Emu Craze Gone, but Stories Remain
LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) _ The squawking, ostrich-like, black-and-white striped emu was supposed to revolutionize Texas farming.
The once-rare, 5-foot-tall bird was going to change the American diet, replacing the country’s beef obsession with a healthy alternative.
``Emu _ It’s what America’s having for dinner.″
It didn’t to hundreds of Texas ranchers who invested thousands of dollars to secure their part of the bird’s grand destiny. After all, emu meat has half the fat of chicken and ``tastes better than a burger with beer.″
Of course, that was six years ago. Now, it’s getting hard to find folks who will admit they actually bought the birds.
When the bottom fell out of the market in 1993, emu chicks _ at one time selling for $3,000 a half-dozen _ only brought about 15 cents.
If the story of the bird’s emergence pushed the envelope of plausibility, the fallout of the failed investment craze is reaching epic proportions.
Tales of the tall bird are becoming true Texas legends.
In the early 1990s, H. Conray Chase of Wichita Falls was known as the man who could make you a millionaire. Just as speculation on emus hit an all-time high, Chase had more for sale than anybody else.
``He could sell you as many chicks as you wanted, and the more you bought, the bigger the deal he was willing to cut you,″ said Jordan Davis, who bought nearly $1,000 worth.
It wasn’t until 1994 that word started to circulate that Chase’s ranch had long since run out of birds.
In September 1994, Chase filed for bankruptcy, listing debts of $3.5 million and leaving dozens of investors drop-jawed.
One family of investors said in a court document, ``He took everything we had and gave us nothing. We gave him our trust and he took it and ran to Hawaii.″
Criminal fraud charges soon followed.
Chase, who seemed less than repentant at his July trial, needed the judge to explain why he would have to spend six months in jail even after he admitted to using the money to take trips.
``That’s where you went astray. That’s what makes you guilty,″ U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall told him. ``If the money was still in the bank and you could refund it to people, you’d have a civil suit on your hands instead of a criminal proceeding.″
Perhaps someday, grandfathers will sit down, plop their grandchildren on their laps and tell stories of the packs of giant birds that roamed North Texas.
Most Texans have heard the tales of former emu ranchers who turned loose hundreds of birds after prices fell below what it cost to feed them.
There’s some proof the tales are true.
Grayson County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Johnny Waldrip says his office has fielded dozens of calls from ``people finding them in their yards, or on gravel county roads.″
An emu that reared its small, triangle-shaped head on a soccer field was able to escape Jim Blount of the Montgomery County Animal Office.
``It jumped the fence and got away from us and went off in the woods and we weren’t able to locate it,″ Blount told the Conroe Courier.
``I heard about a man who was almost ripped open from his neck to his belly when he tried to scare a bunch of birds off of the road,″ said Delila Thompson, who lives near a former emu ranch in Grayson County.
Irma Quintero lives in a small, wooden, one-story house on a dirt road just outside of Lubbock. She owns three dogs, two cats and about 80 emus.
And she may be the only person in Texas who’s still glad she bought them.
Like other investors, Ms. Quintero bought a pair of emus for $4,000 a piece back in 1989. But she decided to keep the birds even after they were worth pennies.
``I’m not quite sure why I kept them but I just didn’t feel it would be right to dump them somewhere or worse,″ Ms. Quintero said. ``And I liked raising them.″
Whether sentimentality or shrewd instinct, that decision paid off.
Last Christmas, Ms. Quintero realized that her salary as a 7-11 clerk wasn’t going to pay the bills and buy Christmas gifts.
As she walked through the dusty pens holding her flock, she noticed how pretty the avocado-colored eggs looked as they lay in the sun.
She took several inside, bought ribbons, paint, beads, lace and satin and began making ornate jewelry holders, picture frames and candy containers.
Now, Ms. Quintero’s crafts are sold at Rose T Pot Room, a craft shop in Lubbock. And she can hardly keep up with the orders.
``Nothing is worthless,″ Ms. Quintero said. ``Sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see the value.″