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Balloon Incident Ends Ostrich Farmer's Career

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Contrary to popular belief, ostriches do not bury their heads in the sand. Well, in the case of the birds at the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch near Tucson, Arizona, it might have been better for them if they did. Today we read in The Arizona Daily Star that rancher D.C. Cogburn lost his lawsuit against two hot air balloonists, who he says spooked his flightless flock. For the last 12 years, Cogburn has been raising the ostriches for meat and breeding them for sale on his 600-acre ranch along Interstate 10. The balloon trouble started on the morning of February 3rd, 2002, Mr. Cogburn's 63rd birthday.

Mr. D.C. COGBURN (Ostrich Rancher): One of the guys that works for us on the ranch would like to tore the back door off the house hollering, `Hot air balloons. Hurry.' I got dressed in a hurry, and I went down, and there were birds everywhere. There was two hot air balloons decided to take off behind the RV park next door.

BLOCK: Now when you say there were birds everywhere, you mean ostriches.

Mr. COGBURN: Yes, ma'am. We have 1,600 adult breeding birds. We have about 38 breeding camps. And by the time I got down there, most of the birds in the front area were already gone. Those balloons scared these things so bad they were running in circles. They were hitting the fences at 35 miles an hour.

BLOCK: Wow.

Mr. COGBURN: And they literally stomped 7,000 feet of fence flat into the ground, and they damaged 18,000 feet of high-tensile-strength field fence it would take an elephant to tear down. We had birds we knew were in serious trouble. We had over a hundred in one pen that we didn't know if it was going to live or die. We knew we had over 1,000 hurt. And we'd been getting a contract with Brazil. We had a contract for $3 million to Brazil to send one day-old baby ostrich to Brazil.

BLOCK: Now what happened to that $3 million contract after this accident?

Mr. COGBURN: When my birds quit laying, quit breeding, birds that are skinned and hurt and broken wings--and an ostrich has a shin much like a human. If you will take your foot and feel up the front of your leg, there's nothing but bone on the whole front. Well, an ostrich is the same way. Those birds were skinned from the foot all the way up. Romance is not on their mind when they're skinned up like that. And it was horrible what happened to us here with those birds hitting those fences.

BLOCK: Mr. Cogburn...

Mr. COGBURN: Yes, ma'am.

BLOCK: ...I assume it's pretty hard to get into the mind of an ostrich, but what was so frightening about these balloons, do you think?

Mr. COGBURN: Ostrich are living dinosaurs, and to them a hot air balloon is a huge predator. And they also say the sound of the balloon--it's not the loudness; it's the frequency that the hot air makes when it goes into the balloon.

BLOCK: Well, you sued the balloonists. You sued their crew. You lost in court.

Mr. COGBURN: Yes, ma'am, I did. I...

BLOCK: A jury found against you. What are you going to do now, Mr. Cogburn?

Mr. COGBURN: We are going out of business. We've worked an entire lifetime, and we're going to lose it all. I'll be 67 in February, and we're trying to get everybody paid for and taken care of. I had 1,600 birds. I ended up, we lost--26 died. We had to slaughter 819 hurt birds. We also destroyed about 80 birds that just never got on their feet enough to even use for hamburger meat, if you will. We've got less than 500 left. We're going to try to send them to South America in the fall when it cools. And by spring we're going to be out of business. It's just we have no choice.

BLOCK: Mr. Cogburn, it's good of you to talk with us. Best of luck to you.

Mr. COGBURN: Thank you. I appreciate you hearing my story. Thank you, young lady.

BLOCK: Ostrich rancher D.C. Cogburn of the Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch in Picacho Peak, Arizona. He tells us he plans to move back to his native Oklahoma.

MICHELE NORRIS (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.