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from The San Francisco Chronicle

    Giant Bird Attacks Worker at S.F. Zoo
Man in cage slashed, treated for cuts

Chuck Squatriglia, Chronicle Staff Writer

February 16, 2001

A San Francisco Zoo employee was injured yesterday when a 5-foot tall bird native to New Zealand tore into his leg with its powerful claws.

The bizarre incident left the man with cuts and curators wondering why the 80-pound animal, called a cassowary, attacked.

"It's not totally certain what happened," said general curator David Robinett. "We'll look at what happened and why and take steps to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Doctors at Seton Medical Center in Daly City treated the victim, whom Robinett refused to identify, and released him last night.

The attack occurred inside the cassowary exhibit at about 3:30 p.m. Robinett declined to offer further details and could not say whether the victim was alone at the time.

He did, however, suggest that it was unusual for employees to be inside the cage with the cassowary, a 5-year-old male that came to the zoo from an American hatchery about four years ago.

"These birds are very territorial, and generally we're not inside the enclosure with them," Robinett said. "They (males) tend to want to protect their territory."

Cassowaries are large, flightless birds that are related to the ostrich, emu and rhea. They are statuesque creatures that can reach 5 or 6 feet tall and 100 pounds.

They're also quite homely. They are covered with coarse, black bristles that look more like hair than feathers. Most have red, yellow or blue necks, two wattles and a gray "helmet" called a casque atop their narrow skulls.

Cassowaries tend to be solitary. Robinett said the animal responsible for yesterday's incident had no history of aggression.

Still, cassowaries can be formidable foes. The fleet-footed animals have dagger-like claws that can grow to 5 inches in length. They compensate for their inability to fly by delivering powerful kicks to anything they consider a threat.

The animals are found in the rain forests of New Zealand and Australia, where they have been responsible for at least six attacks on humans since 1990 --most the result of well-intentioned hikers trying to feed them.

The bird involved in yesterday's attack is one of two at the San Francisco Zoo. It remains in its enclosure, and Robinett said there are no plans to get rid of it.


The Cassowary is a common name for any of three members of a genus of flightless birds.

-- Size: Can reach 6 feet tall and 100 pounds.

-- Speed: Can run as fast as 30 mph.

-- Physical characteristics: Loose, hairlike black body feathers. The top of the head bears a large, bony crest. Two species have long, leathery wattles hanging from the front of the neck.

-- Fighting characteristics: Their three toes bear long, straight, knifelike nails, which can be deadly weapons as they jump and stab forward. They are among the very few birds that can kill a person.

-- Location: Originally found only in northern Australia and New Guinea, they were brought as pets to New Britain, Ceram and the Aru Islands. Unlike their relatives the emus and ostrich (both larger in size than the cassowary), cassowaries are birds of the forest rather than of the open plains.

-- Eggs: Males incubate the dark green eggs which number 3 to 6 per clutch.

Sources: Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000, Encyclopedia Brittanica

©2001 San Francisco Chronicle

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