Atlanta has long been known as a home for transplants: Folks from all over the world come here to find their place and make a life. That was also true for Big Lou, an emu that arrived in the city in 1994. After living nearly three decades in the Lake Claire Community Land Trust (LCCLT), the local celebrity passed away peacefully on July 28.
Noah Glassman was 15 years old when he convinced his parents to purchase an emu from a Sandy Springs seller with a backyard full of them. The cost? Fifty bucks. “I thought it would be interesting and exciting,” he says.
His family brought the bird home, where it started acclimating to the LCCLT lifestyle. But before long, it became clear that they weren’t prepared to care for the unusual pet. That’s where longtime Lake Claire resident Dawn Aquamarine Aura came in. In the early days of the LCCLT, her backyard was connected with Noah’s, forming a large enclosure where Lou would hang out with his friends: a couple of goats. It quickly became clear where the creature’s loyalties lied.
“We both fed him, but Lou decided he ate better at my end of the enclosure,” says Dawn, who had volunteered in animal rescue for years. “When the backyard area was re-fenced after the goats left, I offered to keep him on my side.” She took care of Big Lou for the rest of his life.
Through the decades, Lou had other neighbors: chickens, ducks, another emu (the two didn’t exactly get along, so the newcomer was relocated). But Lou and Dawn formed a special bond. While she admits “he had a mischievous side,” noting that he sometimes “liked to pull scrunchies out of girls’ hair,” she calls his friendship “a low-key stable presence [with] no drama.”
That’s a common refrain from his visitors, too. When you ask people for their Big Lou stories, you get a lot of the same thing: I took my visiting friends to see him. My kids loved feeding him. He was special, a fixture of Lake Claire, so kind despite being so big. While these remembrances blend together after a while, the thing that remains clear is the joy, and the fact that Big Lou gave so much of it to Atlanta.
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Here’s a fun fact: “Big” was originally an acronym. BIG, as it were, stood for “Beauty in the Garden.”
Mack Williams is an animation director and producer who lives in Queens; the UGA grad’s work has been featured on Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live. Between his time in Athens and the Big Apple, Mack spent five years on Adolphus Street, a block north of the LCCLT. While his old duplex “has since been replaced with a McMansion,” Mack maintains fond feelings for Lake Claire. And a big part of those feelings stem from his visits with Big Lou.
“I would frequently take my dog, a boy named Sue, for walks in the Land Trust,” Mack recalls. “Lou was Sue’s mortal enemy. Every time we walked by his habitat and Sue saw Lou, he would freak out, barking and going crazy upon seeing a literal dinosaur. Lou, a consummate professional, was unbothered. He would walk up to the fence, expecting grapes or other treats, completely ignoring Sue’s barking frenzy.”
Eventually, Mack decided that perhaps walking the dog past Big Lou on the regular wasn’t the best idea. But he was taken with—if a bit intimidated by—the old bird, so he kept visiting, and one day “mustered up the courage to feed him from my hand. He’d gently peck grapes from my palm, not even leaving a scratch.”
Big Lou’s diet is worth mentioning: He spent his time in Atlanta enjoying grapes (a favorite), crackers, melons, leaves, and raw veggies from LCCLT visitors. Dawn calls his diet “intensive,” noting that “he was supposed to eat dry grain pellets, called ratite food, but he would not.” As it turns out, our man Lou was a bit of a connoisseur when it came to the things he allowed in his stomach—a true foodie. “He wanted—and got—vegetable and fresh fruit salads,” Dawn adds, “along with canned corn, beans, fresh frozen green beans, brown cooked rice, and a medley of tortilla chips, popcorn, and peanuts, twice a day for 29 years.”
Another fun fact: Dawn says that former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin toured the LCCLT once years ago and, upon laying eyes on Big Lou, exclaimed, That’s the biggest chicken I’ve ever seen!
Dawn says she hasn’t had time to process what Lou meant to the city. “Since he’s a public figure, I’ve been dealing with the outpouring of love and support from folks who knew him,” she explains. “But I will remember for the rest of my life how sweet, kind, gentle, well-mannered, and loving he was. He was my close friend, and I was his.”
If these past few profoundly stupid pandemic years have taught us anything, it’s that we can find happiness in new and unusual places. Maybe it’s getting to take a little booze to-go from a restaurant. Maybe it’s eliminating commutes and establishing new work-from-home norms. Or maybe it’s simply finding some delight in a prime example of the second-tallest living bird species in the world, an example who just happens to reside in your town and, until recently, could be visited any time, for free.
Eric Thompson’s family moved to Lake Claire right before the pandemic. His son was two years old when he met Big Lou, and Eric says having the LCCLT just a short walk away from home was a gamechanger for a young family trying to navigate the isolation of lockdown.
“Big Lou was something for us to look forward to, a friendly face in dark times,” Eric says. “We’d look into his burning orange eyes and get the feeling that he really liked us.”