Today, the day after Thanksgiving, I am praying for Gladys the emu.
A lapsed Catholic, I haven’t been a churchgoer for years. But praying to St. Francis for the safe return of Gladys, for her reunion with her brother Floyd and sister Mabel at their home 10 miles south of Charlottesville, and for the peace of mind of their owners, just feels right.
On Sunday, November 10, Gladys and Mabel pulled a Thelma and Louise and bolted from their pen for a big adventure. It would have been nice if the protagonists stuck together like they did in the movie (though I would never wish such an ending for the birds). But after leaving Floyd, who elected to stay behind, each of the six-year-old females followed her own beak. Mabel trotted south toward Scottsville, Gladys east toward Walnut Creek Park.
We know this because the birds are large, about 100 pounds and six feet tall (only ostriches are taller), and they have very long legs that can carry them to speeds of 30mph or more. It’s not every day, meaning never, that you see such an animal hotfooting it in the bicycle lane or even right down the middle of a busy road. Emus on the run. Perfect online fodder. Snap a pic and post it. And a lot of people did.
Millie Cathcart, 55, a retired nurse who owns the emus with her husband, Rip, 62, a residential real estate developer, was the first person to turn to social media. She posted about the escapees on her personal Facebook page, and then, upon advice from friends and members of the social hive, she also placed notices on NextDoor and Charlottesville/Albemarle Lost & Found Pets, and contacted animal control and 911. The support from the official channels was uniformly sympathetic and professional. Millie felt encouraged by that, and also by most of the people who reached out on Facebook, NextDoor, and the lost pets site.
“The variety of responses has been really interesting to me,” Millie says. “Some people have been wonderful—keeping track, checking in, spreading the word. Then, there are others who are just plain mean, like, ‘Just kill them,’ ‘Hit them with a car,’ and ‘The meat tastes good.’ Some people are just horrible.”
Around Thanksgiving, when many large birds go in the oven, the comment about the flavor of emu meat struck Millie as particularly grotesque. These were her and Rip’s pets, not dinner in waiting. But emus—why emus?
“My husband has a menagerie of birds, turkeys, peacocks, pheasants, guineas, chickens, doves, etc.,” Millie says. “Several years ago we had an increase in predators coming over the fence into our bird yard, and we heard that emus could help. If there is something going on, they run over to see what it is. They have greatly reduced predators coming by for lunch or dinner.”
This all started six years ago, when Millie and Rip picked up the birds—they were just fuzzy babies then—from a farm in northern Virginia, and ferried them in the back of Millie’s van to their new home. “Floyd, Mabel and Gladys have been with us ever since, and have a sweet love affair with my husband,” Millie wrote.
But emus are also curious. The Cathcarts noticed not long ago that the birds were attracted to the latch and lock on the gate to their pen. They pecked at the lock, flicked it with their beaks. “It made a clunking sound that probably made them happy,” Millie says.
But then November 10 arrived. It was a blustery day. “I’m sure they were flicking at the lock—plink, plink—and the latch opened, and the wind blew, the gate opened, and they were gone,” she says.
They, a part of the family, were gone.
The Cathcarts have three kids. The eldest daughter lives in Los Angeles and hopes to get into the music business. Their other daughter is a third-year student at Auburn University, and their son, a recent graduate from the University of Alabama, Auburn’s rival. On Saturday, the Cathcarts will attend the big game, known as The Iron Bowl. It’ll be exciting, for sure, but the family joy will be mixed with a sense of dread: Where’s Gladys?
It was funny a few years ago when the kids were younger and would toss the football around with friends. The emus joined in, following the ball as it flew through the air and charging with their lanky legs and long neck directly at the intended receiver. Emus are amusingly odd-looking standing still. But when they run, they are hilarious. When they change direction, they first point their head where they want to go, and then their body follows. The Cathcart kids would laugh, because they knew that the charging birds would turn away at the last second. But their friends were frightened. One hundred pounds of flesh and feathers hurtling toward you at great speed? Some of the kids ran to hide behind trees.
Millie and Rip came close to catching Mabel one day in Scottsville. They had been driving around after learning of a sighting, and they were ready to nab her.
“We had our buckets of sunflower seeds to lure her,” Millie says. “And we had a tarp, duct tape, rope, and a pillowcase to put over her head. If you were going to kidnap somebody, this is what you would have in your car.”
They drove down by the railroad tracks near the boat landing in Scottsville, and two women out walking said they had seen the bird and pointed Millie and Rip in the right direction. Mabel was standing in the woods on the other side of the railroad tracks. The couple got out of the car with their kidnapping supplies. They heard a train coming. A minute later it trundled by. After the train was gone, Mabel was, too.
So close. Their hearts sank.
Finally, on November 22, a call came in from a family in Schuyler. A father and son, Wayne and Andy, had been hunting not far from their home when they saw Mabel. They could not identify her as an emu, and you can’t blame them. Emus are as prevalent in Schuyler as flying monkeys. The Cathcarts raced down and were greeted by Wayne, his wife, Robin, and their son, Andy. His sister, Jasmine, was at work in Charlottesville at the time. When her family called to bring her into the loop, she instantly knew what was going on—she had seen the social media posts. She connected with Millie and Rip via cell, and kept them updated while they motored to Schuyler.
Millie, sounding a bit emotional now: “When those wonderful people down in Schuyler called, and we knew Mabel was in their backyard…. Wayne and Andy were hunting. They said, ‘This is not what we expected to see!’”
Wayne snapped and texted Andy a photo of the animal.
“Andy was in his tree stand about 100 yards away from Mabel, but he had just had eye surgery and couldn’t see the image on his phone very well, and he didn’t have his glasses, so he thought it was a bear.”
Bear, emu, deer, donkey—who cares? The important thing is that they didn’t shoot it. Jasmine went online. She and her mom remembered something about an emu on the loose, and the animal in the texted photograph was the one they were looking at online.
When Millie and Rip arrived, they switched into rescue mode. “Wayne and Andy totally bought into helping us with the situation, which we really appreciated, because it would have been really difficult to catch her without them,” Millie says.
Counter to what one would expect, emus can be very calm in a situation like this. Mable stood still while Andy slipped a rope around her neck. “An emu’s attitude is very confident,” Millie says. “Wayne and Andy were amazed that they could just secure Mabel in this way. There’s a picture of Andy in the woods, with a rope around Mabel’s neck, and he’s just beaming.”
After some wrangling and duct-taping and tying up, Mabel was spirited into the back of Millie and Rip’s vehicle. “It could have been just horrible but she was very cooperative,” Mille says. “I think she was just happy to be saved.”
Apparently, she was also happy when she got home. “We cut everything off of her and then stood back, and she just popped up,” Millie says.
Floyd strutted over to his sister. If they were humans you might expect them to hug or something. But Mabel just walked past Floyd and eventually found a place to lie down. “She was hungry and she was tired and she was a little beat up from being dragged through the woods,” Millie says. “She hunkered down and laid low for a couple of days. We were a little worried about her, but she’s fine now.”
Tomorrow, Millie and Rip will go to the football game down in Auburn. If Gladys isn’t discovered by then, she will have been on the loose for 20 days. “There’s really nothing more that we can do than really just hope someone comes across her and notifies us,” Millie says.
Rip told Millie that with winter coming in, his hope was fading. But there’s still a flicker. “If she would come walking home, that would make us really happy,” Millie says. “If she never showed up that would be—well, I’m just trying not to think about that.”
Instead, Millie thinks about how fortunate it is to have Mabel back together with Floyd. “Who knows?” she muses. “Maybe she’ll lay some eggs and they’ll have babies.”
So now, in addition to my imploring St. Francis for Gladys’ safe return, I’ll also humbly ask for Mabel and Floyd to give the Cathcarts another big bird or two.
If you see Gladys, the Cathcarts ask that you post on the Charlottesville/Albemarle Lost & Found Pets Facebook page: bit.ly/finding-gladys