You’re perched on the back of the world’s largest bird, but it seems docile enough and confined to an enclosure with handlers at the ready. The worst that might happen is you’ll take a light tumble – to the glee of your friends documenting the entire colourful episode for social media. No one gets hurt.
Except, possibly, the one participant whose interests tend to get forgotten in the fun: the bird itself.
Ostrich rides: a Victorian relic
Ostrich riding (and racing) is a tourist staple in most places that farm these birds, especially South Africa’s “ostrich capital”, Oudtshoorn, where it’s been part of the cultural landscape since the mid-19th century. But whether this practice is still appropriate in 2017 is questionable: a re-examination seems timely, given the recent shift away from wildlife interaction tourism.
Tourists are becoming aware these ventures are invariably bad for the animals involved, and don’t belong on an ethical travellers’ bucket list. Indicative of this trend, influential travel review website TripAdvisor recently pledged to stop selling such tours1, while the South African Tourism Board’s newly appointed CEO has taken a similar stance against this kind of wildlife exploitation2. Such announcements typically pertain to ventures involving mammals, for example elephant safaris and swimming with dolphins.
Ostriches, however, seldom get a mention.
Do ostriches count as wildlife?
Perhaps ostriches get left out because they’re birds (albeit iconic ones), and don’t rank with charismatic mammals in human estimation, or elicit equivalent concern. It may also be that farmed ostriches aren’t seen technically as wildlife; ostrich farm tours, which often feature rides, are instead labelled “agritourism”3. This categorisation of captive-bred ostriches strengthens the perception that they’re suited to human interaction and are less vulnerable to any associated stresses. There may be some truth to this; however, most wild mammals used in interactive tourism are captive-raised too, yet maintain their wild species status – which generally makes arguing against their exploitation easier.
Ostriches, furthermore, have been historically stereotyped as comical, so using them for entertainment seems appropriate. Their prominent eyelashes, naked thighs and “smiling” open beaks have been anthropomorphised in countless cartoons and photos. While other human-wildlife interactions like “walking with lions” are viewed as thrilling or romantic, ostrich riding’s primary appeal is that it’s funny. When featured in films (comedian Adam Sandler’s widely panned Blended, for example) or events such as the hammy “chariot races” held at Arizona’s Ostrich Festival, the aim is to get laughs.
Another reason not to ride ostriches: Adam Sandler
How harmful is riding really?
But apart from what critics might consider an affront to ostrich dignity, do rides actually harm the birds? Formal investigations into the welfare implications are lacking, but if one human can safely carry another piggy-back, wouldn’t this burden an ostrich even less? An adult bird weighs as much as two humans4, and is a superb long-distance runner with remarkable leg joint elasticity, described by one researcher as “akin to bouncing on a pogo stick”5.
Nonetheless, size and strength aside, ostriches didn’t evolve to carry passengers, and there could be other unforeseen ill-effects to their musculo-skeletal system.
Being made to perform this unnatural behaviour may also cause distress. Ostriches frequently display gaping mouths when ridden, a sign of aggression in response to threat, or hyperventilation to alleviate heat stress 6.
Industry players appear well aware of such potential stressors: most farms have weight cut-offs for riders (around 60-70kg), and limit riding to dry conditions under 30°C to avoid slipping and overheating.7
Welfare woes behind the scenes
There are further compelling reasons to skip ostrich riding. Visitors to whom it appeals are seeking a novel experience, and doubtless wish the ostriches no harm. But it remains a crass display of animals being used purely for human pleasure, without much consideration for their welfare beyond a vague assumption that “it’s not hurting them”.
Tourists should also appreciate that ostrich tours and rides contributes to the normalisation and continuation of an industry that, behind the scenes, briskly converts these unique creatures into inanimate commodities: meat, frequently consumed on the premises, and luxury leather goods. In fact it is this part of the industry, unseen by the public, where the most serious welfare violations – ostriches being struck by handlers and forced into slaughter pens – reportedly occur.8
Ostrich rides, while culturally interesting, belong to an earlier age less cognisant than ours of animal sentience and suffering. Along with plumed hats and “feather palaces” built by ostrich barons, such amusements should be relegated to history.
1. TripAdvisor (2016). TripAdvisor announces commitment to improve wildlife welfare standards in tourism. Press release, October 2016. Available from: https://www.tripadvisor.com/PressCenter-i7796-c1-Press_Releases.html
2. Stey, L (2016). New SA Tourism CEO hopes to ‘eradicate’ cub petting and animal interaction. News24. 13 December 2016. Available from: http://traveller24.news24.com/Explore/Green/new-sa-tourism-ceo-hopes-to-eradicate-cub-petting-and-animal-interaction-20161215
3. Farmer’s Weekly (2007). Agribusiness helps ostrich farm fly high. Farmer’s Weekly. 23 March 2007. Available from:
4. Davies, S (2003). Tinamous and Ratites to Hoatzins. In Hutchins, M. Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia. (2nd ed.). Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group. pp. 99–101.
5. Gill, V (2010). How ostriches run faster than us. BBC Earth News. 28 October 2010. Available from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/earth/hi/earth_news/newsid_9129000/9129081.stm
6. Gregory, G and Grandin, T (2007). Other species: ostriches. Animal welfare and meat production. Pp 161. CABI.6.
7. “Safari Ostrich Farm cares”. Safari Ostrich Farm riding rules. Official website. Available from: http://safariostrich.co.za/safari-ostrich-farm-cares/
8. Peta (2015). Hermes and Prada suppliers exposed: young ostriches butchered for ‘luxury’ bags. Peta investigation. Available from: http://investigations.peta.org/ostriches-butchered-hermes-luxury/
Picture credit: Still of Adam Sandler from Blended. Credit: Happy Madison Productions.