Ostrich ranching was once a prominent part of life in Chandler, AZ, a city of 240,000, just east of the Phoenix city limits.
Chandler and Maricopa County led the nation in raising ostriches for their stylish plumes. To celebrate the city's rich history as well as provide a first-class community event, the Chandler Chamber of Commerce created the Ostrich Festival in 1989. We attended this year's Festival this past weekend.
Just beyond the entrance to Tumbleweed Park was the DockDogs competition. In this event, which the announcer compared to drag racing, a yellow light signals the dog to begin the run down a runway at a speed timed to just precede a green light which begins a timer.
The dog leaps into the water, paddles roughly 40 feet to the end of the pool, and retrieves a cloth rod which trips another timer to stop the clock. Times ranged between 7-10 seconds for the runs that we witnessed. This is quite a competitive event with national championships to be held in July.
But then it was on to the races--the ostrich races. Three "jockeys" mounted their ostriches for the 100-yard race on a U-shaped track. The riding technique seemed to be "grab on to the wings and hang on."
The "hanging-on" part is the hardest--only one of the three riders managed to reach the finish line while still (just barely) astride his ostrich.
While the ostriches and riders geared up for the next race, two "riders" of "ostriches" provided some competition in which the riders could not fall off the ostriches.
The annual Ostrich Festival has been recognized as one of the "Top 10 Unique Festivals in the United States" with its racing ostriches, multiple entertainment bands, and many special gift and food vendors.
The next race featured each of three ostriches harnessed to a chariot. The drivers looked good as they left the gate and still looked in command of their birds as they rounded the far turn and headed down the home stretch.
Then things took a turn for the worse. A couple of bumps and a slip resulted in two of the chariots breaking away from the harnesses and a third driver falling out of the chariot.
Three ostriches finished the race; no driver did.
We caught this interaction between two of the camels while they prepared for the next race.
It seemed to be a bit easier to stay on a racing camel--compared to riding ostriches--but it still required some skillful guidance from the "jockeys."
Three camels and three riders finished this race.
One very interested spectator was this emu. Later, each of three emus was chased (they were small animals and could not carry riders) by an assigned youngster from the crowd. It seemed as though the emus enjoyed the time to run around, since they reversed their routes several times. Staff with a long piece of black plastic that stretched the width of the track eventually guided the birds to the finish line.
Not much of a race, but the emus and the kids had a nice multi-directional run.
The Festival offers a place to experience, eat, and purchase all things Ostrich. Ostrich Alley has carved ostrich and emu eggs, feathers, stuffed animals, and other souvenirs. We had the opportunity to try an Ostrich Burger, Ostrich Jerky and fresh Emu Eggs. The opportunity.
The Festival served as a backdrop in the 1995 Whitney Houston film "Waiting to Exhale" and has grown to become one of the premier festivals in the Southwest, with 250,000 to 350,000 people attending the three-day celebration each spring.
The ostrich still seems to draw a pretty good crowd.