On the trail of Maryland's fugitive zebras

On the trail of Maryland's fugitive zebras
·8 min read

Every time she needs to pick up groceries, Sylvia Singleton goes on a little safari. On her way to Safeway, she will take a detour through the wilds of Prince George's County, Md. - past the Popeyes and the CVS and the school, where the road turns to woods. For weeks, she has been yearning to spot a zebra.

"I just drive up and down the road, and hope," says Singleton. "My husband thinks I'm crazy."

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They're out there: fugitives from an Upper Marlboro farm where, officials say in late August, three zebras made a break for it, defying their owner and evading animal-control officials for weeks. The amateur ethologists and animal lovers of the Maryland suburbs have joined in the hunt, prowling the area for signs of wildlife, dressing their kids up in zebra costumes - but often, only seeing deer or wild turkeys. Neighbors have been luckier: Striped hides have been spotted passing through backyards. And while news this week that one of the zebras has died has cast a pall over the story, the animals have also captured local imaginations.

"It's rooting for the underdog," says Irfan Hussein, a 31-year-old data project manager and zebra fan in D.C. who has started a Maryland Zebras Twitter account.

"These zebras have escaped capture for so long," Hussein continues. "They're seeing the government, the authorities, as kind of the bad guys here, and the zebras are just trying to, you know, live their best lives."

Singleton, a 47-year-old animal lover, was hunting for a little bit of that magic. She has been aggregating sightings on social media and believed she knew their usual haunts. She supplied the car. A reporter supplied a pair of binoculars.

"The chances of seeing them are very slim," Singleton conceded.

But before the end of the day, she would have an encounter to remember.

Most of the reported sightings have been off Croom Road, so Singleton set off in her black SUV on the hilly thoroughfare, twisting past the entrances of stately neighborhoods with pleasant-sounding names, like 'The Greens at Marlton" and "Windy Oaks" and "Croom Estates." She pulled over at a small farm stand, which was already closed for the day.

"That's where most of the sightings have been, by the train tracks," she said, pointing through a clearing.

Alas, no zebras this time. Back to the road.

"Hello, how are you? We're zebra hunting," Singleton politely explained through her window to a man walking two enormous dogs. "Have you ever seen any of them?"

"I haven't seen them, but I heard them," the man said. Behind his house, not too long ago.

"What do they sound like?"

"It sounds like a mixture of a horse, mixed with screaming." The man did his best impression of a braying zebra, sounding like a donkey choking on something - which, per a subsequent YouTube search for "zebra noises," was pretty accurate. It's enough to make a person wonder what they really know about zebras.

"They're much more intelligent than horses are," says Nancy Nunke. "And it's just a natural fact that they are, because they are survivalists."

Nunke runs an animal sanctuary for zebras and other exotic animals in Ramona, Calif. She has trained more than 100 zebras ("I have learned how to relate to them based on their love frequency, and they respond to me") and is the founder of something called the International Zebra-Zorse-Zonkey Association.

Not only are they smarter than horses, she said, they are also "five times more powerful." (To say nothing of their superior looks . . . sorry, horses.)

Anything else?

"If you surround zebras, that's when they panic because their instinct is to then flee or fight. And zebras will fight before they flee."

More zebra facts! They run 35 miles per hour. They sleep standing up. A group of zebras is called a "dazzle."

Of course it is, because here's a zebra fact that you don't have to look up: There's something magical about them, especially when they're not where they're supposed to be.

"That color pattern, the stripes, is really an indication of wildness," says Marc Bekoff, a professor emeritus of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and wildness is not what one would expect to find here in Upper Marlboro. Among certain humans, the zebras have transcended the category of "loose animal" and attained a near-mythical status as symbols of freedom and resistance and independence.

Which, good for us. But how do we think the zebras feel?

The Post was unable to reach any zebras for comment, but Bekoff, who studies animal emotions, said he suspects that at the very least the zebras know they're on an adventure together.

"My belief is they'd rather be free than be captive," he says. "If you could give them a choice, they would choose to be where they are."

But where is that, exactly?

"They could be right there in front of us, here," Sylvia Singleton says. "But just because it's so heavily wooded . . . ," she trails off.

"They was across the street last week," a man tells her after she pulls into his driveway in search of a tip.

"Hi, we're on a safari, we're hunting for zebras," she informs a group of young men standing around a car.

"Zebras?" says one of the men, sounding bewildered.

"You look like a zebra," says another, pointing out Singleton's black-and-white striped top.

Singleton drives away, shaking her head. "They don't even read the news," she says.

Those who closely follow zebra news may have noticed that the Maryland zebras are not the first ones to escape captivity this year, although they are the only ones who managed to stay free for more than a few hours. In May, an "agitated" zebra escaped the Triple W livestock auction in Cookeville, Tenn., and ran onto a highway. Earlier this month, two zebras escaped from an Illinois pumpkin patch - to the surprise of Jacob Goebbert, who'd gotten the zebras on loan from an exotic animal farm in Wisconsin to jazz up the fall festivities at Goebbert's Farm. Their enclosure had high fences,Goebbert told The Post. "We're still doing somewhat of an internal investigation of how exactly they were able to escape."

The circumstances of the Maryland zebras' escape has remained somewhat mysterious. The zebras' owner, Jerry Holly, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The county has said it became aware of the escaped zebras on Aug. 31, and that animal control officials have been working with the zebras' caretakers to lure them back to the farm with feed and hay.

Discouraging rumors had tempered zebra fever in some corners of Upper Marlboro. Singleton said she had heard that two of the zebras had already been captured. Another local told The Post she had heard that one of the zebras had gotten trapped in a fence. In a now-deleted post on Facebook, someone claimed that one of the zebras had been shot dead.

County officials, responding to a request for comment on those rumors for this story, said that one zebra had been found dead a month ago, in a snare trap on land owned by the Girl Scouts. (It was unclear who had set the trap, or why the county had continued to say for weeks that officials were close to capturing the zebras in a safe manner.)

That's the flip side of zebra freedom. It "includes being chased by predators, being killed by predators, having to do a 900-mile migration, in which 150 babies die because the lions are following them," says Nunke.

"So, freedom really isn't what it's cracked up to be."

"I'm worried about them," Singleton said of the escapees. As much as she wants them to be free, she also wants them to be captured.

On the day of her zebra search, Singleton made a detour to a place where she knew there were zebras: Jerry Holly's farm. She stopped her SUV short of the entrance, taking care to not trespass past signs marked "private property."

A yellow house stood at the end of a long driveway, and beyond that, a white barn. The fenced-in fields seemed empty.

But off in the distance, in a clearing beyond the tree line, something was moving. A horse? No - through binoculars, there was no doubt: Stripes.

Three zebras slowly came into focus.

They were grazing. It was hard to see where the Holly Exotics' fences ended, but they were close enough to the farm that they were almost certainly not the fugitives but rather three of the 36 other zebras that Holly reportedly owns.

Still, Singleton was enchanted.

"There's more!" she says, peering through the lenses. "There's two more."

But there was little time to take them in. The zebras disappeared behind the trees, and the Maryland landscape returned to normal.

- - -

The Washington Post's Dana Hedgpeth contributed reporting.

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