Beach walks part of big birds' routine at seaside hideaway

PENNY WARDLE
Last updated 12:40 27/11/2012

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Alan Perano of Ocean Bay in Port Underwood says he lives in a museum and works in a safari park.

The 74-year-old, who has travelled the world as a deep-sea diver, today farms emus, ostriches and other birds on a property crammed with marine memorabilia, from whale bones to what could be a long-lost anchor from Abel Tasman's 1642 voyage to New Zealand.

A sign at the gate warns visitors: "Danger, birds may kick without warning, keep your distance."

"He knows you are a female, " Mr Perano says as ostriches Striker and Boulder greet this reporter by crouching, fluffing out their feathers and then bouncing to their full height in what is apparently a mating display.

The five ostriches on the farm are fenced because Mr Perano has learned by experience that they can be aggressive, knocking a victim to the ground with a well-aimed kick, then trampling them.

Thirty-six emus are free range, mostly congregated on a hillside where they have eaten the ground back to dust. This is natural behaviour for the birds, Mr Perano says.

Life is not tough at Ocean Bay, where the birds are fed soaked peas, wheat, blood and bone and, for ostriches only, a midday snack of chaff.

Mr Perano has run big birds for at least 15 years, originally sending surplus emus to specialist slaughterhouses in Levin and Gore. "Nowadays, I just give them a lifestyle."

Using a long pole with an loop on the end, Mr Perano collects eggs without entering the paddock, which could annoy the birds. Each week he takes eggs to a specialist bird rearer in Grovetown, near Blenheim, for hatching in an incubator.

As many as 30 chicks are born each year and taken back to Ocean Bay or sold to ostrich and emu fanciers around New Zealand, Mr Perano says. So far this year, only 27 eggs have been laid, and not all would hatch.

He's cut back his ostrich numbers, partly because of their habit of swallowing objects and suddenly dying for no obvious reason. Autopsies have discovered a range of items inside the dead birds, including cockle shells and even sunglasses.

During winter, outside the mating period, Mr Perano takes his birds down the road to the beach, where the emus enjoy a swim and the ostriches paddle along the shoreline.

"After an hour or so I say, ‘What do you reckon, birds? Shall we give it away?', " Mr Perano says. "They know the tone of my voice and wander back up the drive."

Occasionally, the Perano birds have grabbed headlines by running away, including his best breeding emus, Elvis and Priscilla, who are still on the loose.

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Also ranging free on the property are up to 60 species of hens, peacocks, turkeys, ducks and geese. Most weeks, Mr Perano visits Picton and Blenheim with empty cages and comes home with unwanted birds, especially roosters, which cannot be kept in town.

Mr Perano's Ocean Bay lifestyle is a long way from his career diving as deep as 370 metres, working at all the world's offshore oilfields, with the exception of Cook Inlet in Alaska. In the 1970s, he was the engineering manager in charge of 260 staff of 26 nationalities in the Rotterdam office he established for a diving and salvage company.

Mr Perano still does private consulting, mostly calculations for coastal structures and designs, plus a bit of diving.

The low point of his career was suffering spinal bends when diving to 70m to attach a petroleum pipeline to a rig, which could have resulted in permanent paralysis from the waist down or death.

Mr Perano let the staff on the Indonesian rig know that he was in trouble, and they "plucked me from the water like a baby and lifted me on to the platform".

"I cried from the pain," recalls Mr Perano, who recovered after 36 hours in a decompression chamber.

Soon after this experience, he was back diving, and also ran many marathons. He gained a masters degree in science and engineering and a qualification in subaqua medicine in the United States.

Supporting him in this multinational lifestyle was Mr Perano's late wife, Pam, who he says did a wonderful job raising their family of four children in many countries.

- Nelson

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