Almost every day, dozens of drivers pull over to the side of Highway 1 in San Simeon, Calif., to make sure their eyes don’t deceive them. In disbelief, they stop and stare at what look like zebras, grazing peacefully along the shores of the West Coast.
James R. and his family had just visited an elephant seal viewing spot when they encountered the iconic animals. “I accused my daughter, who was driving at the time, of taking the wrong road,” James, who is South African, wrote to a local newspaper called Noozhawk. “I thought we were back in Africa.”
These zebras did not escape from a nearby zoo. Nor are they part of a safari park whose confinements are so vast that they seem invisible. Believe it or not, they were the personal property of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst died and his estate fell into disarray, the zebras were unleashed into the California countryside where, thanks to a legal loophole, they were allowed to remain.
Making a new home on the grasslands of San Simeon, Hearst’s zebras managed to survive. In fact, they thrived. Thanks to some unexpected similarities between the ecosystems of the West Coast and the African savannah, the state of California is now home to the largest herd of wild zebras outside of Africa.
Life at Hearst Castle
William Randolph Hearst was an American businessman and newspaper publisher. He was sadly caricatured in the film Citizen Kane, directed by Orson Welles. The movie was not far away. Like his fictional counterpart, Hearst rarely let morality get in the way of his pursuit of power. He endorsed sensational, often unsubstantiated reporting to increase readership and even spark armed conflict, ushering in the so-called Age of Yellow Journalism.
Like Charles Foster Kane, Hearst enjoyed flaunting his unfathomable wealth. He collected medieval armor and Gothic works of art. Later in life, he retired to a Xanadu-esque estate called Hearst Castle. Located in San Simeon, halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the castle is equipped with indoor and outdoor pools, lush gardens, tennis courts, a movie theater and an airfield.
It also included the largest private zoo in the world. Initially, this zoo consisted of buffaloes, elk and deer, animals that Hearst may have inherited from his father, who owned the land before him. To this collection, according to Ben Procter’s William Randolph Hearst: The Last Years, 1911-1951the tycoon added lions, giraffes, wildebeest, kangaroos, camels, ibexes, emus and, fatally, zebras.
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The zoo closed in 1937, when Hearst ran into financial trouble following the Great Depression. According to the official Hearst Castle website, most of the animals were sold or donated to commercial zoos in California, Oregon and Washington. Hearst kept his zebras, which remained in their enclosures until a winter storm knocked down the fence.
Why California Zebras Thrive
The fences were never put back in place. A 1976 issue of Sports Illustrated states that the zebras briefly roamed the ruins of the zoo before migrating to the 77,000-acre ranch that surrounds the property, which is also owned by the Hearst family. Although ranch staff keep a small herd of cattle along its southern borders to prevent zebras from entering neighboring lands, interaction between the two parties is virtually non-existent. As well as sharing some livestock feed during dry seasons, zebras are left to fend for themselves.
The Hearst Castle zebras owe their newfound freedom to a loophole in a California law that relates to the restriction of equines, the taxonomic family that includes zebras as well as horses and donkeys. “Because zebras aren’t on the state’s restricted species list,” the aforementioned article from Noozhawk explains, “they are not regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW)”. In other words, no one can force Hearst Castle to put the animals back in their cages.
Hearst’s zebras didn’t just survive in the wild; they or they flourished. Their number has increased from 126 in 2020 to 151 in 2022. This latest estimate comes directly from Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations at Hearst Communications. “They reside almost exclusively in the southwest corner of the property,” he says. think big asked about their migration patterns. “They probably prefer this area because it offers enough food and water [and because] the coastal terraces are relatively flat and open, giving them excellent visibility.
Justin Brashares, who teaches ecology and wildlife conservation at the University of California, Berkeley, isn’t surprised by their success. “Most equines, and certainly zebras, are quite adaptable due to the ability to obtain nutrients from a variety of plants, including fairly low quality grasses,” he adds. “They do this by eating a lot (known as ‘bulk feeding’) and processing it quickly. This approach allows them to survive the dry season on Hearst Ranch.
Lions and humans and cars, oh my!
Hearst Castle’s zebras have a bright future ahead of them. “The Central Coast climate,” continues Brashares, “is well within their climatic tolerance (zebras are found from hot desert scrub habitat to cool mountain grasslands in Africa) and they will probably only do better with global warming, as long as the availability of fodder isn’t impacted too much.
Although San Simeon is considerably less dangerous than the African savannah, zebras are not without threats. Brashares says there have been cases of young zebras being eaten by mountain lions which, although critically endangered, can still be found in California. Being so close to Highway 1, the zebras are also much more likely to be hit by cars.
Finally, the zebras have to face the humans. In 2011, two zebras were shot by neighboring ranchers after the animals entered their property. “Shootings” Orange County Register reported, “provoked outrage among many locals and observers near San Simeon, especially after learning that ranchers had apparently chosen to have the animals’ hides tanned and made into rugs”.
Ranchers, in turn, are annoyed that these wild animals can freely interact with livestock. Their attitude mirrors that of pastoralists in Africa, who go to great lengths to protect their crops from being trampled. That said, studies have shown that allowing wild and domestic animals to mix could actually benefit both. Pets protect wild animals from ticks and other parasites, while wild animals prevent overgrazing. Perhaps a similar truce can be made at San Simeon.