by Sylvia Hamilton
The Santa Ana’s can be horrible on the ridgelines; witheringly dry, hurricane strength and they notch the fire danger up to extremely high, putting everyone on edge. They were exceptionally strong this morning.
I called a girlfriend. We made plans to spend the day together. Hopefully the winds would die down by evening. I hopped into my little truck, and started driving down the mountain.
About a mile down the road I came around a bend and there, in the wide spot in the road in front of Greg’s place, were about ten cars stopped. I slowed, then pulled over. In the middle of the street was a huge brown bird; it was about five or six feet tall; almost as big as an ostrich. People were standing in a gaggle, staring.
I walked up to the flock of onlookers. A woman in spandex workout clothes was saying, “What the hell is that thing? It’s taller than I am.” She was yelling over the wind. When the Santa Ana’s howl it’s loud, sounds like waves crashing on rocks.
Turning toward her, I responded, “It’s an emu.” She looked at me with a blank expression. I barely concealed my disdain. We locals didn’t warm up to newcomers quickly and Yuppies were a new breed in the Gulch. We had been a strictly hippie-hillbilly crowd for decades.
This woman was alien to me. The purple leotard and pink leg warmers, headband and tights, well, the whole ensemble was too color coordinated, too Olivia Newton-John, for my tastes. Why spend time on an elaborate hairdo and makeup to go work out? She obviously had no consideration for the hole in the ozone layer, since she must’ve used at least half a bottle of AquaNet on that hair; it stood up, like a rooster’s comb, not a hair blown out of place. My hair, on the other hand, was whipping around, practically standing on end from the electricity in the static Santa Ana air.
I explained, trying not to sound condescending, “An emu is a large flightless bird from Australia.” I hesitated, wondering; Is it Australia? Or New Zealand?
A man in a linen suit, T-shirt, no socks, said, “Should we try to catch it?” I scanned the group, this crowd did not look like it had a lot of the emu rustling types. Since I was in a walking cast, I was not about to try catching it. I contemplated the bird; said, “I know that Ostriches have a reputation of packing a wallop with their kicks. I bet this bird could kick too.” With a grin I added, “I have some rope in the back of my truck if you want to try lassoing it.”
He shrugged, “Not my job.”
Miami Vice got back into his BMW, sat there with the window rolled down, watching the bird.
Greg ambled out from his house nearby. He was handsome, a surfer, slim, tall and tanned with dusky blond hair and a mischievous smile, we had a flirtation. He greeted me, “Hey, Shelby. How’s it going? Boy, the wind is howling today isn’t it?”
“Tell me about it!” I said, “You know that huge eucalyptus tree in my yard? It was bending over in the wind. The top was almost brushing the ground. I started to worry my place might disintegrate like the neighbors’ place did a few years back.”
“You know the Hildens? Their house blew down a few years ago in a wind storm like this. It was like the three little pigs.”
Greg gaped, “Wow! Was anyone hurt?”
“No,” I laughed, “Larry was in the middle of building their house for the second time after it burned down. First it fell down in the rains, then he had gotten three walls and the roof up. Left the wall facing north for last. Wind caught it just right. The house was smashed to smithereens. Nothing salvageable, just a huge pile like matchsticks in the morning.” I giggled as I continued, “He got it built, but if you look at it closely, it’s out of plumb.”
Greg snickered. Looking over my shoulder, he spied the bird in the street, “What is that?”
I turned, “I think it’s one of Jim Sunflower’s emus.”
Greg looked at me quizzically. “Emu?” His extraordinary good looks almost made up for the fact that he was not the sharpest tool in the shed.
“Emus are those large, flightless birds from Australia, or maybe it’s New Zealand.” I held my hair back to keep it from lashing my face. “I’d drive out and tell Jim his emu is here, but I have just enough gas to get down the hill; too bad your car’s in the shop.” I’d seen his VW surfer van parked with other cars to be worked on at the service station at the bottom of the hill the night before.
I turned towards my funky truck, “Well, this has been exciting. But I’m gonna keep going. I’m hanging out with my friend Debbie today and I really need a strong cup of coffee. I slept fitfully; the winds, you know. Like most of us, they set me on edge. Good to see you.” I gave him a peck on the cheek. “Oops, sorry for the electric zap. I hate these Santa Ana winds.”
“We just have a powerful connection.” Greg flashed his devilish grin at me, gave me a quick hug.
I hopped into my car, put it in gear. With a flirtatious wave, I drove off.
After leaving the Emu scene, I gassed up, then stopped at the Espress-Oh!. The lot was full, as usual. Luckily, my parking karma kicked in, a woman who lived near me, Elizabeth James, was just pulling out of a spot near the front.
Our local coffee shop sold lattes and cappuccinos long before there was a Starbucks on every corner. The Espress-Oh! was always busy, especially in the mornings. I parked and went inside. As I stood in line to order my latte, bleary from the lack of sleep, I overheard Jane, the serving woman, say to the uniformed man standing at the counter a couple of people ahead of me, “We don’t like Dog Catchers in these parts.” Sleep deprivation must’ve made me unobservant.
I perked up as the ramifications of what I’d overheard sank into my fuzzy brain. “Dog Catcher? That’s Animal Control, right? ”
The Officer paying for his coffee straightened up, turned, nodded smartly. After glancing around, his expression turned guarded. I was the only person in the room to voluntarily strike up a conversation. As I followed his gaze around the room, I realized that the rest of the coffee shop patrons were either staring at him malevolently or studiously avoiding eye contact.
Dogcatchers were seldom welcome in the Gulch. At best, laws were for lowlanders, not us. Licensing canines was considered by most of us as an unnecessary trouble and expense and we believed that those unlicensed dogs had a god-given right to run free. Therefore, Animal Control officers were threatened, even shot at, for trying to ticket owners of wayward dogs. By statute, the Gulch had to be patrolled at least once a year. Coincidentally, today was that day. The rest of the year, Dogcatchers only came when called.
I exclaimed, “What luck! We need Animal Control up the hill. There’s an emu running loose. You have any experience wrangling?”
The officer looked at me skeptically, “An emu?”
I nodded emphatically. “Yes sir, an emu. You know, the large flightless bird from Australia, or maybe it’s from New Zealand. Anyhow, you may need to call for backup. It could take two or more to catch it, and it’s too big to fit in the cubbies on the typical Dogcatcher truck.”
Luckily, I knew they had trailers. We’d had to bail our horse out of critter jail several times until we had introduced ourselves to the homeowner of the only lawn within five miles of our corral, now he called us instead of the Pound when our horse got a craving and busted loose.
I’m pretty sure the Dogcatcher thought I was trying to divert him from ticketing the Gulch’s dogs, which was just an added bonus. I gestured up the hill, continued, “It was causing a traffic jam. It might get hit by a car or injured by some yahoo trying to catch it, or someone without training in animal capture could get hurt trying to catch it. Do you wanna follow me? Let me just get a latte and I’ll meet you in the parking lot,” The Dog Catcher stood by the door for the few moments it took for me to doctor my coffee. My story did sound a little far-fetched, probably he thought I was flirting with him.
After I had stirred and taken a few swigs of my coffee, I cocked my head towards the parking lot, the Animal Control Officer walked out with me. “Since when do you pay three dollars for a cup of coffee?” he asked.
“After your first sip you’ll be hooked.” I responded. “The Espress-Oh! has the best coffee in L.A.”
He sipped tentatively. His eyebrows rose, “That is pretty good.”
“Told you. There’s a reason they have a line out the door. Now about that emu…” I stopped dead in my tracks. “How did I drive right past your truck? I’m parked right here.” I opened my door and got in, rolled down the window. “Are you ready to go? It’s about four miles up the hill, although I gotta warn you, it’ll feel more like ten.”
He was looking hesitant. Perhaps he thought I was luring him into the boondocks, for who knows what. Just then, about five cars pulled into the parking lot. They’d seen the Official truck. The drivers piled out and all rushed the Dogcatcher, jabbering like a bunch of geese.
The Olivia Newton John wannabe exclaimed, “Officer, officer, there’s a huge bird loose up Fernwood.”
The Dogcatcher looked back at me. I shrugged, smiled, “I’ve been trying to tell you! It’s an EMU, a large flightless bird from Australia, or maybe New Zealand. If you’ll just follow me, I’ll show you.”
The officer said, “Okay, okay. Lead the way.”
He got in his truck, started it, revved the engine a couple of times. I started my engine, motored back to where I’d last seen the emu. The errant bird had not wandered. It was pecking at the ground on the side of the road by Greg’s fence. There was still a crowd of onlookers standing at a safe distance.
Elizabeth James, garbed in her typical tie-dyed shirt, peasant skirt swirling around her in the wind, brown hair in a long loose braid, exclaimed in her theatrical voice as she rushed over. “Thank God you brought Animal Control Shelby. We had no idea what to do with this thing. It must be terrified by all this commotion.”
I eyed the bird. The emu did not appear to notice or care about the attention it was garnering. It was pecking at a clump of grass, then moved a few steps, investigated a bush. It was acting as if we humans weren’t even there. In my judgement, Elizabeth was being her usual theatrical self.
I walked over to the Animal Control truck. The officer was sitting behind the wheel looking in stunned silence at the spectacle in front of him.
I said, “I still think you might need assistance.”
The Dogcatcher scrutinized the emu, picked up his radio. “Headquarters, Officer Wiggins here with a sit rep.”
The response squawked over the airways. “Go ahead, Wiggins.”
He keyed the mike again, ” I have a loose…” He hesitated, looked over at me.
“It’s an emu,” I said.
“A loose emu, sir,” Officer Wiggins said into the mike.
There was a noticeable hesitation, then, “A what?”
Officer Wiggins eyed me, “A large flightless bird from Australia, sir.”
I mouthed, “Maybe New Zealand.”
“It’s a very large bird sir, about seven feet tall, maybe two hundred pounds. I’m going to need a trailer.”
There was a lengthy pause then a response: “10-4. State your position.”
He looked at me in query. I responded, “You’re at the intersection of Medley Lane and Fernwood Road in the Gulch.”
“I’m at the intersection of Melody Lane and Firwood Road in the Gulch.”
“Uh, Officer? It’s MeDley and FERNwood.” I corrected.
“Correction, it’s Melly and Forward.”
“MEDley! FERNwood!” I wanted to believe the loud winds made it hard for him to hear.
“Stand by headquarters,” Wiggins looked at me; pulled a notepad out of his shirt pocket, handed it over. “Write down the streets please.” I complied, writing all in capital letters so it was legible. After correcting his location, he got the reply that backup was on the way. He cradled the microphone.
The dogcatcher was still sitting in the cab of his truck, staring at the bird in disbelief. I said, “You know that your backup is at least an hour out, right?”
Officer Wiggins seemed to come to, nodded officiously. “I’ll just secure the creature. Then I’ll wait for the truck to transport it.”
He walked to the back of his truck, opened a door, pulled out a stick with a noose on the end. Officer Wiggins adjusted his regulation tool belt, straightened his uniform tie, tucked in his immaculately pressed shirt, then sauntered over to the bird. He slipped the noose over the emu’s head and snapped it tight. The bird started and balked at the sudden restriction. Officer Wiggins dug his regulation uniform rubber heels in but still got dragged down the street by the frightened emu. Suddenly, the bird stopped and kicked, nailing Officer Wiggins square in the nuts. The Officer doubled over, clutching his genitals, his eyes bulging. The emu moved just out of range for capture then stopped, watching the Dogcatcher warily.
I rushed over to the stricken man, “Oh my God! Are you okay? You look kinda green.”
The Animal Control Officer gasped, “I’m fine. Just need to catch my breath.” He hobbled over to a nearby guardrail, leaned gingerly against it.
The emu, with no one holding onto him, and no one chasing him returned to meandering to the next particularly interesting clump of vegetation, the Dogcatcher’s stick bumping alongside.
Just then, a white stretch limo covered in hand painted flower power designs came careening down the hill, brakes squealing as it jerked to a stop then flipped a u-turn. Jim Sunflower got out of the driver’s seat, dressed in his customary bell bottoms and a fringed leather vest. “There you are.” He held out a small bucket to the bird. The emu went over, started pecking at the food in the bucket. Jim patted the bird, loosened the Dogcatcher’s noose, slid it gently over the animal’s head, dropped the stick on the ground. The bird barely stopped eating. Then Jim put his own rope on the bird.
Greg, on a dirt bike, pulled up alongside, put the kickstand down and dismounted. Jim handed Greg the rope and bucket, “Stay right there. Hand these to me in a minute.” He opened the nearest back door of the limo, moved around to the other side of the limousine, opened the other door. He then went back to Greg, took the bucket and rope, crawled through the limousine, leaving the bucket, closed the far passenger door, then he tugged gently on the rope through the open window. The emu stretched his head into the limo, ate some more, then stepped in and settled down. Jim closed the door the emu had entered, got into the drivers seat and drove off, the emu’s head, between mouthfuls, periodically sticking out the moon roof.
Officer Wiggins watched the whole interaction from his perch on the guardrail, gasping like a fish out of water, still slightly off color. He waved weakly to get Jim’s attention. But Jim just barreled off in a dust cloud leaving behind a whiff of patchouli and marijuana.
The onlookers scattered once the bird had been taken away.
Greg walked over to me standing beside the stricken dogcatcher; a questioning expression on his face, “You came back.”
“Animal Control is patrolling the Gulch today.” I responded. “I figured a dogcatcher was the most logical person to deal with the bird. Unfortunately the officer took quite a kick to the groin,” I said.
“Good thing I didn’t know about that kicking thing before I held that rope.” Greg said.
I laughed, “Don’t make me cackle,” turning back to Officer Wiggins, I said, “Could Greg could get you something,” I pointed towards his driveway. “He lives right there. Maybe some ice would help.”
Officer Wiggins waved off the proffered assistance, “I’ll be okay, ” he croaked. Shaking his head as if to clear cobwebs, he unsteadily straightened up, then fell back onto the guardrail. “Where did they go? That owner should be fined for allowing a dangerous animal to run free.”
Greg, barely concealing a grin, replied to the officer’s statement, “Oh, Jim’s got a place about three miles as the crow flies, that way,” He gestured in the general direction of the nearest ridge-line.
The officer looked at me, I nodded, “It’s more like five miles by dirt road. And it’s pretty hard to find.” Greg nodded vehemently in agreement.
“Here, let us help you.” Greg said. We each took an arm, assisting the Animal Control officer to his feet.
Officer Wiggins limped back to his truck, leaned against the tail gate. I refrained from drawing attention to the distinct large bird footprint on the crotch of his uniform pants. Surely the man was embarrassed already.
After another few minutes, Officer Wiggins hobbled to the cab of the truck, reached in for the radio mike. “Headquarters, Wiggins here.”
The radio squawked, “Go ahead, Wiggins.”
“The owner showed up, claimed the bird. Tell the backup unit to turn back.”
I went and picked up the dogcatcher’s noose from where Jim had dropped it, took it to the truck.
“10-4.” Came the radio response.
I turned to Greg. “I didn’t know you had a motorcycle.”
Greg nodded, “It’s not street legal. Besides, you wouldn’t ride it.” He gestured at my cast, the result of a recent motorcycle accident. He was right.
“Well, that was a good call, getting Jim,” I said.
“When I got to Sunflower Temple, Jim was running around trying to fix pens with baling wire and rope. Seems they all blew apart to some degree last night in the winds. He hadn’t even noticed that he’d lost an emu in the confusion. Of course, he has two others.” He grinned that sexy smile, “There were deer, llamas, sheep, goats tied up all over, basically anything large enough had an animal attached to it. The kids were scrambling to round up peacocks, ducks and chickens. It was quite a sight.”
Officer Wiggins was leaning against the driver’s seat, door open, staring into space. He finally reached for his cup of coffee, took a sip. Grimaced, it must’ve been cold by now. He kept drinking.
I wandered back over. “Are you feeling any better?”
He looked at me in a daze, “I’ll have to file a report.” He got the notepad out of his breast pocket, clicked his pen.
“What kind of bird was that again?”