Could The Escaped Zebras Survive Roaming Around Prince George's County Forever? It depends on a slew of variables, but it is possible!
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Could The Escaped Zebras Survive Roaming Around Prince George's County Forever?

These zebras in Germany are also contemplating escape. Jens Meyer/AP Photo hide caption

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Jens Meyer/AP Photo

Nearly a month after their escape from a farm in Upper Marlboro, Md., five zebras have continued to successfully avoid capture as they roam around the state. While the Prince George's Animal Services Division is still working to trap the striped equines, what could possibly happen if they remain free? Will they languish and die when winter comes? Or could this be the start of a viable population of zebras in Maryland?

We should first note that some important details about these five creatures — their precise species, ages, sex, what exactly they're doing on a Maryland farm — remain just as evasive as the zebras themselves, despite our best efforts to track them down. Here's what we do know: The five zebras escaped from a privately owned farm on August 31 and have since been spotted wandering around Prince George's County by residents.

Rodney Taylor, chief of the Prince George's Animal Services Division, told the New York Times that the farm owner is named Jerry Holly, who apparently has a United States Agricultural Department permit for 39 zebras. (Despite repeated requests for comment, we could not reach Taylor, and multiple phone numbers seemingly connected to Holly did not connect us with him.)

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The USDA confirmed to DCist/WAMU that Holly is licensed with the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's Animal Care program, and a list of active licensees categorizes him as a breeder. Multiple websites and social media accounts for Jerry Holly Exotics indicate that the business is involved with breeding and rehoming exotic animals including otters, hedgehogs, red kangaroos, and ruffled lemurs.

Taylor has told media outlets that in recent weeks, the zebras have been spotted at a feeding station at Holly's farm, and so farm workers have been slowly building a trap around the feeding station that includes tripwire. So far though, it hasn't worked.

Since their escape, the zebras have become a potent metaphor for freedom, and D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton has used the news story as a way to discuss statehood. It's certainly not the first time our region has projected its wants and needs onto animals.

Daniel Rubenstein, a professor of zoology at Princeton University whose research has focused on the social dynamics of equids (including zebras), says it's "really intriguing" that these five have been roaming the region. But he's not surprised that they've survived so far.

"Zebras are wild — they've never been domesticated. They've been tamed in the sense that they'll pull carts and you can sort of control their behavior to some extent," says Rubenstein, pointing to historical examples of supposedly trained zebras, like those of Lord Walter Rothschild. Even zebras that are bred don't have "traits that would make them more docile and more compatible with people," Rubenstein says. "So they're wild animals on the loose."

Being wild has some major survival perks. "They'll do just fine, certainly during the summer, spring, and fall, in the sense that they're grazers," says Rubenstein. "There's plenty of grass in Prince George's County ... They should be able to survive because all the conditions are out there in terms of food and water, and there's no lions or hyenas to eat them, and what wolves or foxes there are probably won't harm the adults."

But what about winter? He says some zebras are known to live in colder climes — he points to a population of zebras living at about 15,000 feet up on the slopes of Mount Kenya who have adapted to chilly temperatures. These zebras "can probably handle the cold or they'll move to warmer climates as they do in Africa," per Rubenstein. "As with most equids, they have a winter coat. It'll thicken and keep them warm. They have a high metabolism and as long as they have enough food, that'll serve as fuel and generate heat to keep them warm."

Both the Smithsonian National Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute house zebras, who can choose between a barn (which is heated during the winter) and the outdoors. According to a zebra update from last February, the Hartmann's mountain zebras at the institute are "fairly tolerant of the cold" and the herd often chooses winter weather over the barn. "Only when the snow is very deep do our zebras choose to spend more time inside eating than outside grazing in their pastures," the update from animal keeper Tara Buk states.

So the chances are surprisingly not terrible that the zebras can survive the colder climate — even if they do so by heading south to evade the more severe snow. That brings us to a second key question: Can a dazzle of zebras thrive and expand here?

Without knowing the sex of the escaped zebras, it's hard to know for sure if these five could establish a viable population. If they're all male, for example, they're going to have a devil of a time trying to reproduce. But let's say that there are at least three female zebras of reproductive age to keep things interesting (and genetically diverse) — could they become like the ponies of Assateague?

Adam Smith, an associate professor of biology at George Washington University, says that there are a number of factors that determine whether a species could be fruitful and multiply in a new habitat. The first and most important is whether the climate is similar to that of its native environment.

"But then there's also a bit of just luck," says Smith. "Some things that are not necessarily that common or ecologically dominant in their native habitat, when you get them somewhere else where they don't have the same predators, the same competitors, they take off in some cases or vice versa."

Smith brings up the example of the tree sparrow and the house sparrow, both introduced to the United States from Europe: While the former only lives around St. Louis, the latter is spread all across the continent.

As fun as it is to imagine a dazzle of zebras becoming a staple of the region, as common as deer or raccoons, the introduction of a new species to an ecosystem can lead to all kinds of consequences for native species. A small group of hippopotamuses brought to Colombia by Pablo Escobar, for example, have become the largest herd outside of Africa, and could displace native species and alter the chemical composition of the waterways.

(Currently, the Maryland Invasive Species Council lists catfish, the brown marmorated stink bug, rock snot, and wavyleaf basketgrass among its creatures of concern, but zebras have yet to make the list.)

Rubenstein has another concern, too. "People that are curious may say, 'Oh, they're horses with striped pajamas — I can get close to them' and that could be dangerous," he says. Despite their whimsical appearance, zebras are aggressive animals that can pose a risk to humans. Basically, Rubenstein says, don't get too close: "Most likely, they'll run away because they're fearful of people. But if you provide something attractive and they're hungry, they may come and then there's risk involved. So people should be wary if they find them and report them to authorities and watch them from a distance."

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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