It’s a perfect California day: bright sunshine, a light breeze, warm enough to drive with the windows down. As you cruise up the highway admiring the big, open fields and ponder the vastness of the universe, you glance out the window and notice a handful of zebras munching some grass just in the distance.

Wait-zebras? In California? Out in the wild?

It’s true: There are wild zebras in California, a reminder of a time when vastly wealthy families kept private menageries for their children and as a way to show off their good fortune.

William Randolph Hearst, famed publisher and obscenely wealthy businessman of the late 19th century who later dabbled in politics and inspired the legendary film Citizen Kane, had an eccentric streak but loved the natural world.

Like most moguls and holders of incredible wealth, Hearst came from a family of smart investors and successful people, including his father, who made millions in the California gold rush before buying the San Francisco Examiner in 1887 with the intent of using the paper to launch his political career.

William Randolph Hearst was one of two media magnates (along with Joseph Pulitzer) in the heart of the yellow journalism era that pales in comparison to today’s accusations of “fake news” before himself deciding to try his hand at politics. After getting elected to the House of Representatives in 1902 and 1904 Hearst followed that up with unsuccessful bids for the White House (1904) and mayor of New York City (1905).

William Randolph Hearst, 1906. Image: James Edward Purdy / Public Domain

When Hearst’s mother Phoebe died in 1911, he inherited a 168,000 acre ranch in San Simeon, California; land that stretched through the Central Coast and included breathtaking vistas from the mountains down to the Pacific Ocean.

The family had long spent time on the property, first purchasing 40,000 acres in 1865 and using it as a cattle ranch. By the time William Randolph Hearst inherited the property, the total holdings had grown to 250,000 acres; the original chunk of land was known affectionately as “Camp Hill” and was the spot where the family would sleep out under the stars or entertain guests.

Hearst Castle. Image: Fietsbel / CC-BY-SA-3.0

After a while, that simply wouldn’t do. Hearst called Julia Morgan, the first woman to receive a certificate in architecture in California, and asked if they could work together on “a little something” he wanted to build on the hill.

“A little something” turned into a main estate house, the Hearst Castle, including 165 rooms, 127 acres of gardens, pools and guesthouses, all adorned with incredible art, fountains and landscaping.

Hearst Castle. Image: David Monniaux / CC-BY-SA-3.0

But it’s the zoo that continues to fascinate. Technically and formally known as the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology, the zoo was home to a variety of exotic and indigenous but wild species, including Rocky Mountain elk, American bison, antelope, camels (both the two-hump and one-hump varieties), sambar and red deer, llamas, ostriches, emus, Barbary and Alaskan sheep, oxen, yaks and giraffes.

These animals were allowed to roam free on the massive estate – remember, it was more than 250,000 acres at one point—and Hearst told Morgan he wanted his guests to feel fully removed from the world and seeing animals in their natural habitat.

Hearst and his guests enjoyed visiting the menagerie to view the many exotic creatures. Empty menagerie cages at Hearst Castle. Image: The Circus No Spin Zone

Other animals were kept in large cages, including grizzly and black bears, lions, tigers, monkeys, swans, storks and an elephant, among others.

But when Hearst lost a substantial portion of his wealth in the 1937, the zoo’s inhabitants were sold off or donated to other wildlife preserves or zoos. Some animals that had been roaming free throughout the property continued to do so, including the zebras.

At last count, there were roughly 113 zebras roaming around the property along the gorgeous Pacific Coast Highway near the Hearst Castle National Historic Landmark in San Simeon, just north of San Louis Obispo. A large portion of the property has been entrusted to the state for conservation in perpetuity.

Family of Zebra at Hearst San Simeon State Historical Monument. Image: BMilne / CC-BY-SA 4.0

Of course, if you’d rather have a little more interaction with the wild zebras, you might consider driving a little further east, into Texas. (Ok, that’s a lot farther east, through a good portion of desert.)

You could stop by Raz Livestock Sales in Kerrville, Texas, and plunk down about $4,000 USD to purchase your very own zebra to add to your animal collection. Owning a zebra is completely legal in the US, by the way.

If you’d rather, you could swing by YO Ranch, 45 minutes from Kerrville, to watch zebras grazing next to iconic Texas longhorn cattle.

Or, if you’re really feeling adventurous, go to Ox Ranch in Uvalde, Texas, where, for the low, low price of $5,500 USD, you can hunt a zebra or any other of more than a dozen exotic animals. For $6,500, you get a three-day adventure with all-inclusive beverages, night vision hog hunting (included!) and time in a blind that has DirecTV, a poker table, air conditioning and a fully stocked bar.

We’re just the messengers, folks.

 
Story idea submitted by Kerry Hulford

If you liked this, sign up for the Weekly Memo, a handpicked selection of the most Interesting Shit delivered to your inbox every Saturday. Or join our 500,000+ followers by liking us on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter or Instagram.

Amber Healy

Amber Healy has been writing, both personally and professionally, since she nagged her hometown paper to give her an internship in 1996. She's a big believer that the most fascinating stories are hidden under layers of seemingly boring drivel.