Larry Gregory was home from Florida and chatting with his folks at their farmstead near Ralston when his older brother — who had been harvesting corn that day — barged through the door.
“There’s an emu in my field!”
Gregory, a retired wildlife official for the Sunshine State for 30 years, has seen and captured all manner of exotic creatures near the southern tip of Florida.
Alligators. Bears. Even wolf-hybrid dogs from a flooded cage in a hurricane.
When Gregory stepped outside the rural Ralston home, he saw onlookers with guns who intended to shoot the bird, which had been traipsing through west-central Iowa for weeks.
“Hold on,” he told them. “Let me try to catch it first.”
Gregory jumped into the bed of a pickup truck with his nephew in the driver’s seat, and they gave chase through a field. Gregory had none of the tools he typically used to catch a wild animal, so he settled for a length of heavy wire to snare it.
They sped across the bumpy cornfield, which had been recently harvested, but Gregory was unable to corral the emu before it went into a neighbor’s unharvested field and disappeared from view.
Gregory hoped for a second chance. For the next few days he monitored the edges of that field and watched for emu tracks.
He knew the big bird would need water — emus consume up to a gallon each day, he said — and its footprints are unmistakable.
“It’s like a big chicken,” Gregory said. “A huge chicken. A 120-pound chicken with three toes. Trust me, you see the tracks.”
A WAYWARD BIRD
No one has claimed ownership of the emu, which wandered across parts of Boone, Greene and Carroll counties in October.
The flightless birds are native to Australia but are hardy enough to survive a cold Iowa winter. They are tall — with their long necks reaching heights in excess of 6 feet — and can run at speeds of about 30 mph with their two lanky legs.
They are sometimes kept in Iowa as pets or raised as livestock for their eggs and meat.
A rural Beaver woman, Alexis Hooper, in Boone County, was the first to glimpse the emu that is believed to have wandered at least 25 miles west to Carroll County. She saw it running on a gravel road not far from U.S. Highway 30 as she approached it in a vehicle.
“At first I thought it was a woman with a really big butt, and I was like, ‘You go, girl!’ ” Hooper recalled. “But then I saw it was an emu running down the road, and I thought somebody was messing with me.”
That’s because her 12-year-old son Adam had been begging her for more than a year for a pet emu. She and her husband attempted to corral the bird with their vehicles — as they have done before with the cattle they raise — but the emu evaded them and fled down the road.
“When I called the (emergency) dispatcher about it, they said, ‘Ma’am, have you been drinking?’ ” Hooper recalled.
The bird had wandered into Greene County by Oct. 4, when it was spotted near Grand Junction. There were a spate of sightings reported to law enforcement several days later near Jefferson along Highway 30, and by Oct. 18 it had arrived in Carroll County near Ralston.
“It was just in a pasture, kind of roaming,” said Chad Stevens, who is the mayor of Ralston. “I got within 5 feet of the thing. … It was used to people somehow; otherwise it would have been pretty skittish.”
Days later, farmer Butch Gregory was harvesting a cornfield when the emu darted away from his combine. He had heard about the bird and knew people had been driving around the area with guns to shoot it. He hustled to get help from his brother, a wildlife expert, who was in town from Florida.
The Gregory brothers failed to capture the emu in that first encounter, when the bird escaped into a neighbor’s field.
They spent the next few days watching for its tracks near the field and searching the area.
“We got up and went emu hunting at 7 o’clock each morning,” Butch Gregory recalled. “We basically just rode around looking for it for an hour and a half each day.”
They planned to construct a pen and maybe keep it as a pet.
Around that same time, a woman recorded video of an emu running on a gravel road near Lake City, about 10 miles northwest of the Gregory cornfield.
“At first I thought it was a turkey,” said Sara Swafford, of Denison, who recorded the video. “The closer I got, I realized it was an emu.”
Swafford has experience with the birds. A childhood friend’s aunt raised them near Deloit.
“I’m assuming it’s a young female,” Swafford said. “She appears to be very healthy and doing very well running at large. I really hope people leave her alone and don’t harm her.”
Gregory thinks it’s unlikely the emu would have travelled back and forth between Ralston and Lake City in that short time. It took about two weeks for the bird to cross Greene County.
“There has to be more than one on the loose,” Gregory said. “It would have been a hell of a story if we would have been able to save ours.”
CAPTURED AT LAST
Larry Gregory, the younger of the brothers who goes by the nickname “Lar,” was better prepared for his second encounter with the emu.
He fabricated a makeshift catch pole with a length of nylon rope and a long plastic pipe. He had used a similar device countless times to capture creatures when he was a captive wildlife investigator for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission.
Gregory occasionally encountered emus in that job in Fort Myers, Florida, where some residents kept them as pets.
“I had never killed an animal I was trying to rescue,” Gregory said in a recent telephone interview. “I feel bad because they are a decent animal. If it was a cassowary, that would have been a different story.”
Cassowaries are emu-like, but their plumage is more ornate and they have a sharp claw on their middle toes that can be up to 5 inches long.
Ornithologist Ernest Thomas Gilliard warned of their “long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease,” in his 1958 book, “Living Birds of the World.”
But no, this was an emu. Gregory knew it could kick him, but it was worth the risk to spare it from being killed by a bullet or a vehicle on the highway.
A combine spooked the emu into the open again on Oct. 26, and Gregory grabbed his catch pole and hopped in the back of the pickup truck. He bounced in the bed as the truck sped across the recently harvested field, nearly falling out twice.
“I got the catch pole around its neck,” Gregory recalled. “It stopped, turned around and put its head down, which was a brilliant move on its part.”
The emu fled again, but minutes later Gregory was able to grab it with his arms and pin it against the side of the truck.
The bird kicked and kicked, but then it went limp. The stress of being captured — compounded by its likely dehydration — probably caused a heart attack, Gregory thinks.
Gregory tried to restart the emu’s heart by pressing on its chest. He even breathed air into its beak with his mouth.
If he could do it again, Gregory would use a different strategy.
“I should have created a long, narrow bag and put it over the head and let it go,” Gregory lamented. “Once you get them blindfolded, they just stand there. They don’t know what to do.”