Oudtshoorn, south africa - Farm worker Petri Conradie is giddy with love. "Just look at her eyes," he says, pointing to the long lashes. "And see how powerful her legs are. This bird can kill a lion with one kick."
The humble ostrich - bug-eyed, flightless, and famed for sticking its head in the sand - doesn't rank high among most animal lovers. But in South Africa's small desert town of Oudtshoorn, the gangly bird is not only considered a beauty, it is glorified as king of the community.
This is the ostrich capital of the world, home to roughly 500,000 long-necked birds and 400 fawning farmers.
Here, the ostrich is hailed as economic savior, tourist attraction, favored farmyard pet and first-choice food - all wrapped into one.
"Everything revolves around the ostrich," says an earnest Hilda Boshoff, librarian at a town ostrich museum.
People in Oudtshoorn ride ostriches like race horses. Ostrich eggshells are transformed into teapots, lampshades, even bikini tops. Tough ostrich toenails are strung into necklaces. The unique pock-marked skin is crafted into designer purses and shoes.
And a sign at the local butcher shop advertises sales for every edible bit: "Fillet, mince, patties, sausage, neck, knee-bone, tail-bone, liver, heart, wings, fat."
"I've tried everything," announces Charlotte Claassen, proprietor of The Flying Ostrich meat shop. "Except for the heart. I don't have the guts for that."
She points out that the fillets are as succulent as a piece of red meat, but with less fat than chicken. Restaurants here serve it fried, grilled, or raw. As for the million-and-one uses for ostrich feathers, don't even get the townsfolk started.
"When you hold a perfect feather, it's just, oh, so good," splutters Andr Bezuidenhout, amid stacks of long white plumes at the local farmers cooperative.
No one in Oudtshoorn would dare to smirk at such enthusiasm - not now.
Forthcoming millennium celebrations around the world have pushed the demand for ostrich plumes to new heights as international customers scramble to get the best for carnival costumes, frilly floats, chorus-girl fans, and ballroom gowns.
After three years of drought and bankruptcies, this is the closest Oudtshoorn has come to the boom days at the start of this century. Then, ostrich feathers were the height of fashion, and a single plumed hat cost as much as a small car.
"Remember the Titanic? Feathers were simply a must, and they were very, very expensive," explains Ms. Boshoff.
The great feather craze turned poor sheep farmers into millionaires overnight and, between 1900 and 1913,Oudtshoorn was awash with money. Opulent mansions - so-called"ostrich palaces" - still testify to the good old days.
But this tin-roof town has never fully recovered from the advent of the motor car, which devastated feathers as a fashion. Cars didn't have roofs, and the feathered hats would simply blow away. It became unsightly.
These days, though, ostrich feathers are once again a farmer's best friend.An overall shortage in supply and a resurgence in ballroom dancing had already pushed prices up and,as year 2000 approaches, prime white plumes have been selling for about $160 a pound - almost double the price they fetched two years ago.
Consignments come in from China, Europe, and the United States. In anticipation of millennium festivities, one Brazilian agent placed an order for 23 tons of feathers. The Rio de Janeiro carnival committee bought half of the co-op's supply.
A dozen buyers arrived here recently for the last great feather auction of 1999. Anxious bidders - one man came all the way from Argentina - chewed gum, tapped pens, and furrowed his brows.
The auctioneer bellowed breathlessly as the buyers gave the nod to notch up the price:"800 rands, 900, 1,000 ... you're all done at 1,000 rand to Buyer No. 8!" A handful of second-grade feathers for $165.
Even if the feather craze wears off, it is the tourism industry that carries this town through tough times. Alex Hooper, a master breeder whose great-great grandfather began farming birds here in 1876, was the first of many to open his farm to the public. He now hosts more than 120,000 visitors each year. What's the secret?
"People and ostriches just go together," says Mr. Hooper.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society