It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s an — emu?
In an unlikely twist of events, residents of Highland County, spurred by voluminous social media posts, have recently become enthralled by multiple sightings of an emu walking in various places in the county.
The ensuing furor has spawned excited discussion, outside media attention, viral videos, the requisite brouhaha on Facebook local chat pages, the inevitable spate of Internet memes, and, of course, merchandise.
Amy Sharp Schneider of Hillsboro Veterinary Clinic, said that her sister-in-law, Maddie Cupp, has captured the enthusiasm over the emu by applying her graphic design abilities to make a T-shirt, emblazoned with the likeness of the local emu.
“I thought all the excitement around the emu sightings was reminiscent of cryptids and local legends. I wanted to make something to commemorate him or her as Hillsboro’s Bigfoot. Or Big Bird,” Cupp said.
Schneider said the T-shirts are available through their office and people can call 937-393-2880 for more information about purchasing them. Schneider said they have received many calls from people about the emu. “We’ve had several curious people contact our office about the emu, but much like everyone else, we do not know its owner and have only seen it in passing,” she said.
The mystery and intrigue of the Highland County emu has continued to be a fascinating source of discussion and speculation among local residents.
Courtinee McMillan is one of the first residents to report having seen the emu, on Nov. 13, near S.R. 124, in Hillsboro. “He was definitely in my backyard,” she said.
In the weeks that followed, emu sightings were reported everywhere from Danville to Mowrystown to New Market. Those who spotted the elusive flightless bird also made videos of their experiences that ended up on YouTube and other social media, fanning the flames of the viral trend as news of the emu was disseminated online.
McMillan said the discussions of the emu, “sound like a lot of fun,” and beyond practical concerns for the emu’s well being, the phenomenon has inspired a myriad of creative adaptations. Online groups like Highland County Emu Chat, an offshoot of another social media group in which discussions of the emu were discouraged, have included emu themed artwork and other humanistic expressions celebrating the phenomenon of the Highland County emu.
All of the discourse surrounding the Highland County emu has prompted curiosity and inquiry about what exactly an emu is.
“Emus are large birds,” according to the National Zoo website. They, “resemble and are related to ostriches.”
The website said that, “The emu is a fast runner and can reach speeds of up to 31 mph. Their long legs enable them to walk considerable distances or outrun danger. Emus are also strong swimmers.” Though it cannot fly, “The emu is the second largest living bird (ostriches are the largest birds) and the largest bird found in Australia.”
Emus are known to be indigenous to Australia, “where they are widespread with some subspecies having been noted that have since gone extinct there.
Some fun facts about emus, according to the website, re that male emus take care of the eggs which are laid in late autumn. “The males sometimes make calls, which sound like, ‘e-moo,’” which are very loud and, “Females make resonant, booming sounds.”
Many others who have become interested in the plight of the emu have spawned rampant speculation about not only the animal’s owners, but its safety and the best way to deal with the situation.
Lori Orth of Dream to Reality Farm, a nonprofit animal rescue organization in Blanchester, said that she is familiar with emus, having personally cared for them, and noted that, “They can jump very high over fences.” She speculated that this may have attributed to the Highland County emu’s life on the lam.
Still, she cautioned that people without the proper expertise should not attempt to confront emus by themselves.
“Emus are very interesting creatures,” she said, adding that, “They can also be very dangerous.”
This is a sentiment echoed by Lauren McElwee, who as proprietor of Scarlett Rose Photography lives in Hillsboro but originally hails from Canberra, Australia.
“Emus are wild animals in Australia,” she said, “They aren’t kept as pets.” McElwee cautioned that people in Australia, who are far more accustomed to their presence, know, “not to mess with them. She said that, “They can be very territorial.”
Despite local fascination with these exotic and unusual creatures, McElwee said that in Australia they are, “more like deer” in that they are commonly seen, “but you tend to see them in fields.”
“You don’t really approach them…” she added. “I lived in Australia for many years and never touched one but I would see them regularly. I always saw them in groups.”
Several weeks after the first emu sighting, two more emus were seen on Tuesday by passers-by on Mad River Road and U.S. Route 50 in Highland County. This launched further social media speculation about the emus’ origins and whether the incidents were related or not.
Highland County Sheriff Donnie Barrera said that deputies from his department were able to safely assist representatives of the emus’ owner in getting them back where they belonged without incident.
Barrera said, “They got put back in the fence last night.”
The original Highland County emu, he said, remains unaccounted for.
“We’ve had one on the run since Nov. 16,” he said.
Barrera said that incoming reports and concerns about the emu to his office have been exponential and frequent.
“Oh man, I couldn’t tell you how many calls we’ve gotten,” the sheriff said.
Barrera said that attempts to resolve the situation are being made.
“ODNR has been helping us,” he said. “The State Highway Patrol is on the lookout for it also. I’ve also contacted a guy, an exotic animals handler out of Holmes County in Northern Ohio.”
Barrera said that the elusive, catch-me-if-you-can nature of the emu has made the process far more difficult. He said the emu has been seen all over the county with its last reported location being Dawson Road, but “We don’t know where the emu is now.” Barrera said if they could ascertain its whereabouts, experts are standing by ready to assist. “We’re actively looking for it and looking for a way to capture it,” he said.
Barrera mentioned that private individuals looking for the emu should not attempt to confront it on their own because of the safety risks. The emus are strong creatures.
“We don’t want anyone thinking it’s a big bird and they can capture it themselves, and they get hurt by trying to capture it,” Barrera said. “Because they have very powerful legs.”
Orth said that, “Emus cannot be leashed. If their leg is injured in a rescue attempt then they may have to be put down.”
Despite the potential for danger, Orth said that emus are fascinating to learn more about.
“Emus make a drumming sound in their chest. It sounds much like the movie ‘Jumanji,’” she said. “That’s how they communicate.”
She described how, “They puff their chest and feathers when they are excited and stand very tall. The eggs that they lay are very beautiful dark green and are larger than a softball.”
Orth also described the ferocity and natural defenses of the powerful creatures.
“Their legs are very strong, and they have talons for claws on their feet, they can kick frontwards and backwards. They can fight off predators like coyote,” she said. “That’s why people need to be very careful — whoever tries to rescue this bird or get near the bird.”
She said that despite being natives of Australia, “They’re very hearty in all types of climate and they are protectors of their herd/flock.”
McElwee, though, said, “It doesn’t get nearly as cold in Australia as it does here in Ohio.”
“The emu that I have is a female and she protects the goats and the sheep that we have on our property,” said Orth.
Barrera said the rescue efforts for the emu and the resulting calls and tips from the public, “has taken a lot of man hours. We’ve got a guy on it.”
Still, Barrera said, if anyone sees the emu the best thing to do is, “Just contact the Highland County Sheriff’s Office and let us deal with it.”
Barrera said that conscientious owner responsibility for exotic animals can proactively mitigate such problems.
“We wish the owner of the emu would come forward,” he said, “and help out and get this thing captured and off the streets before it hurts somebody or gets hit by a car.”
Juliane Cartaino is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.