Can we all agree that zebras are awesome?
Excellent. Then let’s take a quick look at the phenomenon of the urban zebra.
Zebras are notoriously hard to domesticate. Unlike horses, zebras have no history of selectively breeding to make them a suitable pet. It does happen, but there are all sorts of problems.
Many experts argue that domesticating a zebra is dangerous, impractical, and inhumane (ref).
Zebras are dangerous because of their kick, which is significantly more dangerous than a horse kick. For starters, zebra kicks are aimed: a zebra looks backwards, between its legs, to increase its chances of hitting the mark. This is an evolved prey response: in a fray with a lion, this is often the zebra’s best chance for survival.
Secondly, zebras are aggressive creatures. They kick and they bite with little provocation and no notice. This is also likely a product of their status as prey animals – if your survival strategy was largely to loll around in the open and hope to not be eaten, you’d have a nervous disposition too.
Pictured: IT’S A ZEBRA CROSSING
The dangerous nature of zebras is a large part of what makes them impractical domestic animals, but it’s also their capacity to learn. Experience suggests that zebras take a long time to ‘break’, and rarely achieve a long-term placid demeanour. They have short attention spans, mood swings, and are stubborn.
Zebra herd behaviour is a problem as well. A typical zebra herd includes a single male associated with a group of females, and the females have a strict hierarchy. The females will attack one another if the hierarchy is challenged, much like a chicken pecking order. In general, the dominant female walks at the front of the herd, with the other females following in order of dominance. This behaviour makes managing more than one zebra in a domestic environment especially challenging.
Some argue that training and riding a zebra is also inhumane, in part because zebras require very harsh treatment to manage their aggression. Zebras are also not as sturdy as horses, who have been bred to handle the weight of a human rider. Some experts judge that riding a zebra will inevitably cause the animal pain and possible injury.
It’s instructive that zebras have never been used in any significant capacity as beasts of burden in sub-Saharan Africa. Areas afflicted with the tsetse fly are unsuitable for horses, who suffer animal trypanosomiasis, which causes weakness and death (zebras are immune). Domestication of work animals is seen in many human civilizations, yet zebras were never domesticated by indigenous African people.
Even so, zebras can be domesticated and have been domesticated. In many parts of the world, including parts of the United States, zebras are classified as horses and so are subject to regulations that allow them to be kept as pets. They are expensive (a zebra foal will cost you upwards of $10,000), and so could probably be best described as vanity items for the rich.
But they are out there. Zebras ‘races’, usually with only two participants, take place from time to time but they’re not as much fun as they sound. The zebras don’t race: they mostly wander about aimlessly, paying little attention to the direction of the racetrack or the rider’s urgings.
Zebra racing got the feature-film treatment in Racing Stripes, a 2005 kids that tried to channel the cute-talking-animal spirit of Babe. It’s a genuinely terrible film, following the story of a zebra who dreams of becoming a champion racehorse. There is a lot to dislike, not least two horseflies who have ‘stereotypical black guy’ and ‘stereotypical white guy’ characterizations and banter back-and-forth in the kind of casually racist fashion that stopped being appropriate sometime in the 1980s.
Racing Stripes also features some godawful CGI, some terrible attempted accents by the supporting cast (who are all South African pretending to be from Kentucky), and a plot that sees Stripes cheat his way to victory. In his review, Roger Ebert said “There are kids who will like it, but then there are kids who are so happy to be at the movies that they like everything. ”
Probably the highest-profile and most successful example of zebra domestication was Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), an eccentric British zoologist. Rothschild, a member of the famous financial dynasty, trained zebras to drive carriages around London, most famously in Hyde Park and around Buckingham Palace.
The picture above is the most famous picture of Rothschild’s zebras, and it shows that Rothschild knew a thing or two about zebra behaviour. If you look closely, you’ll see that one of the leading animals is a horse (the photograph is framed to hide this as much as possible). The single leading zebra is the dominant female, and so the following two (female) zebras can be harnessed behind her without challenging the natural herd dynamic.
Rothschild never trained his zebras to carry a rider, identifying the zebra’s lack of back strength, and the risk to humans due to general zebra skittishness. Even with this precaution, one of his zebras killed a groomsman with a well-targeted kick.
Those of us in the UK can visit Walter Rothschild’s collection at the Natural History Museum in Tring, some 40 miles north-west of London.
Those with more visceral tastes may choose to skip the museum and instead enjoy some ex-zebra. Zebra meat is easy to come by in most countries, most likely found at an African-themed steakhouse or specialty butcher. I’m vegetarian nowadays and so I’ve missed my chance to try it, but I’m told that zebra is a mild-tasting red meat, similar to beef or horse. (Curiously, zebra is easy to come by even in those parts of the United States where horse meat is taboo.) Zebra is a lean meat, and so prone to becoming dry if overcooked. Order it rare.