Would you ride an ostrich?
By Evie Button
Ostrich riding is a topic that hasn’t received a lot of publicity in the world of tourism, but is gaining increasing attention among travel bloggers. Evie Button looks at how this tourist attraction could be affecting the welfare of both the tourists and the ostriches involved.
Ostrich riding may not be the first idea that springs to mind when you consider what you could do on holiday, but recently ostrich farms have become increasingly popular with tourists as they provide the opportunity to see the world’s largest living bird up close and personal. Ostriches have long been farmed all over the world for their feathers, meat and skin, but ostrich riding only really thrives as a major tourist attraction in South Africa. The sport of amateur ostrich racing is also relatively popular in America and particularly Chandler, Arizona where a 3 day Ostrich Festival is held every year.
Although ostrich riding has never really been raised as a major welfare issue before, some people have raised question marks about how harmful riding has the potential to be, for both the tourists and the ostriches. While ostriches have never traditionally been thought of as beasts of burden, the history of ostrich riding stretches back to Ancient Egypt in the third century. Ostriches have never been selectively bred specifically for racing, and they are difficult animals to tame so can behave unpredictably towards humans – who they would normally view as predators and therefore would show aggression towards us.
When wild ostriches feel threatened, they are capable of powerful kicks and bites which have the potential to cause serious injuries or even fatalities. So, in order for humans to be able to ride the ostriches at these farms, some level of training must take place beforehand as even a life in captivity wouldn’t be enough to completely overcome their natural instincts. Some ostrich farms state on their websites that their birds aren’t trained at all, which could imply that instead physical force is being used to subdue them and prevent them from attacking tourists.
Welfare risks for both ostriches and humans
The process of actually riding an ostrich involves the animal being herded into a small pen, and a bag thrown over its head as an attempt to calm it. The tourist is then assisted onto its back, and instructed to hang on to the wingpits of the ostrich and use its neck to steer. As soon as the ostrich is released from the pen and the bag is removed from its head, it will run around the enclosure, dragging the keepers behind it, and when the tourists inevitably fall off hopefully they will be caught by the keepers.
While there are some measures that have been taken by the ostrich farms to help ensure the health of the animals which are being ridden (such as a 70kg weight limit, and a rule where ostriches cannot be ridden if the air temperature is above 30°C); there are still some risks to the animals – for example, having their feathers accidentally pulled out or injuries resulting from muscle strain. As the ABTA Animal Welfare Guidelines state, “The ostrich skeleton is not designed to support a jockey’s weight on its back and this practice is likely to harm the physiology of the animals and have negative welfare implications.” As ostriches can weigh up to 150kg, they are forced to carry half their bodyweight on their back and however brief the ride may be, this still could have the potential to severely injure the bird.
Ostrich riding also poses many risks for the tourists who come to try this activity – as you can see in the many YouTube videos featuring ostrich rides, there are no safety features in place for the rider apart from several keepers holding onto the ostrich to try and prevent it from running too fast. Falling off the ostrich or being pulled off is the only way to dismount, and could potentially result in a head injury if the keepers weren’t able to catch you as none of the farms offer you helmets to wear. It would be easy for a panicking ostrich to accidentally trample someone, and there are several case studies in scientific literature of incidents where people have been attacked by ostriches which resulted in severe eye trauma. As ostrich riding is considered a risky activity, it may not be covered under personal accident or personal liability insurance; some insurance firms would only include cover if appropriate safety equipment was used, which you could argue doesn’t apply to most ostrich farms.
Is it worth it?
The ostrich farms themselves are often educational, and can contribute significantly to the tourist industry of South Africa and provide many jobs for local people. However, given that only several people from each tour group visiting the farm are given the chance to ride an ostrich, and at 2 out of the 3 major ostrich farms in Oudtshoorn there is no extra cost for the ostrich ride, you have to wonder how much income the farms gain from ostrich riding as a percentage of their total income. And would it make that much difference if the farms stopped offering ostrich rides altogether, and just focused on educating visitors about these wonderful animals? Perhaps the main question is whether a short 20 second ride on an ostrich is worth the potential risk to your safety, and is it worth the trauma that the ostrich may have had to endure before your visit to be tamed?
It would be great if some scientific research could be carried out to investigate what effect riding the ostriches has on their welfare, but for now we’d encourage you to seriously consider alternatives to ostrich riding such as going to view ostriches in the wild, or visiting ostrich farms which don’t offer ostrich rides at all.
To read more about beasts of burden, click here
Have you visited an ostrich farm? Please let us know what you thought about it!
We contacted the Highgate Ostrich Show Farm, Safari Ostrich Show Farm and Cango Ostrich and Butterfly Farm in Oudtshoorn, South Africa to ask how their ostriches are trained, but all 3 farms have yet to respond to our queries.
Photo credit – www.whereisflo.com
ABTA Animal Welfare Guidelines – Unacceptable and Discouraged Practices (2013)