Friday, April 4, 2008

The Ostrich Testimonies

Just north of Tucson, there’s a struggling ostrich farm that was once the largest in the country. Director Jonathan VanBallenberghe’s heartbreaking documentary shows how this once-thriving business, and the dreams of its owner, came crashing down in a matter of minutes.

In the late 80s and early 90s, the American ostrich industry seemed like a surefire investment for entrepreneurs. The high demand for ostrich meat is understandable – it has the taste of beef, but it’s lower in fat and cholesterol than turkey, chicken, or fish. Ostriches are more economical to raise than cattle, and they breed earlier, more regularly, and in greater numbers. Ostrich feathers and leather can bring in huge profits, meaning no part of this lucrative bird goes to waste. Attracting investors of all sorts, the ostrich – still an untapped industry in the States – was set to be the next big thing

The boom of ostrich farming prompted the formation of the American Ostrich Association in 1988. This documentary focuses on one of its founding members – the charismatic self-starter D.C. “Rooster” Cogburn who was determined to turn these strange birds into big bucks. Cogburn decided to leave his home in Oklahoma and start his ostrich farm in the middle of the Arizona desert. Over the course of the next 15 years, Cogburn turned his fledgling ostrich farm into a multi-million dollar business.

Cogburn has lived an interesting life, to say the least. Before getting into ostriches, he owned his own amusement park, rode rodeo bulls professionally, and trained animal acts for circuses and rodeos. But after buying his first ostriches for $1000 a piece in the mid 80s, Cogburn had a new dream: to make Arizona the ostrich capital of the world. For years, Cogburn’s dedication to the ostrich helped bring his dream within reach. On February 3, 2002, the business was left in ruins. The culprit?

A hot-air balloon.

On that February morning, which happened to be his 65th birthday, Cogburn’s farm was disrupted by the biggest ostrich stampede he had ever seen. Cogburn would later discover that two hot-air balloonists had illegally launched and flown over his farm – even though the balloonists knew they were flying in forbidden airspace. It is well known throughout the ostrich community that the sight and sound of hot-air balloons cause massive ostrich-panic. Witnesses estimate that the balloons came within half a mile of Cogburn’s farm, which was more than enough to send the birds flying.

Ostriches ran amok for the better part of the day, and 26 ostriches died in the stampede. As a result of injuries caused that day, nearly 800 of his 1600 birds died within the following months. Ostriches stopped laying eggs. Thousands of feet of fencing were destroyed. Cogburn’s insurance company turned their back on his claims. And the balloonists refused to take responsibility.
VanBallenberghe first visited Cogburn’s ostrich farm after moving to Tucson in 1999, but it wasn’t until hearing a 2005 NPR broadcast on his situation that he decided to turn the story into a documentary. By that point, it was three years after the stampede, and Cogburn, trying to keep his farm and family afloat, was embroiled in a multi-million dollar lawsuit with the balloonists. Most of VanBallenberghe’s film consists of interviews with Cogburn and others involved in the court case (though the balloonists declined to take part in the film). The twists and turns of the trial are shocking, and the court’s treatment of Cogburn is enraging.

And now that once-thriving ostrich farm just north of Tucson is more roadside oddity than ostrich farm – a tourist attraction that won’t bring in enough to make ends meet. It’s been more than 20 years since Cogburn bought his first bird, but his dream of turning the ostrich into the turkey of the 21st century is still too far off in the distance to see. The bulk of ostrich farmers ditched the business in the late 90s, and the limited number of birds has driven the price of meat too high to make the ostrich a viable industry.

But Cogburn hasn’t abandoned the bird, and he’s still appealing the court’s decision to dismiss his lawsuit. VanBallenberghe’s documentary is ultimately an inspiring tale – a story about a man who does his “share plus 10% more,” but gets no recognition, no respect, and no justice from the courts. But Cogburn, like all inspiring leaders, will never give up.

This is a must-see documentary that will stay with you for days. The AIFF is extremely excited to announce that Cogburn will be in attendance at each of the screenings, so be sure to come out and meet this enigmatic ostrich entrepreneur.

The Ostrich Testimonies is playing on Saturday, April 19th at Crossroads and Wednesday, April 23rd at The Screening Room.

Visit the official site --


Mia said...

No need to stick your neck out, this film is great!

Anonymous said...

I had heard about this before...What a strange and tragic story. Thank you for your interesting summary - I will be sure to check it out!