‘Emus can break bones’: stop buying giant birds on a whim, farmers warn

Tammy Shull, the owner of Moonlight Valley Farms in Aspers, Pennsylvania, makes a living selling emu chicks across the country. The flightless birds, native to Australia, cost about $200 for “standard” black and brown colors, while the rarer white variety can cost up to $850. Emus are a big part of Shull’s life. But hear her plea: people, please stop buying them because they’re cute on social media.

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“Recent viral videos definitely created an awareness of emus and their antics,” Shull said. “We are finding many folks are getting emus on a whim and not doing the proper research before obtaining these large birds.”

One large bird in particular, a 5ft8in feathered boy named Emmanuel Todd Lopez, has become the face of TikTok’s growing obsession with the animal. He lives with Taylor Blake, the owner of Florida’s Knuckle Bumps Farms, and has had quite the year. First, his “thirst for mayhem”, as described by Blake in her Instagram bio, earned him over 2.4 million followers.

Emmanuel is known for video-bombing Blake while she attempts to film educational videos on the farm. The pair have a catchphrase: “Emmanuel! No!”, which Blake says in a sharp staccato. It was enough for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to fly Blake to New York for a segment. Their sketch included a wild puppet emu bounding across the screen, a sort of Gen Z version of the puppeteer Rod Hull’s famous bit (albeit one less interested in attempted sexual harassment onstage).

But Emmanuel’s greener pastures didn’t last long. Soon, old tweets surfaced, including ones using racist language. The New York Times was unable to verify that Blake wrote the tweets, and she has not responded to the allegations or a request for comment from the Guardian.

And then, tragedy struck: bird flu hit Knuckle Bump Farms. According to Blake, the virulent strain killed “99%” of her farm’s birds, including “every single chicken and duck” at Knuckle Bump, all the geese, two female black swans, and both turkeys. Emmanuel was spared, though Blake shared photos of him looking gaunt and sick. She loved up on her prized bird and kissed him sans mask, much to the concern of followers who did not want the disease to jump species. At last, Blake revealed last week that Emmanuel had tested negative for all major diseases. The punchline: it appeared he was just stressed.

A dizzying saga, but emu farmers say that’s all part of the job. “I strongly caution folks on getting emu chicks simply to increase their social media presence,” Shull says. There are many reasons: emus can live up to 40 years in captivity and are known for their mercurial temperament, especially during breeding season.

“We have seen a recent increase in emus around the age of six months to two years old being rehomed due to folks not having the proper space or fencing for them,” Shull added. “Some emu become imprinted on humans and are just fine behaviorally once they reach maturity … however, some emus’ hormones cause them to change literally overnight, leaving the owners wondering: ‘What happened to my sweet and tame emu?’”

Chris Barth owns Warbirds Emu Farm in Dunnellon, Florida, and frequently posts to his (private) TikTok page. He owns 39 emus who live over five acres and sells chicks to farmers in 48 states – he cannot crack the market in Alaska, where owning one is illegal, and Hawaii, where shipping presents too many logistical complications. Barth says the insurance company Liberty Mutual’s commercial mascot, the LiMu Emu (actually a mix of a real bird and CGI effects), has also contributed to the surge in popularity.

“For the past 10 years or so, every year I tell my wife the market has to collapse soon,” Barth said. “It can’t sustain. But every year it surprises me. I’ve got more customers coming out of everywhere. I raise and hatch 100 emu every year, and I sell out every spring.”

Barth says he can spot an unprepared potential buyer, and he has no problem refusing their sale. “If they don’t have the basic knowledge, I tell them to educate themselves,” he said. “I’ve refused people for various reasons. Even though I’m selling emu, I want them to have a good home.” (Barth is also fine with emus being sold for meat. “I’ve eaten them, and will continue to do so,” he said.)

Emu TikTok, like most cutesy corners of the internet, does not always show the full experience. “My videos don’t show the ugliness of having one, like when one jumps the fence and I have to track it down in the woods, rassle it on the ground, and take it back,” Barth explained.

Todd Green, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the New York Institute of Technology who studies emu and used to own one named Dog, says you can compare the emu craze to stories of people who bought baby alligators without realizing they would grow up to be full-size.

“Most emu don’t want to be touched on the head or cuddled,” he said. “Some are very docile and friendly, but not all are. They’re very strong animals and if you’re not careful, they can kick and break bones.”

Kymara Loneran is the vice-president of the American Emu Association and owner of Thunderhorse Hollow Farm in Ulster Park, New York. “I got involved and am very dedicated to the Emu Association to teach people about these wonderful animals and what their uses are,” she said. “But when people are on TikTok shining a light at the bird from behind the camera to make it be aggressive and get hyped, that puts out the wrong message.”

Loneran said the pandemic’s back-to-nature land rush had made farming cool again, which led to an influx of amateur homesteaders buying up land. Kerhonkson, a small hamlet in Ulster county, is now known as “Ker-hamptons”, a nod to the city folks who moved upstate.

“They haven’t been generational farmers, so information hasn’t been passed down to them,” she said. “To have someone putting their faces near a [sick] emu creates concern. I don’t want diseases to spread and to give the emu farming community a bad vibe.”

While Loneran, like everyone, is happy to hear that Emmanuel’s feeling better, she doesn’t want his happy ending to distract from the fact that avian flu is no joke. “There was this tremendous amount of hype, and then we learned it was just stress,” she said. “So then it makes people not take [the virus] as seriously. That’s a problem to me, because it makes my job [to educate] harder. It set us back.”

But this is no fault of the birds. “Animals should be healing; they don’t mean to be involved in any drama,” Loneran said. “Drama is a human creation.”