Of the exotic animals I worked with in Texas, the mischievous, annoying emus were a definite favorite. Emus and rheas are similar to ostriches, all large flightless birds with long necks. Their coloring differs as does their place of origin, emus hailing from Australia and New Zealand, rheas from South America and ostriches from Africa. Though I found the one rhea on property more beautifully plumaged than the emus, the bird’s elusive nature kept me from having any close encounters. But in an avian beauty pageant, emus would come in a close second. As they mature, the iridescent black along their necks pewters out to just their heads, leaving their soft, finely-bristled body feathers a light speckled brown.
Six emus roamed inside one of the pastures, the enclosure dually dubbed the “Special Pasture” and the “Land of Misfits.” Co-habitants of this field included my three amigos, Rocky the sheep with paralyzed rear legs, and the kid goats Zeus and Dash, both a little off their rockers in goat standards. Long Horn, the extremely skinny yet surprisingly well-nourished Texas Longhorn with a non-descript name, roamed among the goats, pigs, sheep and emus. Mr. Tumnus the goat could easily be mistaken for a sheep or a sheep dog, his eyes often undetectable under a layer of woven hair.
Also inside the gate were two pigs with uncontrollable metabolisms, leaving their chins sagging so low I feared the day they tripped over their chin fat. Like Rocky, Puddin’ the goat was amazing to watch as she moved around. She was from a litter of triplets. Sometimes, triplet births are difficult for goats. The babies can be stillborn or handicapped, exemplified by Puddin’ who was born with inversed knees on the front legs. It would be like a human walking around on all fours using elbows in the front but feet in the back. Puddin’ got along just fine, developing calluses over the years to protect her knees from daily wear and tear.
Every morning that I opened the gate to feed the Land of Misfits, an emu ambush was inevitable. They attacked the buckets of feed, nudging the low-riding livestock to the wayside. In addition to stealing the food not intended for them, the emus had a fetish with my hair. Something about my long ponytail, light-colored enough that it looked shiny (or maybe Herbal Essence does give it that extra silky shine) made them fixated on my scalp. Instead of galloping away to steer clear of bird thieves, I ran to protect my head from incessant pecking.
On a blustery night while working the clinic closing shift, we received word that a storm was raging, honing in on little rural Kendalia. Texas is not prepared for rain, or for any weather other than blistering heat. When it rains in Texas, it pours. Flooding is imminent, and therefore animals in enclosures need to have access to higher ground. The night of this storm was the first night Zeus and Dash were out in the pasture, having graduated from the clinic to the big open yard.
Myself and two other co-workers drove the cart to the fence line, stirring up puddles of mud like we were on a paintball shooting range. Earlier, I traded in my contacts for my glasses, a mistake when attempting to forage through a lightning, wind and rain storm. Our only light came from my head lamp, but the beam did not penetrate far through the thick sheet of water that splattered our vision and drenched our clothes.
Expecting the goats to be under the lean-to, we were disappointed when the whites of their eyes were not staring back at us among those of the other livestock. Calling for them, we heard their baying just before a flash of lightning lit up the pasture, revealing a lengthy, sharp, pointed horn not more than six inches from our faces. Long Horn was standing right next to us, and while he’s not a mean fellow, he doesn’t realize his goring potential. And in a loud storm, he could easily be startled. Taking deep breaths, we retreated a couple steps and wound our way through the dark toward the baying goats. They did not resist handling as I scooped up Zeus and someone else picked up Dash, the third co-worker guiding us blindly back toward the cart.
After retrieving a few other animals from outdoor enclosures with the help of some off-duty workers, the clinic floor was left with a stagnant river of muddy footprints and hay. Changing into some dry clothes and finishing up the remaining feeds, we only had to clean the clinic before we could call it a night. In the end, we got out of work at three a.m., only three hours before the morning shift arrived to dirty up our freshly mopped floors all over again.