Few links in the ecological chain are quite this odd. Tucked away in the tiny Oklahoma town of Forest Park (pop.: 1,250), 10 Eastern Orthodox monks are midwifing baby ostriches, and doing it a good deal better than the Oklahoma City Zoo, which had just about given up trying. Life at the zoo, after all, tends to be sort of, well, a zoo, whereas life at the Holy Protection Orthodox Monastery, where women never enter, where meat is never eaten, is quiet and serene. There, zoo-laid ostrich eggs are hatched and the chicks are brought through adolescence, then sent back to the zoo for sale to other zoos all over the world.
The Oklahoma City Zoo doesn’t have the time and staff to tenderly turn the eggs in the incubator every six hours for 42 days, but the monks do. “It’s the only arrangement of its kind in the zoo world,” says an enthusiastic Bruce Miller, curator of birds at the O.K.C. Zoo, adding: “The monks are really neat people.”
And successful, too, although the monks knew goose egg about ostrich hatching when they started three years ago. “Many people have tried to do what we’re doing,” says Father Arsenios, 32, a Miami native and monastery spokesman. “They used to figure if they failed to hatch only 30 percent of the eggs, it was pretty good, but now we’re able to keep that figure down to less than 5 percent.”
The monks bless each arriving batch of eggs and have hung pertinent icons on the walls of the ostrich nursery. A likeness of the third-century Saint Mamas, who is said to have tamed alligators and lions with a glance, overlooks the eggs, as does one of Saint Elijah the Prophet. “He was fed by a raven, and his story shows the close relationship between man and animal,” explains Father Arsenios. The profit from raising ostriches—in the neighborhood of $500 per bird—is split 50-50 between the monks and the zoo. Last year the monks added $25,000 to their monastery’s nest egg with the enterprise.
The monks of Holy Protection sleep in a dormitory, rise at 3 a.m., and lead a generally Spartan existence. They paint icons, bake and sell six kinds of bread (“simply heavenly,” testifies Brother John, 36, the Chicago-born chief baker), publish a monthly newsletter and run a telephone prayer service dubbed “Dial-a-Saint.” Their “most blessed work of all,” says Father Arsenios, is on the town’s fire engine. When the emergency siren goes off in Forest Park, the monks pull on boots and slickers and race off to fight grass fires or aid heart attack victims. Several of the monks have been trained by neighboring fire departments, and three of them are certified paramedics.
“Although we have all taken vows as monks,” says Father Arsenios, “and although with our hair and beards and robes we appear strange to most people, we also realize that we are very much a part of this community.” After 10 years in Oklahoma, a land of cowboys and Indians, oil rigs and Oral Roberts, the monks have been more than accepted by their neighbors. “Tell ya what,” says an elderly native between spits of tobacco. “Those monk fellas are fine ol’ boys. They’re good as gold.”