Savannah Anderson said that she couldn’t believe it when she saw an emu last Saturday in her woods off Concord Road south of Hillsboro. “I was like, emu again?” she said, “and I just started laughing.”
Merritt Davis McLarren also reported having seen an emu on Saturday on S.R. 73 near Berrysville in Highland County.
“I personally saw it. I was coming into work and I saw it coming out of a field,” McLarren said.
The sighting of emus, not in their indigenous Australia, but 10,000 miles away in Hillsboro, Ohio, has become a recurrent, yet continually awe-inspiring event in recent months in Highland County.
The then brewing phenomenon that would come to be known as the Highland County Emu in social media circles, began around Nov. 13, when Hillsboro resident Courtinee McMillan said that she saw an emu in her backyard near S.R. 124 in Hillsboro, and reported the incident on social media.
In the weeks that followed, so many other personal narratives of Highland County emu sightings, including photos, videos and memes, were posted on local social media chat pages that a dedicated Facebook page, Highland County Emu Chat, was formed. The group has nearly 1,000 members.
The brouhaha over the emu sightings reached a fever pitch in December. The spate of sightings spawned emu-themed memes, fascinated discussion, and was the subject of myriad TikTok videos. Emu-inspired artwork, memes and videos, in addition to social media discussions, soon followed as public interest grew.
Regional media outlets took notice, as videos of an emu walking near Hillsboro High School made their way to Cincinnati news stations.
But the novelty of an emu in the unlikely place of Hillsboro wasn’t done fascinating people in other places. News soon reached Australia.
Lauren McElwee, a Canberra, Australia native turned Hillsboro photographer, had been interviewed for a previous Times Gazette article about the Highland County Emu. One day she received a message from Lisa Pellegrino, a radio personality at ABC Melbourne Radio in Australia. Pellegrino had seen the article, read McElwee’s comments, and wanted McElwee to appear on the show.
“I got a message from ABC Radio in Australia,” McElwee said. “They want to chat about the emu situation here. Little Hillsboro has made the news over there.”
McElwee appeared on air by telephone as the interview was broadcast in Australia in December.
“So, an emu has been walking on the road and in the bush. Sound like a breaking news story?” Pellegrino asked her Australian listeners, answering herself with a resounding, “No. But, what if I were to tell you that this emu was in an Ohio county in the USA?”
McElwee explained the chronology, development and salience of the local emu phenomenon to Pellegrino and her listeners. With assistance of her husband, Matt McElwee, beside her, she regaled listeners with verbal descriptions of the emu-related memes that had been posted to the Highland County Emu Chat Facebook page.
“I’ll have to add you to the group, because it’s really funny,” she said.
Amy Sharp Schneider of Hillsboro Veterinary Clinic said that her sister-in-law, Maddie Cupp, applied her background in graphic design to create T-shirt designs commemorating the emu phenomenon. Cupp said, “I thought all the excitement around the emu sightings was reminiscent of cryptids and local legends. I wanted to make something to commemorate him as Hillsboro’s Bigfoot. Or Big Bird.”
Pellegrino also played for the ABC Melbourne radio broadcast, a widely disseminated Facebook video, shot by Lori Ann Justice Hurtt, which documented a firsthand encounter with an emu, caught in traffic in Hillsboro in November of last year. The audio captured the excitement of the driver and passenger of an automobile as they were stopped in traffic in Hillsboro by an emu.
“Who in the heck has got this critter, and now it’s out?” a voice in the video asked.
Another voice mused that the emu was apparently, “not in any hurry,” as the video shows the emu cavorting near Hillsboro High School, seemingly oblivious to the oncoming traffic. A car followed slowly behind the emu, its passengers humorously narrating the ordeal. They repeatedly mention how horn-honking “didn’t faze it at all” as they tried to encourage the emu out of harm’s way.
The video became a viral sensation, topping over 153,000 views and 2,000 shares on Facebook alone, and being picked up by multiple news outlets, YouTube and other media.
“Taking the video and posting it was definitely one of the more interesting experiences in my life,” Hurtt said. “Posting the video was my attempt to try and locate the owner.”
Over the course of several weeks the frequency of reports of roving emus seemed to dissipate. In late December, a severe winter storm, officially designated a blizzard by the National Weather Service, affected the area with inclement weather for several days. With temperatures dropping below zero and snow covering the ground, local discourse about emus on social media turned to concern for its welfare under the frigid and treacherous conditions. In the weeks following the storm, the reported emu sightings, some coming from outside the county, seemed to reduce in frequency, then to dissipate. Until Saturday, no one had posted about having seen an emu for about a month.
“Not going to lie. I was excited,” said McLarren about having seen the emu. “Not every day you get to see an emu.”
According to National Geographic, emus are among the largest birds in the world, but not the largest. That distinction belongs to the ostrich.
In another local emu-related incident that transpired around the same time that the other emu sightings were taking place, two other emus who had escaped their enclosure on U.S. Route 50 near Hillsboro were corralled by deputies from the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and put back in their enclosure.
In early December, a case was filed in Hillsboro Municipal Court by the the Highland County Sheriff’s Office against the owner of the emus, Willard G. Bohrer, pursuant to the charge of animals running at large, a fourth-degree misdemeanor.
Bohrer was arraigned and subsequently pled guilty to the offense on Dec. 5 in municipal court. Employees from the clerk’s office confirmed that they were present as Bohrer disclosed that the emus that constituted the basis of the complaint had died. The exact circumstances of the their death were not known.
Emus are not considered dangerous wild animals, according to the Ohio Department of Agriculture. A spokesperson stated, “The Ohio Department of Agriculture does not have any regulatory authority over emus. They are allowed to be owned in Ohio, but local municipalities can have restrictions. The Ohio Department of Agriculture does not enforce ORC 951.02. (animals running). That falls under the jurisdiction of local authorities.”
Barrera previously told the Times Gazette that his office had received multiple calls from concerned citizens regarding an emu in the county and that that his department was being assisted by multiple state and local agencies.
Experts previously warned against those who see emus trying to confront them, something of which McLarren was aware. “We don’t want anyone thinking it’s a big bird and they can capture it themselves, and they get hurt trying to capture it, Because they have very powerful legs,” Barrera said.
These common sense admonitions were echoed by Hurtt, who said that she prioritized safety over well meaning, albeit naïve public demands.
“Some folks who saw the video felt I should have gotten out and helped the animal,” Hurtt said. “But that could have been very dangerous for myself and the emu.”
Lorie Orth, owner of Dream to Reality Farm, a nonprofit animal rescue organization in Blanchester, said she is in accord with such precautions. “Emus are very interesting creatures. They can also be dangerous,” she said.
Orth has personal experience raising domesticated emus. “The emu that I have is female and she protects the goats and sheep that we have on our property,” said Orth.
“Emus are wild animals in Australia. They aren’t kept as pets, McElwee said. “You don’t really approach them.”
The Wikipedia page for Hillsboro, Ohio, has been updated to include a reference to the emu phenomenon, including it among other notable events, like the founding of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the annual Festival of the Bells.
“Beginning in November 2022, several escaped emus roamed the city of Hillsboro and the surrounding areas,” the page stated.
Evidently, they’re still roaming.
Juliane Cartaino is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.