Gorgeous coastal views, secluded sandy beaches and … zebras? While it sounds like an unlikely sight, the coastal town of San Simeon is home to a herd of zebras. As you travel along Highway 1, keep your eye out for their black and white stripes east of the highway where they can be seen grazing upon the rolling hillsides that overlook the Pacific Ocean.
Native to Africa, the zebras were brought to California by William Randolph Hearst, newspaper tycoon and resident of Hearst Castle. At one time, Hearst Castle was home to the largest private zoo in the world with animals such as African and Asian antelope, camels, giraffes, kangaroos, grizzly bears, leopards, chimpanzees, tigers, macaws and more. William Randolph Hearst wanted his guests to feel as though they were driving through an area populated with exotic animals in their natural habitats. The zoo, adeptly named the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology, was dismantled in 1937 due to Hearst’s financial difficulties, but the zebras still remain on the land today.
The Zebras at Hearst Castle
Today, over 120 zebras can be seen roaming the 83,000 acres of land below the castle. So, what happened to the other animals of the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology? When Hearst lost a substantial portion of his fortune, the zoo’s inhabitants were either sold or donated to wildlife preserves or public zoos. On the winding road up to Hearst Castle, you can still spot a variety of animals including Barbary sheep, white fallow deer and Rocky Mountain elk.
Zebras are gregarious animals who congregate within their pack. They can be seen in groups foraging along Highway 1, much like you would see in Africa, eating grass, leaves, twigs and bark. The zebras graze alongside cattle from Hearst Ranch Beef. The 100% grass-fed cattle operation has been managed by the Hearst Ranches since 1865. Zebras in Africa often graze alongside wildebeest, antelope, ostriches and other species to spot predators quickly, so it is instinctive for the zebras to graze with the cows.
While the cattle are maintained by Heart Ranch Beef and the land is managed by Ben Higgins, Hearst’s Director of Agricultural Operations, the zebras are completely wild - meaning there is no one feeding or tracking the herd. Most of the zebras live a happy life and pass away from natural causes, never having to worry about an African lion attack.
Over the years the pack has continued to grow in numbers, from 119 animals in 2018 to about 126 zebras in 2020. Baby zebras, called foals, weigh roughly 70 pounds at birth and can stand just 20 minutes after entering the world. You will notice that the foals have brown and white stripes, but these will quickly fade to the characteristic black and white like the rest of the pack. The zebras breed year-round, so you never know when you’ll spot one of the babies!
How to Spot the San Simeon Zebras
As you road trip along scenic Highway 1, scan the grassy hillside opposite of the ocean beneath Hearst Castle for zebras. The best way to view them is to pull off the road on the North bound side of the highway – make sure to maintain a safe distance from the road - and stand near the fence of Hearst Ranch. You will see the black and white stripes meandering through the fields.
According to Ben Higgins, there is no specific time when you are more likely to spot the zebras. The only noticeable pattern Higgins mentions is in the springtime the herd tends to concentrate on the southernmost patch of grass on the ranch, which makes for better viewing.
It is important to remember the zebras are wild animals. Do not stick your hands through the fence and always keep a safe distance between you and the zebras.
Are Zebras Friendly?
While zebras are incredible to watch, it is important to keep a distance. The herbivorous mammals have developed a strong “fight or flight” response due to large predators such as lions, cheetahs and hyenas in Africa. Zebras are extremely alert and are ready to flee when they sense danger, but they can also turn vicious and will attack if close to capture. The kick of a zebra has been known to break a lion’s jaw and they are savage biters.
While zebras look peaceful grazing in the fields, do not get too close to this powerful animal. They will bite humans, so no petting! Respect the zebras’ space and they will respect you.
5 Fun Facts About Zebras
1. Zebras cannot be domesticated
While horses and donkeys provide great utility to humans, zebras remain predominately wild animals that cannot be trained. Many have attempted to use zebras for transportation of goods, but the personality of these animals makes it difficult- zebras are great at escaping enclosures, thwarting the training of masters and possess a “ducking” reflex that helps them avoid lassos. Researchers believe their strong survival instincts are connected to their unfriendly attitude towards humans.
2. A group of zebras is called a “dazzle”
The name comes from the unique stripes of the zebra’s coat, which creates an optical illusion when a group of zebras runs together known as “motion dazzle”. The visual illusion provides protection from predators and insects, who find the high contrast patterns difficult to process.
3. Are zebras black with white stripes, or white with black stripes?
It is an age-old argument, but researchers have finally put the debate to rest- zebras are black animals with white stripes. And no two coat patterns are alike!
4. Horses can outrun zebras
Zebras and horses are closely related animals and share many similar features from their hooved feet to vocals of snorts and snuffles. However, horses can reach up to speeds of 54.7 miles per hour while the maximum speed of a zebra is 40 miles per hour. To outrun predators, zebras often run in a zigzag manner.
5. Ever heard of a zebroid?
When zebras breed with horses, their offspring is a sterile zebroid. This hybrid animal has been bred since the 19th century and is noted in Charles Darwin’s literary work.
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