Zebras Viewed as Difficult to Raise

Raising zebras is hardly as simple as black and white.

The striped equines are still wild animals at heart, leaving only a few patient and experienced breeders that offer the animals for a small market of exotic animal collectors, petting zoos or people who just want a zebra.

"Not everybody in town has one. Everybody in town should have one," breeder Duane Gilbert says with a grin. "They're neat."

They're also quite temperamental, so maybe not everybody is ready for one. While zebras look like their domesticated cousin the horse, the black-and-white stripes can turn to a gray blur quickly when the animals are spooked, which isn't hard to do.

Gilbert has about 40 zebras at his central Utah ranch. They look right at home, grazing on the grassy plain with a scenic backdrop of red mesas. The only thing that looked out of place was a layer of spring snow, which Gilbert said the zebras get used to.

"When it gets down to 10 degrees, they'll go in the shed. Above that, they like staying out," Gilbert said. "They have sheds available all the time so they can go in and out."

Gilbert is the only registered zebra breeder in Utah and one of just a few in the country.

Zebras are a little more expensive than the average horse and aren't barn or pen animals. They need space. A zebra stud goes for around $3,500 and a mare that's ready to breed can be twice that. A good horse mare can cost $1,000-$1,200 and a stud from $2,500-$3,500, said Janelle Rieger, who raised zebras on her eastern Montana ranch for about five years before deciding the subzero winters were too hard on the animals.

She kept a gelding, "Snazzy," and a mare "Clazzy." (She said zebra names should include a "z"). Snazzy is docile enough to be ridden, but Clazzy is a little more fussy. Like any animal, zebras have their own personality.

"You just don't get on a bridle on them and ride across the prairie. They're like riding a coiled spring," Rieger said.

Breeders say zebras require more care than horses because of their wild nature. New breeders who underestimate what's necessary may get out of the business just as quickly as they jumped in.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't register breeders by animal, but the American Donkey and Mule Society keeps a registry of zebra bloodstock and hybrid offspring. The Texas-based organization said that at one time, it had about a dozen members raising zebras and zebra hybrids, but that's down to just a handful.

"It's not for beginners," said Leah Patton, the society's office manager. "There's probably more people who think they want them, but don't have the experience to deal with them."

A few have learned the hard way.

James Cox has about 20 adult zebras on his ranch in Arcadia, La., halfway between Shreveport and Monroe. He remembers buying a zebra stud four years ago for $7,500, only to see his investment become startled and run head first into a tree, breaking its neck.

"The difference between a horse and a zebra is a horse will think before he does and a zebra will do before he thinks," Cox said.

Still, Cox hasn't given up on zebras. He said he's as stubborn as the animals he raises and plans on doing it the rest of his life.

"I can still get up on a fence pretty fast if I have to," he said.

Some breeders opt to raise a cross between a zebra and a donkey — sometimes called a "zedonk" — that can have the stripes of a zebra and the calmer disposition of a donkey. A well-trained hybrid can be tame enough to ride or work just like a mule.

In addition to their sometimes nasty tempers, zebras aren't a sure thing to breed. Patton said it takes zebras five years to reach breeding age, so the time and cost just isn't worth it to some. And then there are picky studs, who may not breed with the mares they're presented. The frustration is enough to quickly drive newcomers away.

"They come and go pretty swift," Cox said of new breeders. "You've got to sort of think like a zebra to get along with them."

For the few diehard breeders, such as Cox and Gilbert, there's something about the novelty of raising an animal most people only see on television or in a zoo.

The 2005 movie "Racing Stripes," about a zebra who believes he's a racehorse and runs with the thoroughbreds, also prompted some interest, although not always from the right people.

"You wouldn't believe the e-mails I got after that," Rieger said. "I'd tell them 'You can't keep him in a stall. You can't keep him in a stable. You almost have to work them every day.'"

Rieger's warnings scared off some potential buyers, but others kept looking elsewhere.

Gilbert sells to petting zoos or people who want a zebra. He warns buyers that they're not getting a striped pony they can keep in the backyard.

"I have told many, many people that have purchased from them from us, they're like a wild horse," he said.

Gilbert, who works the night shift at a local coal mine, isn't in it for the money. He said small males average about $2,500 and females can go for twice that. He said the market is pretty steady and he makes enough to pay for his hobby. But mostly, he just loves zebras. He'll take one to an elementary school or show them off to visitors.

One of his mares had a foal this spring and Gilbert named it "Wally." Gilbert was giving Wally a bottle every four hours, walking through the snow to Wally's pen in the barn, where the tiny, striped foal rested quietly beneath a heat lamp.

"When they're bottle-raised, they're just like pets. They follow you around. They just want to be with you," Gilbert said. "If you've got one that you can pet, then the value goes up quite a bit."

Gilbert said he and his family have learned not to expect the zebras to be domesticated. Their personalities, like their stripes, are unique and it's useless to try to change them.

"You learn how they react to different situations and you learn to react with them," Gilbert said. "As far as raising them, you make them do what you want to do by doing what they want to do."