In the years he has spent looking after the National Zoo’s cassowary, Eric Slovak has never found himself on the receiving end of one of her assaults.
That’s impressive, because she’s an uncommonly monstrous creature.
Imagine an ostrich as described by H.P. Lovecraft, or maybe a turkey fused with a velociraptor.
Weighing in at close to 150 pounds, she stands on powerful reptilian legs that let her stretch to six feet tall when she needs her full height.
Though flightless, the cassowary is covered in a coat of long black feathers, against which her brilliant blue visage—crowned by a towering, keratinous casque—stands out like a symbol in a dream.
The feature she and her kind are best known for, however, is not her plumage. It’s her toenails: On each three-toed foot, one nail is longer than the rest. At five inches, it’s probably the closest thing you’ll find in nature to a railway spike.
It isn’t particularly sharp, but it is deadly.“If I come running at you at 100 miles per hour with a butter knife, it’s going to go right into you,” Slovak, the bird’s genial and tattooed primary keeper, tells me.
When threatened, cassowaries can lash out with blinding speed, nail first.
Those kicks can disembowel humans and other animals in an instant, earning the elusive, rainforest-dwelling species a reputation not just as a dangerous bird, but as the single most dangerous bird on the planet.
That might explain the black-and-yellow warning placard on the door of the cassowary pen at the National Zoo that reads: “Caution: Aggressive bird. Do not enter without a keeper present.”
Photo by Eric Slovak, National Zoo
Such signs are just one part of a complex array of precautionary security protocols which together have ensured that for decades no human, including Slovak, has entered her pen while she was out and about in it.
Cautious and defensive creatures, cassowaries rarely attack without provocation. But the best way to avoid provoking them is to keep your distance.
Accordingly, when Slovak or others visit her, they’re always separated by fences and walls.
Recently, I sat with him and an assistant while they passed chunks of large chunks of fruit—which she would snap up in her beak and swallow whole—through a small porthole in one such barrier. Safe as we were, there was no ignoring her fascinating menace.