After 25 years of raising, researching and many ups and downs with her farm of rheas, which goes by the name American Ostrich Research Farm, LLC, Donna Fezler says, “I am the Jane Goodall to the species. I know more about this species than anybody else on this planet.” She has spent 25 years with her birds searching for methods to help them survive and thrive. Rheas are a threatened species she says, but not an endangered one yet.
In 1990, Donna and Tripp Fezler lived in Sidel, Louisiana. “We had pine trees,” said Donna Fezler, “and were looking for a way to supplement our income. So, when the local extension service put on a seminar with ideas for small property owners to augment their income, I went. The one that caught my attention was on ostriches. It was run by a veterinarian in Fulsom who held up a paper with a picture of two ostriches and 30 chicks. It said one ostrich, 30 eggs, $1,000 per chick, $30,000. I wish I still had that piece of paper today and wish it had been that easy!”
In March 1992, they bought ostriches as investors and a vet boarded the birds on his farm and raised the chicks. “But he couldn’t really raise them,” Fezler said, “Because there was very a high mortality rate, so the 30 chick thing for $30,000 was a fabrication.”
Then in June 1992, Tripp Fezler was offered a position at ACH Food Co. in Jacksonville, so they found land where they could raise the birds and be close to the city. According to Tripp Fezler, “In the 1990s, veterinarians and industry people told us to take these wild birds and have raise them like cattle or poultry. So, in December 1992, we bought four rheas for $4,000-$5,000 each, planning to raise chicks.”
Rheas are ratite birds, and according to National Geographic, are native to South America. They are related to ostriches and emus. To give readers a comparison, when fully grown, ostriches (the largest birds in the world) stand about seven- to eight-foot-tall and can weigh 300 to 400 pounds. Emus are about six-foot-tall and weigh 125 to 140 pounds. Adult rheas are about five-foot-tall and weigh 60 to 100 pounds.
Their first year in Jacksonville brought a new challenge. “That was the year Jacksonville experienced the 500-year flood. We had real trouble keeping the chicks alive,” Donna Fezler remembers. “That’s when I first started questioning, ‘what’s going on?’ Chicks were dying, or 6-month-old birds weighed only three pounds.” (Newly hatched chicks usually weigh about two pounds and are about 10 inches tall.)
Fezler looked at what was killing the birds with the help of local veterinarian Jay Hudson and found that the rheas were running out of body fat, causing their death. Not to be deterred, she began looking for a solution.
By 1994, with much determination, Fezler was making limited progress with the rheas and found that protein was the bottom line in keeping rheas alive. By August, Fezler said they began slaughtering some birds and injecting their oil back into the live birds. “Remember Tripp ran KFI, which is an oil plant, so I was married to an expert on oil,” she revealed, “and I knew what to do with the oil and had some access to labs to do limited research. We knew the rhea oil had healing properties on humans, so we began by injecting the oil back into three of the birds and they began to grow like crazy.” With more research on the birds’ progress, Fezler filed for her first patent of the ‘Injection of Rhea and Ostrich oils in animals’ in April 1996. The patent was approved November 1, 1998.
“But,” she declared, “you can’t go around injecting 100 chicks, so then I had to look for something more.” She realized the chicks were also losing muscle, so they researched and found a way to get meat back into their diet.
Fezler began blowing the eggs out and feeding them to the birds. According to Fezler, all birds like eggs, even chickens, but they won’t break the eggs themselves. The American Ostrich Research Farm produces 20 gallons of eggs, or 4 buckets, a week during breeding season. She said her rheas are protein factories and this then helps the birds’ growth. The birds are red meat, but have a fat content similar to a chicken.
In a 1997 Countryside Daily article on ratite egg recipes, the Backyard Poultry columnist described rhea eggs as, “delicate, sunny yellow color and pointy ends. Medium-sized rhea egg weighs one pound, six ounces, and contains about two cups egg, equivalent to about 10-12 medium chicken eggs. The eggs are equal proportion of yolk to white.” The writer said also said rhea eggs “cook up light and fluffy, making them a good choice for omelets or melt-in-your-mouth baked goods.” So, apparently even the rheas agree they are delicious.
The Agricultural Marketing Research Center’s 2017 overview of the ostrich and emu industry indicates that the markets for ratite meat and other products did not develop as anticipated. Prices for birds plummeted from highs of 25-50 thousand dollars per breeding pair to as low as a thousand dollars per pair. The same material also says that some clinical testing indicates that emu oil may have anti-inflammatory properties and possible skin de-sensitizing properties. Ratite oils are currently used in the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industry, sold in health food stores and on the internet.
In 1996, the American Ostrich Research Farm was selling limited meat from the birds, but no one wanted to buy the necks, so Fezler said she use the 3-foot-long necks by boiling them in crockpot running all day, making soups from the meat and broth for the couple. “Tripp had allergies and I would give him shots at home, but after eating the soups for a while, I noticed he wasn’t taking his shots, and asked if he was getting them from somewhere else, but he wasn’t. Amazingly, he didn’t seem to need the shots anymore.” At the same time, she noticed they both had better skin tone, energy and her backache seemed to go away, with the only difference in their lives being the soup.
It was then that they decided to figure out how to put the meat into a pill. The Fezlers went to Jones Meat and Locker, who then took the whole cleaned rhea carcass and made it into a powdered form, which the Fezlers encapsulated. They then began selling these protein pills. People who bought the pills seemed to use them for other ailments because American Ostrich Research Farm, in turn, began receiving testimonials back from people thanking them for helping with many different ailments that seemed to disappear while taking the pill. In August 1996, after another six months of research, Fezler applied for a second patent on these ratite muscle and bone extract pills called ‘Ratite Extracts as Therapeutic Agents’ and received the patent on November 23, 1999.
The American Ostrich Research Farm continues to research the healing connection and the biological connection between the meat and why the birds die. Fezler said they are dying from toxins and their bodies work so hard trying to detoxify themselves. She found that despite ‘experts’ originally telling them to feed the birds like cattle, that corn, soy and grains were actually not good for them. In their natural habitat, rheas enjoy plants, fruits and seeds, but also eat insects, lizards, birds and other small game. Rheas may have a taste for agricultural crops, but those crops contribute to their health issues and deaths.
In the early 2000s, the Fezlers had licensed their powder and were selling it to vitamin companies who would mix it in with their ingredients and do the marketing of the product. They were selling all the meat they could raise and looking for more.
However, in 2005 another issue appeared – the buffalo gnats. They began seeing a 100 percent mortality of their chicks. In 2012, Fezler said she went out one morning and 40 yearlings were dead; as fast as Fezler would pick them up they would be bleeding and dead. After more research, she learned that the swarms of buffalo gnats inject an anticoagulant into the birds which overwhelms them by taking all their Vitamin K, eliminating their blood’s ability to clot. While dealing with the buffalo gnat issue, American Ostrich Research Farm lost a lot of contracts with the vitamin companies because they were not able to supply rhea meat. Fezler has since started a supplementing the birds with Vitamin K powder and foods like kale and seaweed in March to counteract this latest problem. But by the time they had this new issue figured out, federal regulations had also changed.
After 20 years of research, she has now applied for another patent, which should be issued by spring, for a feed formula of how to feed these birds to get them to grow well.
American Ostrich Research Farm currently has 130-140 birds, including chicks. Fezler stated this is the maximum the 10 acres can hold, especially since there was no pasture this summer due to the drought. The pasture holds shelters for getting the birds out of the sun or cold, but they are helpful in keeping the gnats off the birds with large fans that run constantly beginning in February.
Breeding and hatching take place on the Baldwin Road farm from April through August, although Fezler says it seems to be March 15-September 15 these days. Egg incubators are located upstairs in the top of the barn. Young ratites must be sheltered in a warm place for their first weeks of life, so chicks run around in the lower area until they are big enough to be moved to the pasture with the larger birds.
Each year there is a new research goal for keeping the birds alive and Fezler wants to have enough data to make the evidence will be irrefutable. They try to hatch 80 chicks each year. Raising the chicks is a challenge because of their need to be clean and free of toxins. The birds get no shots or medicines. They will lose a whole batch if someone uses any chemicals, organic chemicals, chlorine or burns things in the air around the chicks. Even something as small as spraying a door hinge with WD-40 will cause the chicks to die. She says the birds don’t have a disease problem, it’s a toxin problem. She has also learned to be careful with their bedding and uses shredded paper from Elm City. Fezler reveals it decomposes quickly on the fields.
They don’t encourage visitors to the farm, but she says people come, bring chairs and watch the birds. Fezler says she would warn against getting too close to the birds and the electric fence. She says the males are especially aggressive, and as if to demonstrate this while we were driving by the pens, one of the birds puffed out its wings and made a hissing sound. She says fingers look like worms and they like shiny objects like jewelry, barrettes or buttons. Rheas do and will bite. The birds are so strong that it may take five large guys to subdue one bird. She reminds people that these are wild animals, not domesticated birds.
Looking to the future, Fezler is hoping to build the business back up with internet orders, but it is a slow process. Her patented pills are Harmonic Balance, made from the heart of the ostrich and Fezler says she personally uses it for pain relief or for fighting infection. The other patented pill is Jurassic Energy, which she and Tripp use for energy or detoxification. She even has a version for pets called PetPerk, which she says gets rid of the old dog smell and gives them energy. Her cats, Mork and Sam, both loved the pills and came running when she shook the bottle, eating them right out of her hand like a treat. Donna Fezler’s next project at American Ostrich Research Farm is to do clinical trials on all the products, but that takes funds and she is hoping to get the funds to continue.