What’s up with the zebras off Highway 1 near Hearst Castle?

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If you’ve driven up Highway 1 in San Simeon, you might have seen some animals that would look more at home on an African savanna than on the rolling hills of the Central Coast.


There are currently 126 wild zebras roaming Hearst Ranch, according to Ben Higgins, director of agricultural operations for the Hearst Corporation. That’s up from 119 that were counted in 2018.

“We’ve fairly consistently seen that kind of year over year growth for the past decade,” Higgins said.

Higgins estimated that the lowest number of zebras on the grounds was likely back when William Randolph Hearst’s private zoo at Hearst Castle was still operational.

What was Hearst’s zoo?

Visitors to Hearst Castle have probably heard of Hearst’s zoo, which included polar bears, lions, African and Asian antelope and an elephant, according to Hearst Castle’s website. The zoo was disbanded in 1937, as Hearst began experiencing financial troubles.

Many of the zoo animals were either sold or donated to public zoos, according to the Hearst Castle site. However, other animals were simply set free to roam the grounds — zebras among them.

“Since that time, the zebra herd has been completely wild, free-roaming and growing steadily,” Higgins said.

How to spot the zebras

The northernmost point of the zebras’ range is the Hearst Castle Visitor Center, and it extends south almost to San Simeon Creek Road, Higgins said. The zebras tend to stay close to Highway 1.

“On any given day, it’s almost certain to see zebras on that stretch of Highway 1, and generally a fairly significant portion of the herd,” Higgins said.

But look closely: the zebras can blend into the surrounding terrain, especially during the dry season.

“Even if they are just a couple hundred yards from the highway, they can be difficult to spot,” Higgins said.

Unlike the resident elk herd that also roam the 83,000-acre Hearst Ranch, the zebras haven’t crossed Highway 1, though they have wandered onto neighboring properties, Higgins said.

There’s no specific time when you’re more likely to see zebras, Higgins said. The closest thing the zebras have to a pattern is in the spring, when they tend to concentrate at the southernmost portion of the Hearst Ranch property and then move north toward the visitor center in search of food.

But even that isn’t consistent.

“They’re wild animals,” Higgins said. “They make their own decisions as they see fit.”

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Gabby Ferreira is a breaking news and general assignment reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo. A native of Houston, Texas, she was a reporter in Tucson, Arizona; Indianapolis, Indiana; and Palm Springs, California, before moving to San Luis Obispo County in 2016.