’m still not entirely clear why this is a tourist attraction, to be honest, but then again, this is Arizona.

Sherman Alexie was determinedly unimpressed with the ostriches and, being a goal-oriented kind of a guy, focused on discouraging the riding plan. “Look at their eyes!” he told me. “Their soulless, evil eyes!”

I could see soulless, but I felt evil was a stretch. “Maybe they’re just tired of living a life devoid of any purpose or meaning.”

“They have velociraptor talons and they will disembowel you so they can eat your intestines. And then trample you. And then kick you and then trample you again. They weigh 8000 pounds. Do you not see their feet? Those are DINOSAUR FEET and they will KILL YOU. WITH THEIR FEET.”

“People ride these things in South Africa. When was the last time you heard of a South African having his intestines eaten by ostriches?”

“Look at those enormous wings! The disgusting, filthy, filthy feathers! Those feathers are huge and gross and will poke you! Poke you!! Why would you want to sit on those?”

“It would just be while I’m actually on it, you know. It’s not like I’ll be selling my couch or anything.”

“Do you think that bird cares about you? Do you?”

“Well, I’m going to ride it, not marry it.”

“Their necks are unnatural.”

“But…ok, point taken.”

Eventually we had to agree to disagree. Which was ok, because I have to admit there isn’t much to defend about the noble ostrich. They really are huge and scary, and not even a little bit domesticated. When they found a piece of food on the wooden railing, they came down WHAM right on top of it, eating the pellet but also leaving a beak-shaped dent in the wood (AKA my hand if I were dumb enough to let an ostrich eat out of my hand). They’re perfectly capable of killing a human, and although the frequency and severity of ostrich-on-human violence appears to be a poorly studied topic, the odds of surviving an ostrich encounter seem to be about on par with wearing a raw-steak-and-berry necklace while punching a grizzly bear cub and telling him yo mama jokes.

Plus, and this is the part that I just can’t forgive: they’re dumb. I mean, look at this face:

And tell me you couldn’t put a paper bag on his head and convince him he’s lost. In fact, there was only one bird nerd in the whole bird herd who showed any signs of intelligence. That one watched our hands, knowing there was food in them and followed our hands around with his whole head, bobbing and weaving on the end of its enormous neck, beak eerily gaping open and closed like the worst putt-putt hazard ever. Sherman Alexie figured out that if he timed it just right, he could toss food straight into the bird’s mouth. Whereas I couldn’t get the timing down at all, so I just amused myself bouncing food off the bird’s head as though I am a really horrible person, which evidence clearly shows that I am not. Then again, he also figured out how to let an ostrich bite the pellet cup so he could slide food right down its eight-foot-long gullet, so he may have just had some ostrich issues going on that needed sorting.

On our way out, I casually-sneakily started up a conversation with a staff member to try and suss out their willingness to let me climb up on one of their birds, because honestly, where else am I going to find an ostrich? I figured I could at least get a lead. I mean, surely the world of professional ostrich ranchers has to be a fairly small one, right? I chatted her up and acted really interested in the workings of an ostrich ranch until I could bring the conversation around to riding one without arousing her suspicions. Maybe I would have been a good spy after all. Or at least a good extremely specialized ostrich-spy. But when I made the shift from “So how d’ya keep up with all these guldurn critters anyway?” to “Does anyone ever ride them?” her open, friendly, bubbly demeanor changed instantly. She sobered, got very quiet, and looked me straight in the eyes. “Oh, no,” she said seriously, eyes wide. She shook her head slowly. “Absolutely not. That’s way too dangerous. They’re wild animals. That’s a good way to get killed. Or at least trampled. Have you seen their feet?”

Sherman Alexie is too nice a guy to say “I told you so,” but I get the feeling he was thinking it.

But, perversely, seeing how intimidating these creatures are only made me more determined to ride one. I’ve been told before that I’m stubborn. I prefer to think of it as “persistent.” I would ride an ostrich or die trying. Probably literally in this case.

At a loss as to where to even begin to look for a lead on this, I tried the Google. Because I’m pretty sure I would not know how to locate a reference book on this topic, or what that reference book would even be called:

  • Wild Animal Ranches of Arizona, 2000–10
  • Darwin Awards Applications, Southwest Regional Division
  • The Evolution of Dinosaur Feet, with Modern Examples
  • 1001 Way to Get Your Ass Poked By Something Unpleasant
  • And lo and behold, I turned up this: The Ostrich Festival in Chandler, Arizona. I’ve lived here for years and had no idea there was an ostrich festival. When I started asking lifelong residents if they’d ever heard of it, they looked at me as though they thought I was in stage one of setting up an elaborate April Fool’s Day prank. But there it was.

    How much of life is like that? There’s something that’s just what you want, that’s just within your reach, but you have no idea it’s there until you start looking for it?

    I wasn’t particularly interested in the festival itself—I mean, would you be?—but I thought either they might let people ride them as kind of a publicity stunt sort of a thing, or maybe I could make some ostrich contacts that way. So I called up the festival sponsor, which was the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. I thought that was a little weird, but hey, it’s Chandler. I got a nice woman on the phone and explained that I was very interested in riding an ostrich, and would there be any opportunities to do so at the festival? Or could she put me in touch with someone who would have such opportunities?

    There was a long pause. She actually tsk’d at me. When she started talking again finally, her voice had a hard, slightly hysterical edge to it.

    “I don’t understand this. I just don’t understand it. They’re wild animals! They are not safe. Every year someone says ‘I want to ride one of those!’ But they’re vicious! They’re really just awful, horrible animals. Nasty and stupid and full of disease. They will peck you in the eye if you’re not careful. And have you seen their feet? I’d never get on one.”

    I wasn’t feeling like she was really selling the whole Ostrich Festival experience, but I doggedly pressed on. She became quite snappish with me.

    “You can’t do it. Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? There is no way we could protect ourselves legally if you were to get hurt. No waiver could possibly protect us. It’s out of the question. Only trained professionals are allowed on those birds. You absolutely cannot do it.”

    Slightly discouraged, I asked her if she knew of any other similar festivals or organizations, thinking maybe someone somewhere would be willing to give me a private lesson or something. Her only advice was to call the festival promoter, which was not, luckily, the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. Her idea was they could put me in touch with the company that handles the ostriches, which she couldn’t remember but thought was run out of California. Turns out the promotional company was based in Florida; I’m not sure why and never asked. I found that number and gave them a try. I got an older man on the phone with the thickest, hickest Florida accent I’ve ever heard. I practically needed a TTY just to understand him. Talking to someone with a strong southern accent always makes me feel like a carpetbagger for some reason. I always come away feeling aggressively neutral, if that makes any sense.

    “Hi,” I said brightly in my completely featureless and nondistinctive English. “I’m calling about the ostrich festival. I’m looking for someone who can teach me how to ride an ostrich. I called the promotional office and they suggested the company that handles the birds for you, but she didn’t remember the name and told me I should call you.”

    I waited six days while he opened his mouth to reply. “Well. Are yew gone ta be at the festival?”

    “Sure, if there’s something I can do,” I said, already attuned to his speed and diction, and therefore sounding to myself like a motormouth methhead and feeling much like Merry and Pippin trying to extract information from Treebeard within their own lifespan. But by which I swear all I meant was, “More than just making a phone call would accomplish. Because I’m not driving up to Chandler just to get a phone number that two seconds of research could also get me.” My tone must have been obvious. There was a crackling noise as the phone lines froze over.

    A year later, he said, “Well, whut do yew mean ‘if there’s somethin’ yew kin dew?’ It’s three days of excitin’ events fer tha hole famly, with food, fun, and fantastic shows that will keep yew on tha edge a yer seat. No matter whut yew lack, yew’ll find sumthin’ ta dew at tha Ostrich Festival.”

    Oh great. Now I’ve offended the ostrich promoter. I tried to brighten my voice all the way up to “sincere.”

    “Oh no! Of course that’s not what I meant. I understand it’s a huge festival. HUGE. I just meant—”

    “Yew wan ta rod a burd, huh?”

    “Yes, I was hoping to find someone who could teach me.”

    “Ain’t hard. Yew kin go up thar, talk to tha owner, son a waiver and hop on a back a won—”

    I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. This guy knows way more than the Chandler Chamber of Commerce. “You can? That’s great news! The Chamber told me you couldn’t! That’s exactly what I want to do! They said I couldn’t, but I can! What do I do?”

    I think my enthusiasm startled him a bit. He stumbled for a moment. “Uh, maybe it’s changed. Let me check awn it.”

    I was on hold briefly, then he came back.

    “Ah need to ask the har-ups, but Ah’ll fand out fer sure and call yew back. Iziss awn yer buckit list?” He sounded a lot friendlier now that I had expressed my genuine attraction (as it were) to ostriches. “Very close!” I said, and explained the project.

    He laughed, fatherly now. “Ah wouldn’t dew it. If Ah were yunger Ah wood. Mah fear is snakes. That’s on mah list. Ah wouldn’t handle one a them! Hoo! Not even a bitty one two inches long.”

    He took my name and number, and promised to call me back on Monday, which he never did, although in fairness he never specified which year. So I called them AGAIN and explained myself AGAIN. This time I got a very nice professional woman, also with the strong accent, who assured me that this was a very common request and that if I were to simply volunteer for the ostrich races I would assuredly get the opportunity to ride. That seemed fair: paying for an ostrich ride by making a public spectacle of myself. I could live with that. She gave me the name of the owner and even spelled it for me, told me to ask at the gate for directions to the ostrich pens, which is probably where he’d be, and wished me the very best of luck and hoped I would enjoy the festival.

    I had Friday and Saturday off, so I decided to go up the first day when the festival opened, figuring it would be a lot less crowded on a weekday. Also that would give me one more day, just in case anything went wrong, which I can assure you it most definitely did not, because how could anything go wrong with my foolproof and extremely well-considered plan?

    In part 2, I head up to Chandler and become a carnie. Video included in part three.


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