Can you keep a zebra as a pet? And other runaway-zebra questions.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Aug. 17 2010 5:33 PM

Can You Keep a Zebra as a Pet?

The Explainer's runaway-zebra roundup.

Zebras. Click image to expand.
Zebras bond by scratching and grooming each other

Two zebras escaped from their owner's home near Sacramento, Calif., on Saturday and tore through the city streets until police corralled them. The animals belong to Michael Mustangi, a trainer and "professional cowboy." This case raises a number of Explainer-worthy questions, to wit:

Can anyone own a zebra?
Not in California. In the Golden State you can't own zebras, rhinoceroses, tapirs, or any other odd-toed ungulates (aside from ordinary horses) unless you've worked with exotic species for two years (including one year with animals in the same family as the one you plan to own). Would-be zebra ranchers must also have their facility approved and let a veterinarian examine their flock biannually.

If you can't wait to buy a zebra, move to West Virginia or Wisconsin. These states have few restrictions on exotic-pet ownership, and you don't need permission from the local governments to start a zebra farm. Of course, you'll still be liable for the damages if, like the Sacramento zebras, your pet trashes someone's car.

How much will a zebra set you back?
There are a handful of breeders around the country offering Plains zebras for $3,000 to $7,000, depending on their age and condition. (It's illegal to trade in the other species, which are endangered, unless you own a zoo or wildlife sanctuary.)

How do you take care of a zebra?
Get more than one, build a tall fence, and let them graze.

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Zebras are herd animals by nature. The single life can stress them out, so you're better off with at least a pair, more if you have the space and the money. Zebras bond by scratching and grooming each other with their teeth.

Unlike cattle, which often stay in their assigned range even if the fence is breached, zebras are always looking for a way out. An 8-foot fence is an absolute requirement, and you have to inspect it regularly. (Other animals, like feral pigs and deer, can sometimes break through your fence and free the zebras.)

Zebras are in the same family as horses, and you can feed them the same types of food. If your grass is plentiful and in good condition, you can just let them graze. If your lawn isn't up to snuff, supplement their diet with hay, alfalfa, and carrots. Zebras can also fall prey to infectious diseases, and veterinarians recommend vaccinating them against tetanus and rabies.

Depending on where you live, you might need to bring them inside during the winter months, as Zebras are accustomed to the African climate and can die in below-freezing temperatures (Hypothermia contributed to the death of a zebra at the National Zoo in 2000.)

Are zebras dangerous?
They can be. Many drive-through wildlife sanctuaries in the United States let screaming tourists putter their way past curious zebras with their car windows open. Acts of violence are very rare. Still, unlike horses, zebras haven't been bred for generations to live in captivity and interact with people. If a male senses a threat to his harem or a female thinks you have your eye on her young, he or she will attack. Zebras typically use their teeth or hooves for defense and have been known to kill hyenas with a single swift kick.

In general, the best strategy is to keep your distance and flee if attacked. Last year, a Pittsburg State University football player was bitten and dragged by a male zebra while working on an exotic-animal ranch. * Now he has a plate and six screws in his forearm.

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Correction, Aug. 18, 2010: This article originally misspelled Pittsburg. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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