By Timothy Rawles / NewsBreak Pinal County, AZ
(Picacho, AZ) Desert motorists are always looking for unique roadside attractions, and if they involve cute and tolerable creatures, it makes the trip all the better.
Nestled under the watchful spire of the nearby Picacho Peak just off the I-10 is the unique Rooster Cogburn Ostrich Ranch, which allows visitors to make short-term friends with animals busking in the farmyard for food.
Open since 1999, this off-beat zoo consists of — you guessed it — ostriches. But the giant long-legged birds aren’t the only appealing attraction. It may be called an ostrich ranch, but there are plenty of other critters. There’s even a stingray tank.
If you’re a little intimidated by the bigger fowl, grab yourself a stick of birdseed or a cup of nectar to feed the parakeets and lorikeets respectively.
Rooster Cogburn’s is kind of a big deal; it’s become a famous pop-culture landmark over the years. The eccentric petting zoo has been featured on several travel shows such as “Larry the Cable Guy — Only in America,” and “Extreme Roadside Attractions.”
The titular D.C. “Rooster” Cogburn moved his family to the isolated section of the Sonoran Desert in 1993 to raise ostriches back when it was trendy. In 1999 the family decided to open the farm to the public and it achieved moderate success until a freak accident shut them down.
A hot air balloon crash-landed on the property and initiated a deadly ostrich stampede the family thought their business was done as 1,000 birds lay in the wake.
But necessity is the mother of invention, and they turned the tragedy into an opportunity by opening a petting zoo with a variety of different animals.
"We've always been in animals and show business," Cogburn-Barrett told Roadside America. "Some people think it's weird, but we like weird. We are weird."
Traversing this wild and wonderful property is like walking the yellow brick road. You're given a tumbler filled with a variety of feed before your journey with instructions on which animal gets which grub along the way.
At one point you’re nearly face-to-beak with 9-foot-high ostriches (they’re behind a tall steel enclosure and stick their necks over to pinch the pellets from your fingertips). Then you’re faced with the “Hole in the Wall Gang,” a tall wooden panel with several “neck” holes out of which goats stick their heads in hopes of getting a tasty handout. It’s eerily reminiscent of a hunter’s game room, but the wall-mounted heads are still alive.
Further in are the excited and greedy parakeets that fight over who’s going to get more. And then there are the colorful easy-going Lorikeets that perch on your hands taking sips from a small plastic ramekin you hold in your fist.
Ocean wildlife get represented in your strange journey thanks to a huge saltwater pool filled with stingrays you can feed. And arcade gunslingers can take shots in the interactive shooting gallery that squirts water in your face if you hit the right target.
There are rabbits, ducks, a collection of white St. Croix sheep, and a gang of intrepid multi-colored Nigerian dwarf goats.
For all its odd, appropriated fauna, people are as much impressed with the Cogburn Ranch as they are awed. The entertainment value makes more sense when you learn both Rooster and his daughter, we’re rodeo performers.
Like that profession, the Ostrich Ranch’s thrill is not knowing what’s going to happen next, but the lasting memory is enough to make you want to come back someday for the showmanship.
Rooster Cogburn Ranch is open seasonally from November 16 to April 30. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
For more information visit their website.