Bird supplier for Ostrich Fest has weathered hard times

A dozen Black Necked Ostriches will be the honored guests at the Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival March 16-19. (Special to AFN)

The Chandler Chamber Ostrich Festival March 16-19 will be the second straight one to feature Black Neck Ostriches.

How they got to Chandler is an interesting story filled with hot air and heartache.

“Old man Chandler (Dr. A.J. Chandler, the founder of the city) has always fascinated me,” said Rooster Cogburn, the man supplying 12 ostriches for this year’s festival.

Dr. Chandler became an ostrich farmer, raising the birds to supply feathers for women’s hats. He was like many Americans throughout history to think they could get rich with ostriches, Cogburn said.

Another one of those Americans is Rooster Cogburn, who now runs an ostrich ranch and petting zoo off of Interstate-10 just north of Tucson.

However, the ostrich business has not been easy for Cogburn.

First, he tried to raise wild ostriches and soon learned that would not work. Then, he purchased some Black Neck Ostriches in South Africa. That breed is ideal for ostrich farming, he said, but that nation has limited who can have them.

Cogburn claims he’s the only rancher in the U.S. with that breed.

He would sell the feathers and skin. A good pair of ostrich-skin boots sells for about $1,200, he said.

Just when his ostrich business was taking off, closing in on a deal to supply hatching eggs to Brazil, disaster struck.

Two hot air balloons crashed on his ranch on Feb. 3, 2002, spooking his birds and triggering a deadly stampede.

“I had 1,600 birds hit the fence at 35 miles an hour,” Cogburn said. “Lost hundreds of birds. The ones that didn’t die were crippled – or skinned up like you can’t believe.”

Cogburn spent years trying to get the balloonists to pay for his losses. He was unsuccessful.

“I lost confidence in our system,” he said, admitting he was angry and frustrated. “American Way of life and everything. When you talk about somebody who is sad and ruined, that was me.”

A number of people showed up wanting to tell the story, but Cogburn said he was so angry and fed up he chased them all away.

But one young man, a University of Arizona student, kept coming back. Jonathan VanBallenberg made a documentary about the incident titled, “The Ostrich Testimonies” that was released in 2008. It won a number of awards.

Eventually, Cogburn was able to pick up the pieces and rebuild his ranch. He turned it into a tourist attraction for folks driving between Phoenix and Tucson.

“From there we have slowly built this thing up one deal at a time to now we’re recognized as one of the top 10 roadside attractions in America,” Cogburn said.

When it came to supplying ostriches for Chandler, Cogburn said he didn’t have the time. Then someone showed up, trying to lease his ostriches for Chandler. Cogburn said he didn’t know or trust this stranger, so he didn’t want to hand his birds over for them to look after.

He talked directly to the city, telling them to hire a former ranch worker of his that he trusted, and that as long as they paid him, they wouldn’t have to pay him for the use of his ostriches.

His former employee does all the work, including transporting the birds and caring for them. They started this arrangement last year.

This year, Cogburn is planning to make some money off the Ostrich Festival. He said they will be selling ostrich eggs at the Ostrich Festival. The shell is a popular item in their gift store. And, he said, one ostrich egg is equal to about 24 hen eggs.

The Chandler Chamber of Commerce is putting on the 33rd annual Ostrich Festival at Tumbleweed Park.

Unlike last year, when the Chandler Chamber of Commerce scheduled the festival over two weekends as a way of recovering from its cancelation during the pandemic in both 2021 and 2020, the festival will stretch across a four-day weekend.

Promising multiple attractions for families and people of all ages, the festival also is an important economic driver for Chandler. Chamber President/CEO Terri Kimble said.

Kimble said the festival usually draws between 80,000 and 100,000 peop General admission tickets start at $30 for adults, $20 for children, children four and under will be admitted to the festival free of charge. Limited VIP tickets are available starting at $150 and pricing for family packs will be available for purchase at a later date.

Many of the folks who visit the Ostrich Festival come from outside of Chandler.

“This year, we did an inside-the-fence kind of economic impact for the local community,” Kimble said. “And we estimated that the economic impact was about $9.4 million for the local economy, from hotel nights to restaurants to just everything that it takes to put on the festival – which is pretty significant.”

Cogburn said there is hope for a brighter future, and his ostriches just might be the reason why. He said he’s been contacted by a Japanese scientist who believes he can build human health antibodies from ostrich eggs. They’ve done some preliminary studies the results have been fascinating, Cogburn said.

So he’s working on a deal to supply ostrich eggs to the scientist. It’s another potential international deal, so Cogburn would prefer hot air balloons stay far away from his ranch.

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