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Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
Danna Cogburn-Barrett, D.C. "Rooster" Cogburn, and a tiny fraction of their Ranch herd.

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch

Field review by the editors.

Picacho, Arizona

In 1993 D.C. "Rooster" Cogburn moved his family to the Sonoran Desert, midway between Phoenix and Tucson, and began raising ostriches. Things went well for a few years, and in 1999 the Cogburn family opened their ranch to the public. Danna Cogburn-Barrett, Rooster's daughter, helped to run the tourist side of the business. It wasn't much. Back then, she said, all they had was a tent, a folding table, and a couple of ostriches to visit.

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
21-year-old Rooster on the Oklahoma rodeo circuit.

Then disaster struck. A hot air balloonist spooked the ostrich herd and started a stampede. Ostriches smashed everything in their path, including each other. Over 1,000 died. Rooster -- who came from Oklahoma -- compared the aftermath to a twister. The ranch part of the ostrich ranch was kaput.

But the Cogburns still had a roadside attraction. They decided that if they wanted to survive, they needed variety and human-animal interaction -- like a petting zoo, but with pizzazz. "We've always been in animals and show business," said Danna who, like her dad, is a former rodeo performer. "Some people think it's weird, but we like weird. We are weird."

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
Another Ostrich Ranch visitor prepares to get slobbered.

The weirdness at Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Farm now comes not just from its nine-foot-tall ostriches, but from a smorgasbord of exotic animals and less-exotic animals presented in exotic ways. There are goats that stick their heads through a wall like living trophies and give you a kiss; tropical birds that perch on your head ("If they poop on you, make a wish," said Danna); and cartilaginous fish that suck your hands like an aquatic vacuum cleaner.

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
No saddle rides at the Ranch: ostriches are faster than racehorses, can disembowel lions with their feet.

The glue that binds these creatures to human tourists is food. Visitors to the Ranch are each given a tumbler-full of nutritional chow and specific instructions about where to go and how to feed each animal. Then they're turned loose into an open-air compound, following a path from the Sicilian Mini-Donkeys to the Cownose Stingray exhibit -- and kudos to the Cogburns for somehow getting a swimming pool of stingrays into the Arizona desert. When the tourists reach the end of the critter trail they get baby wipes for their hands, the chow tumbler goes in a re-wash bin, and they exit into the gift shop.

Ostriches are here, too, hundreds of them, in a feedlot with Picacho Peak towering in the background. "Ostriches are living dinosaurs," says one of the many informative signs at Rooster Cogburn Ranch, and if Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that dinosaurs and tourists are a dangerous mix. The Cogburn family respects that lesson: humans and ostriches mostly remain on opposite sides of a high-tension steel wire fence, although the big birds do snake their heads over to grab chow out of the tourists' hands. "You gotta get bit by an ostrich at least once; that's the best story to take home, ever," said Danna, who's been nipped countless times. Unlike the goats, you don't want a kiss from an ostrich -- not unless you want to have a tooth knocked out (as Rooster has).

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
Swimming pool of stingrays is an unexpected sight in the Sonoran Desert.

"'Can I ride an ostrich?' I get asked that a hundred times a week," said Danna, who has to say no to everyone who thinks that an "ostrich ranch" is a place where they can put on a cowboy hat and trot across the desert astride a living dinosaur. "Ostriches are super fast, their brains are smaller than their eyeballs, and they can kill you with one kick," Danna said. "Those are really bad qualities for something you'd want to ride."

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch.
Vigilant bunnies guard a clutch of patriotic ostrich eggs.

Danna is particularly proud of the Ostrich Ranch's many signs, which she makes herself, although she admits that few visitors read them. That's a shame; tourists would learn that the St. Croix Sheep are "uncommonly resistant to foot rot and parasites;" that the Nigerian Dwarf Goats were "originally brought to the U.S. as food for lions;" and that the Australian Rainbow Lorikeets "require a high-calorie nectar diet equal to a 150 pound human eating 176 cheeseburgers a day."

Rooster puts in an occasional appearance in the tourist compound, but he's mostly a behind-the-scenes guy, still working the ranch seven days a week in his eighties. Clearly a lot of thought and endless work goes into creating a place that makes feeding over a dozen wildly different types of animals seem effortless and fun. Even the choice of creatures takes planning. "We want animals that are different, but we don't want anything that's really dangerous," Danna said, "and we have to have a herd of them because just one or two of something can't eat from hundreds of people every day." Surprisingly, potentially lethal ostriches are more tourist-friendly than prairie dogs, which proved too capricious for the Ostrich Ranch, or red-headed ducks, which Danna described as "just dad-gum mean."

Ostrich Ranches were among America's oldest roadside attractions (the first one opened to the public in California in 1883) but their popularity waned decades ago. Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch -- the largest in the world outside of Africa -- is both an anachronism and a revival. It's figured out how to survive not only the ravages of rampaging neo-dinosaurs, but the demands of modern tourists. "We dug ourselves out of the hole one handful of dirt at a time," said Danna. "We're either too stupid or too tough to kill, I guess."

Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch

17599 E. Peak Lane, Picacho, AZ
I-10 exit 219. Turn west, then left onto E. Peak Lane. Follow it south one mile to the Ostrich Ranch.
9-5 daily Nov. 16 - April 30. Fewer hours and days in the hot summer months. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $15.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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