Thursday, December 8, 2011

Once a zoo... just zebras roam the grounds of Hearst Castle (1st image), the estate of American newspaper publisher and politician William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951). The property in San Simeon, donated to the state of California after Hearst's death and since maintained as a state historic park, once boasted the world's largest private zoo. American architect Julia Morgan (1872-1957) designed the castle, the many buildings on the grounds, and the first of its kind zoo with more than 30 exotic species of animals:
antelope, apes, bears (black, sun, and grizzly), buffalo, camels (both Bactrian and dromedary), chimpanzees, coati mundis, cougars, deer (European and Asian species), an elephant (photo of Morgan with the baby elephant here), emus, giraffes, jaguars, kangaroos, kinkajous, llamas, leopards, lions, macaws, monkeys, musk oxen, orangutans, ostriches, sheep, storks, swans, a tapir, tigers, yaks, and zebras.
The zoo provided "a rare and overpowering visual display." It consisted of 2,000 acres with fenced habitats for 50 kinds of herbivores, including a herd of more than 300 white fallow deer, and a menagerie of caged animals. A veterinarian was retained to monitor their diet and exercise. Most of the animals were sold or parceled out to area zoos beginning in 1937 when Hearst could no longer afford to maintain them. Animal Hill (2nd image) is now empty, but descendants of the original zebras still roam the grounds (3rd image, taken in 1996), which are overseen by Steve Hearst, the great-grandson of William Randolph Hearst.

Unfortunately for 3 of the roughly 65 zebras on the 82,000-acre property - a buck, a mare, and a yearling - fences did not keep them in. Neighboring rancher David Fiscalini spotted 2 of them running through his paddock in January of this year. He killed them with a shotgun, claiming they were spooking his 7 horses. An avid trophy-hunter who was surely aware that the hides were worth roughly $1,500 each, Fiscalini then called a local taxidermist to inquire about skinning the animals, tanning their hides, and turning them into exotic fireside rugs. Another local rancher shot a 3rd zebra when it turned up in the middle of a herd of cows, and also decided to have it tanned. The killings angered Hearst and conservationists, but the law was on the side of the ranchers and the right to protect their property. Hearst admits that the zebras occasionally jump the fence and have to retrieved but asks, "Was the threat so imminent that his first thought was to make a rug out of them? It's just a shame, and it's a little bit rude. You know, neighbors are supposed to help other neighbors, not kill their zebras."

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