A large flightless bird killed a Florida breeder with its long claws in a “tragic accident” after the man fell in its enclosure
A 75-year-old Florida man was mortally wounded in an attack on Friday morning by a large flightless bird that he kept. He was taken to the UF Health Shands Hospital by paramedics, where he later died from his injuries. The man, Marvin Hajos, lived north of Gainesville in a rural part of Alachua county, according to local newspapers.
“My understanding is that the gentleman was in the vicinity of the bird and at some point, fell,” Deputy Chief Jeff Taylor told the Gainesville Sun.
“When he fell, he was attacked,” Mr. Taylor said, adding that the incident appeared to be a “tragic accident”.
According to a report by CNN, the first emergency call was made by Mr. Hajos, the bird’s owner, whilst a second call was received shortly afterward from another person on the property. It is not yet known what Mr. Hajos did to motivate the attack.
The attacker was identified as a southern cassowary, Casuarius casuarius, a large flightless bird that is native to tropical rain forests in northeastern Australia, New Guinea, and on several nearby island archipelagoes of Indonesia. The birds can weigh as much as 58.5 kg (130 pounds) and adults stand between 1.5 and 2.0m (5 and 6.5 feet) tall. Amongst living birds, only ostriches are larger.
Both sexes of cassowaries are clad in glossy funereal black plumage, and have featherless bright blue heads and necks accentuated with red wattles. Females are larger and more colorful than males. The birds’ colors intensify during courtship, territorial disputes and when they are threatened. Curiously, their skin is a uniformly bright blue color, even under their feathers.
Three of the four known cassowary species still survive, and adults of the species can be distinguished most easily by the size and shape of the casque on their heads. This casque is composed of keratin (the same material that human fingernails are made of), and it grows larger as the bird ages. The precise function of the casque is still debated.
In captivity, cassowaries can be aggressive birds that usually do not live comfortably in close quarters with other animals — including other cassowaries. In the wild, cassowaries are solitary and they tend to avoid humans whenever possible, silently vanishing into the shadows of their rain forest homes long before humans stumble into their paths.
They are very athletic: they are adept swimmers, they can run almost as fast as a horse and jump higher than two meters (seven feet). Their most deadly weapon is their feet: they defend themselves with a powerful forward kick, and the inner toe on each foot is armed with an extremely sharp dagger-like claw that can reach 125 mm (5 inches) long, so they can easily wound or kill any opponent stupid enough to corner and harass them, their chicks or their eggs.
Here’s a video of a captive male southern cassowary — which is smaller than a female — threatening to attack a human, who is threatening him with a rake.
Because cassowaries can be so dangerous, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission consider them to be a Class II species ( more here). Other animals also listed as Class II are alligators and clouded leopards, whilst Class I wildlife include predators such as lions and tigers and bears. Before a potential cassowary keeper can possess, sell or publicly exhibit a cassowary, they must get a Class II species permit, and to get that permit, they must be experienced with keeping these birds, and they must have proper enclosures for keeping them safely.
Inexplicably — and despite the dangers involved — the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission provides an agricultural exemption for people who breed cassowaries and similar birds (such as ostrich and emus). It is important to note that, when birds are breeding, they tend to be at their most aggressive — as anyone who has ever been bomb-dived by a pair of angry parent crows or canada geese will tell you.
“If the owners are breeding, there is no permit required,” FWC spokeswoman Karen Parker told the Gainesville Sun. “It’s similar to having cows; they’re considered domestic livestock.”
But unlike ostrich and emu, cassowaries are not raised in captivity for meat, eggs, or feathers, but instead, they are prized by collectors of exotic animals. According to the local newspapers, Mr. Hajos kept a variety of exotic animals besides cassowaries for decades. It would appear that Mr. Hajos did not have a permit to keep cassowaries.
Despite the inherent dangers of accidentally running across wild cassowaries, or keeping them in captivity, people pose a far greater danger to these birds than the birds pose to people. The southern cassowary, for example, is officially recognized as endangered: fewer than 1000 individuals are estimated to still live in the wild.
A woman at the property, who identified herself as Mr Hajos’s partner, told the local newspapers that he died “doing what he loved”.
Police say the cassowary is alive and remains at the property.
Originally published at Forbes on 16 April 2019.