Driving past the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch, which surrounds the famous Hearst Castle just north of Cambria on California’s Central Coast, you may see a sight that makes you disbelieve your eyes — a herd of wild zebras.
Hearst Ranch was owned by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, who started building Hearst Castle on the property in 1919. Adjacent to that construction, Hearst created the world’s largest private zoo in 1923.
It doesn’t take much digging to learn that Hearst had ties to Malibu back when it was a rugged stretch of beach and mountain far outside Los Angeles.
E.D. Michael in “Malibu Geology —Then and Now” wrote that the area now known as Big Rock was purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1936. The 600 acres included a mile of beach.
Michael related a story told by Jack Corrodi, Malibu Realtor.
“During WWII, Hearst forgot to pay property taxes on [Big Rock],” Corrodi told Michael. “Early Malibu entrepreneur and investor Art Jones found out about it, and took a train and $45,000 in a paper bag to San Francisco.”
There, after schmoozing up Hearst’s receptionist, he met with the man himself. Although Corrodi is not sure of the exact conversation, Jones apparently told Hearst that he wanted to buy the property and had the cash with him. Hearst asked to look in the bag, and when he saw the money, said “deal.”
According to Realtor Chris Cortazzo’s website, Hearst only sold half of his holdings to Art Jones. Jones also owned the Big Rock Beach Café which later became Moonshadows.
Hearst had another connection to Malibu — he was friends with J. Paul Getty. Historian Victoria Kastner stated that before Getty ever became an art collector, he visited William Randolph Hearst at his San Simeon estate. She said Getty was influenced by Hearst’s collection of antiquities — especially classical art and architecture — and began collecting the art items from around the world that ended up in the Getty Museum and Malibu’s Getty Villa.
But back to the zebras: When Hearst created the world’s largest private zoo in the 1920s, he allowed many of the grazers to roam out on the grasslands of the ranch so that guests could be entertained while traveling the five-mile winding ranch road up to Hearst Castle. He had 50 species of herbivores, including bison, elk, zebras, deer, antelopes, camels, llamas, kangaroos, ostriches, emus, wild sheep, musk oxen and yaks.
Caged animals were north of the castle, including giraffes and various kinds of bears, big cats, monkeys, exotic birds and an elephant. Diet and exercise were carefully controlled and a veterinarian was on staff in the 1930s.
The dismantling of the zoo started in 1937 when Hearst began experiencing financial difficulties. For the next 15 years, animals were donated to public zoos or sold, but the dispersal was never entirely completed by the time Hearst died in 1951. In 1958, when the castle was given to the state, elk, goats, llamas, deer, zebras, sheep were still on the ranch. Today, 65 descendants of those zebras still live there.
In 2011, three zebras wandered onto nearby property and were shot by two ranchers who had them made into rugs. The community was outraged. Normally, the zebras “rarely venture beyond the fence,” a Hearst descendant said, “but from time to time they do, and neighbors give us a call and we retrieve them.”
As for anyone who thinks owning a herd of zebras might be fun, Brian Palmer in Slate cautioned that “in the Golden State these days, you can’t own zebras, rhinoceroses or tapirs unless you’ve worked with exotic species for two years,” have a state-approved facility and regular vet exams.
And zebras, which have never been domesticated, are said to be like wild horses. A Fox News report said, “Zebras are always looking for a way out. An eight-foot fence is an absolute requirement and you have to inspect it regularly.”
Fox also reported that zebras can die in below-freezing temperatures. In addition, “If a male senses a threat to his harem or a female thinks you have your eye on her young, he or she will attack. Zebras typically use their teeth or hooves for defense and have been known to kill hyenas with a single swift kick.”
The upshot is that they’re temperamental, spook easily, and aren’t barn or pen animals.”
But take heart — you could still encounter one on the side of the road outside Hearst Castle, it just may be wise to remain in your vehicle.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story included a typo in the headline. The story has been updated with corrected spelling.