Zebras on the Central Coast? Hearst Castle’s unexpected Savanna sight

Friday, September 8th, 2023

Zebras at Hearst Castle

Photography courtesy of Rick Evans

From private zoo to wild herd, Hearst Castle’s zebra story

— An unexpected sight often greets travelers along Highway 1 near the town of San Simeon – a herd of zebras. No, you haven’t been transported to the African savannah; the herd is made up of the descendants of the former Hearst Castle private zoo.

Built in the early 20th century, the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology was the largest private zoo at the time. Constructed as part of the estate between 1919 and 1947 by publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst and architect Julia Morgan, the estate featured a collection of caged animals and large enclosed spaces, providing habitats for animals including grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, orangutans, monkeys, an elephant, as well as the now iconic zebras.

In 1937, the financial struggles that Hearst met during the Great Depression forced the dismantling of the zoo. Many of the zoo’s animal residents were donated to public zoos or sold to commercial establishments in California, Oregon, and Washington. However, the zebras’ story took a different turn.

The zebras remained confined within their enclosures until a winter storm hit, toppling the fences that once kept them captive. Seizing their newfound freedom, the zebras ventured forth into the vast 77,000-acre expanse of the Hearst Ranch. The animals adapted and flourished in their new environment, increasing in population.

Fast forward to the present day, and an estimated 126 zebras now roam freely across the coastal grasslands. The zebras now graze alongside Hearst Ranch Beef cattle, a grass-fed cattle operation that has been managed by the Hearst Ranches since 1865. While the cattle are maintained by Heart Ranch Beef and the land is managed by Hearst’s Agricultural Operations, the zebras are now considered completely wild, meaning there is no entity managing, feeding or tracking the herd.

As they continue to thrive in the Hearst Ranch, these resilient creatures serve as a reminder of the enduring power of nature to reclaim its space.

How to catch sight of the herd

For visitors to Hearst Castle, the journey up the winding road now offers more than just a glimpse of opulence and history.

While a zebra spotting is likely during a visit to the ranch from the roads, there is no guarantee that visitors will see the wild herd. A savvy traveler would be wise to bring binoculars for a closer look. Visitors are reminded not to try to approach the animals or trespass on the Hearst Ranch land. The herd is said to mostly roam from the northernmost point of the Hearst Castle Visitor Center to San Simeon Creek Road to the south and is often spotted on the east side of Highway 1, looking towards Hearst Castle.

A glimpse of the zebra herd makes for a memorable addition to a trip to the castle or the quaint nearby town of San Simeon.

Hearst Castle is open daily at 9 a.m. There are a number of different tours that visitors can choose from. For more information about a visit to Hearst Castle visit its website at hearstcastle.org or call 1(800)444-4445.

—Skye Pratt

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