- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

CASTLE DALE, Utah — 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 zebras.

“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 temperamental, so maybe not everybody is ready for one. Although 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Gilbert said. “They have sheds available all the time so they can go in and out.”

Mr. 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 about $3,500, and a mare that is ready to breed can be twice that. A good horse mare can cost $1,000 to $1,200 and a stud from $2,500 to $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 more fussy. Like any animal, zebras have their own personalities.

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

Breeders say zebras require more care than horses because of their wild nature. New breeders who underestimate what is 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 is down to just a few.

“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 headfirst 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,” Mr. Cox said.

Still, Mr. Cox hasn’t given up on zebras. He said he is 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. Miss Patton said it takes zebras five years to reach breeding age, so the time and cost just isn’t worth it to some. Then there are picky studs, who may not breed with the mares they are presented. The frustration is enough to drive newcomers away quickly.

“They come and go pretty swift,” Mr. 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 Mr. Cox and Mr. Gilbert, there is something about the novelty of raising an animal most people see only on television or in a zoo.

The 2005 movie “Racing Stripes,” about a zebra who thinks he is a racehorse and runs with the thoroughbreds, also prompted interest, although not always from the right people.

“You wouldn’t believe the e-mails I got after that,” Miss 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.’ ”

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

Mr. Gilbert sells to petting zoos or people who want zebras. He warns buyers that they are not getting a striped pony that they can keep in the back yard.

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

Mr. 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 steady, and he makes enough to pay for his hobby. But mostly, he just loves zebras. He will take one to an elementary school or show them off to visitors.

One of his mares had a foal this spring, and Mr. Gilbert named it Wally. Mr. 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,” Mr. Gilbert said. “If you’ve got one that you can pet, then the value goes up quite a bit.”

Mr. 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,” Mr. Gilbert said. “As far as raising them, you make them do what you want to do by doing what they want to do.”

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