FREDERICKSBURG, Va. — Peepers, a 6-foot-tall emu who resides in Emu Estates at Rikki’s Refuge Animal Sanctuary in Orange County, Virginia, loves nibbling broccoli florets, racing with his emu friends—and stealing jewelry off people.
Visitors to the enclosure where he lives are cautioned not to wear anything shiny, because the bird will nab it. He’s snatched glasses off faces and barrettes out of hair. He’s attempted to pull earrings out of ears and necklaces from necks—on one occasion pulling the necklace-wearer along behind him.
He stole the wire cutters, pliers, screwdrivers and hammer of a handyman who came to fix the fence on his enclosure and pinched a gold money clip right out of another visitor’s pocket.
“He’s just a thief,” said local author Candice Ransom, who wrote about Peepers and his antics in a new National Geographic Kids book, “Terrier Trouble! And More True Stories of Animals Behaving Badly.”
Ransom said that when National Geographic asked her to do the book, she immediately thought of Rikki’s Refuge.
“I had never been there, but I thought, ‘That place must have a million stories,’” she said.
She contacted Lolly Busey, the volunteer in charge of leading tours of the sanctuary. Busey confirmed that there were definitely mischievous animals at Rikki’s Refuge—in particular, Peepers, the kleptomaniac emu.
“I was intrigued right away,” Ransom said. “I was expecting they would tell me about some naughty goats, but this was different. It’s not every day you see an emu, and one who’s a pickpocket at that!”
Ransom said Peepers was well-behaved when she met him last summer, but she had been warned not to wear anything sparkling. She tossed him vanilla wafers, which he caught in midair.
She said she researched Peepers’ thieving behavior and came up with a few reasons for it.
“In reality, these birds would swallow these things to help break up some of the food they eat, in place of a gizzard,” she said. “But they also do it to get people to play with them. They want to run. They like the thrill of the chase.”
Emus are large, flightless birds, native to Australia and related to ostriches. Peepers and his sister, Phoebe, were hatched as part of a school project in Manasass, but the baby emus were going to grow to be 6 feet tall and they needed a new home.
They went to live at Rikki’s, which eventually ended up with 10 emus. One was found wandering the roads of Orange County.
“People raise them for emu oil,” Busey said. The oil is made from fatty deposits below the birds’ skin and is said to have moisturizing and anti-inflammatory properties.
At Rikki’s Refuge, the birds live as kings and queens of Emu Estates, along with their friends, the potbellied pigs. They are among the 22 animal species—close to 1,300 animals in total—who live at the 450-acre animal sanctuary.
The organization celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
“Adoption is not our goal,” said Melissa Felts, Re-Tail manager and a 10-year volunteer at Rikki’s. “Life care is our goal.”
Animals come to Rikki’s from all over the world. Many of them are differently abled, such as a cat born without hind legs and a dog born with undeveloped eyes.
The dog, a Dobermann named Duke, was Rikki’s spokes-animal for many years.
“People would meet him and think ‘Oh, poor thing,’ ” Felts said. “His response was, ‘Knock that off! I’m a dog.’ He taught people to treat animals who are different—and people who are different—just like anyone else.”
Felts said animals regularly outlive their estimated lifespans at Rikki’s.
“I used to volunteer at the SPCA and people would often leave there sad, thinking, ‘Oh, I wish I could take this animal home,’ ” she said. “People always leave Rikki’s happy because there, the animals are home.”
Ransom ended up dedicating her book to the staff and volunteers of Rikki’s and its founder, Kerry Hilliard.
Busey has been volunteering at the sanctuary for four years and now serves on the board and is in charge of social media and tours of the property.
“You can’t work or volunteer there and not fall in love,” she said. “I think Rikki’s is magical. Any time I can share the love, I do it.”
Ransom will sign copies of the book at Re-Tail, a thrift store benefiting Rikki’s Refuge, on March 24. There will be emu-related door prizes and giveaways and coloring pages and stickers for kids.