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There's oil in them thar birds, and two entrepreneurs are cashing in on the animal that's so despised in its native land that the government once paid people to kill the varmints.

On a 65-acre tract in the East Texas Piney Woods, Mark Solomon and Dusty Driskell are entering their second year as a new breed of Texas oilmen - raising emus."It's just been unbelievable for us, beyond our wildest dreams," said Solomon, 27, whose full-time job with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is designing furniture manufactured for the state by inmates.

"We have to pinch ourselves to see if we're awake. It's still hard to believe, and we have to tell ourselves it's really happening," added Driskell, 29, a tax consultant.

Last October, the lifelong friends purchased a pair of emus for $1,800. The Australian birds, which resemble ostriches, now fetch more than $12,000 per pair.

They now have 31 birds, including 12 breeding pair. And profits from sales of birds to people who buy them as an investment have enabled Solomon and Driskell to purchase the 65-acre spread in Houston County.

"People don't know what they are, but they've been good for us," Solomon said.

Emus can grow to about 5 1/2 feet tall and can weigh up to 120 pounds. The only bigger bird is the ostrich. Emus have brownish-black feathers, long neck and long legs that can propel them about 30 mph.

The bird's meat, leather and feathers are marketable, but what makes emus valuable is the oil they secrete.

The oil - about 5 quarts per processed bird - is used as a pharmaceutical for people suffering from arthritis. In cosmetics, the oil is used in production of wrinkle-retarding emollient.

Driskell and Solomon say the meat, although not readily available, tastes like beef and has less cholesterol and fewer calories. The leather is used like ostrich leather, and the feathers are used for fishing lures and feather dusters. Even the large toenails - three per foot - are used for jewelry.

"Right now it's strictly a breeders' market," Solomon said recently. "That's why prices are so high because there are not so many around. But it's getting more common."

Emu prices are on the rise because of speculation about placing a processing plant in the United States, according to the American Emu Association, based in Harper. One plant already operates in Europe and another in Australia.

Neighbors who raise cattle like to joke that Texas is a land for moo-moo, not emu.

"They are an ugly bird," Driskell acknowledged. "But when they sell for $12,000, they look pretty good."