Revisiting an old chapter in the story of human-animal conflict
“Emus are little more than feathered stomachs borne on mighty legs and ruled by a tiny brain. If an emu wants one of your sandwiches, he will get it, and then run away. He cannot help you with your sudoku.”
(Credit: Elliot Connor)
It’s been all over the media lately: Australians are just plain stupid. I should know; I’m one of them! To vote in a Liberal Government with no contingency plans for environmental management or climate change at this junction in our history… what more need I to say? But to tell you the truth, I’m not in the least bit surprised- because the fools flaunt their own stupidity in their coat of arms!
Okay, okay… let me back-track a little. For those of you fortunate enough not to live in this sunburnt country, the Aussie coat of arms has two animals on it- a kangaroo and an emu. Legend has it that neither of these animals can walk backwards, and so these iconic creatures symbolize progress for the nation.
Now, it’s widely recognized that emus aren’t the most intelligent of animals. They probably come just ahead of Australians on the IQ scale, and can justly claim the title of bird-brained. Which makes it all the more embarrassing to relate the one timeless piece of history that this proud nation has produced: the story of the Great Emu War…
“To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”
It began on a cool summer day in 1932. A dusty ute pulled up outside of a typically unremarkable farm and three soldiers piled out. Major G.P.W Meredith of the Seventh Heavy Battery of the Royal Australian Artillery, Sergeant S. McMurray and Gunner J O’Hallora turned as one wearily to face their enemy: 50 or so emus.
In the demilitarization after World War One, the Australian government had introduced a settlement program for its returned veterans- granting 5000 of them plots of land on which to farm in Western Australia. But with the onset of the Great Depression of 1929, these soldiers-turned-farmers fell onto hard times and unease began to grow. In a bid to put down this swelling discontent, the government promised subsidies to these struggling farmers… a promise that, to no-one’s surprise, was never fulfilled. Angry farmer veterans resorted to civil disobedience, threatening not to deliver their wheat crop from the summer harvest of 1932.
And it was into this chaotic scene that the emus made their appearance: 20,000 of them to be exact. Now, there are many issues that farmers of this barren land must fear, but droughts and pests are chief among them. They’d suffered through rabbit infestations for decades before the introduction of the infamous rabbit-proof fences spanning the length and breadth of the state. They’d shouldered the droughts of that year, relieved (ironically) thanks to heavy rains that delayed the support of the three relieving soldiers. A plague of emus was precisely the last thing that these poor farmers wished to be troubled by, yet a plague they had.
As for the government, it was clear their efforts to defeat this long-standing enemy via bounties had proved unsuccessful. George Pearce, Minister of Defence (and later “Minister for the Emu War”) was called upon and thus 10,000 rounds of ammunition, 3 soldiers and 2 Lewis machine guns were dispatched. Their orders were simply to cull the emus, bring back some feathers to decorate military light horsemen hats, and get some good footage with the Fox Movietone cinematographer who accompanied them for use in propaganda.
(Credit: The Sunday Herald 1953)
“Cooooeee!” the call rang out from across the fields, answered by others along a line. With true Aussie mateship, the neighbouring farmers had all turned out to herd the emu flock towards the gunners. The birds set off ahead of this net at a cracking pace, taking evasive action and splitting into two smaller groups as they ran. Caught off guard, the gunners scrambled to claim the situation; “a number of birds” were killed.
As the days passed and the temperature soared, tactics were picked up and discarded like Australian Prime Ministers. An ambush of 1000 emus at a dam failed when the machine gun jammed. Attempts to pursue the emus with a gun mounted on a truck proved even worse, with no ability for the gunner to aim and a max speed half that of the birds. Local media went to town ridiculing the government over these failures. In despair, decisions were made to cut their losses; the soldiers were recalled less than a week after being deployed.
“He who is destined for defeat first fights and afterwards looks for victory.”
In the end, the farmers weren’t going to settle for this abandonment. The Premier of Western Australia lobbied for the troops to be sent in once more, and eventually a full month of combat was completed before backlash from UK conservationists reached the continent and the “extermination of the rare emu” was ended. All in all, Major Meredith claimed a total of 986 kills from the 9860 rounds he shot- a suspiciously neat figure, but one in any case which could hardly dent the 700,000 strong emu population of the nation. You can almost pity the farmers who had to pay for all those bullets!
Meredith himself returned to a life of relative anonymity, to be remembered forevermore solely for his defeat by a handful of birds. In a report to government, he wrote: “If we had a military division with the bullet-carrying capacity of these birds, it would face any army in the world… they can face machine funs with the invulnerability of tanks.” He also noted that his men had suffered no casualties during the conflict.
(Credit: WA Department of Agriculture and Food)
Today, improved exclusion fencing around farms ensures that no resumption of hostilities may occur and both sides enjoy a tense stalemate. “The tough, prolific, gangling marauder of the sand plains” described by The Sunday Herald thrives off the peacetime prosperity, given full protection by law. For many, the situation has even reversed, with 84,000 emus held in farms across the continent, and almost a million across U.S establishments. They’re prized for the natural versatility and curative properties of their oil, with meat, feathers and leather all being valuable side-products.
As yet, rumours of training and weaponization for army recruitment are unconfirmed.