Can Zebras Be Domesticated and Trained?

Your best source for knowledge.
Sept. 4 2013 3:50 PM

Can Zebras Be Domesticated and Trained?

ryoung

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Rory Young, professional safari guide, ranger, tracker and writer, with 23 years years in wildlife and forest management.


Yes, zebras can be domesticated and trained, but it is not necessarily practical or humane to do so.

When I was a child, my father used to take me to visit the Brereton family who farmed in a place called Tengwe in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). They had a zebra that used to live with the dairy cattle. It was just as tame as the cows and very relaxed, unless they tried to prevent her from walking through the dairy with the cows when they went to be milked. If that happened, she would go completely crazy, trying to bite anyone she could through the gate and kicking at anyone or anything.

107032504
A herd of zebras grazes at the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya

Photo by Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images.

Advertisement

Many people suggested someone try to train this animal to be ridden, but Mr. Brereton refused. He felt that her nature would not allow it and that "breaking" her would destroy her. What a kind-hearted and wise man.

Many efforts were made to train zebras for riding, drawing, and carrying during the late 19th and early 20th century. There were very practical reasons for doing so.

Many parts of sub-Saharan Africa were (and still are) inhabited by tsetse flies. These areas were known collectively as "the Fly Belts".

The tsetse fly carries animal trypanosomiasis  and human sleeping sickness.

Although sleeping sickness was and is quite uncommon, "tryps" was not. Domesticated animals such as cattle and horses are particularly susceptible to it, with horses being the most likely of all to die.

Trypanosomiasis therefore made large areas of Africa inaccessible to European powers.

A good example of this was the fact that when the explorer and hunter, Frederick Selous arrived at the Cape of Good Hope in 1871 and announced that he was going North to Matabeleland to hunt elephant, he was laughed at. This was because most of the elephants outside the fly belt in Matabeleland had for the most part already been hunted out.

A few months later, he arrived at the Bulawayo and requested permission from King Lobengula to hunt elephant in his Kingdom. Lobengula laughed and gave his consent, believing that the then-19-year-old would get nowhere near the elephants before his horse died under him.

Selous then set off on foot and began his slaughter of thousands of elephants. He hunted entirely on foot and used porters to carry his equipment and the ivory.

Selous also hunted in nothing but a loin cloth and ate what the locals ate. He also married half a dozen local girls, but that was hushed up in Britain.

This was a dramatic change from the norm and considered "savage." Explorers were expected to maintain the Britishness at all costs and impose their norms on the locals, not adopt the customs of the locals nor adapt to the local environment. For this reason, it was believed that Europeans simply could not survive any extended amount of time in the African interior.

Selous wrote a book called A Hunter's Wanderings in Africa: Being a Narrative of Nine Years Spent Amongst the Game of the Far Interior of South Africa (1881) which was a huge best-seller.

This book dramatically changed British attitudes. It suddenly became popular in some quarters (although definitely not in most) to "go native."

The book especially affected attitudes amongst white settlers in Southern Africa. Although they weren't interested in adopting the habits of the indigenous peoples, they did begin to experiment on a large scale with adapting their surroundings to suit them. There were fanciful and unrealistic dreams of farming Cape buffaloes and using leopards as guard dogs and other such ill-informed and ill-advised ideas.

Although game ranching, keeping the animals wild or semi-wild, was very much a practical solution (the carrying capacity is much better and the animals less susceptible to disease), very few seemed to have understood this. There was a need to dominate and control in the way European domestic animals were controlled. They wanted to try and farm wild animals the way European domestic animals were farmed.

One wonders why they didn't ask themselves despite having both domestic donkeys and horses, such as Basotho people and their Basotho ponies, why the indigenous people hadn't already done it.

146565371
Zebras in Kenya

Photo by Tony Karumba/AFP/GettyImages

Using the zebra to do the work of horses, mules, and donkeys was a very popular idea, and there were widespread attempts to do so.

One of the most famous of these attempts, and the most successful, was that of the accomplished but eccentric zoologist, Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild.

He put great effort into training zebras to pull carriages, eventually driving a carriage drawn by six Zebras to Buckingham Palace in order to prove the viability of doing so.

Rothschild did not train zebras to be ridden. He realized that this was not practical for two reasons. Firstly, they are small animals and have not had the benefits of thousands of years of breeding to produce animals with backs strong enough to support the weight of a man.

Secondly, he must have quickly realized what many others would learn: Zebras are aggressive. They have not evolved in tamer temperate regions, they have instead evolved to survive as a species in Africa where lions are their main predator.

There are many recorded cases of zebras killing lions. This is usually caused by a kick to the head, causing death or a broken jaw, thus causing the lion to starve.

To give an idea of the power of a zebra's kick, one need just point out that no horse has ever broken a lion's jaw. Furthermore, few people have ever walked away after being kicked by a zebra.

A zebra doesn't just kick with the leg. Instead it looks between its legs in order to accurately place its kicks and then bucks and kicks violently with both back legs.

Zebras also inflict nasty bite wounds on each other and on people when they are habituated or "tame" and people get too close.

In order to get them to draw a carriage, Rothschild must have realized something important about wild zebra behavior. Zebra herds are made up of groups of females and young with one adult male.

The females follow a strict order of precedence. The most dominant female walks in front followed by the other females in order of dominance from most dominant to least dominant.

The male goes wherever he wants, but usually stays in the side or back of the group. If there is any perceived threat, he will put himself between the danger and the herd.

If a zebra passes or attempts to pass another zebra that is more dominant than themselves then they will be bitten or kicked ferociously by the more dominant animal. Passing is a challenge.

Young animals take the position of the mother in the hierarchy, but are allowed to move ahead of the mother in order to accompany another youngster. However, when they do so they adhere to the position of the more dominant zebra's young.

In the 1980s, a herd of zebras was captured for relocation in Zimbabwe. Sixteen animals were loaded into a truck and driven off. When the truck arrived at its destination only one zebra was left alive. The others had kicked each other to death.

Attempts were made by the Zimbabwe Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management to train and use zebras for work in the 1970s and 1980s, but it was determined that in order to train them, it was necessary to first drastically change the natural instincts of the animal.

The project was abandoned with the conclusion that changing the animals natural instincts and taming their aggression inevitably required very harsh treatment, which was deemed to be inhumane.

So, yes, they can be trained to be ridden and work, but the methods used to do so to date have been cruel.
While checking the facts of my own answer, I came across the following amazing story: An American teenager named Shea Inman bought and trained a zebra to be ridden.

She didn't use harsh treatment, but instead she used persistence and lots of treats:

"According to Shea, zebras have short attention spans, and are not as good as retaining information as horses. She said that she uses a lot of treats to train Joey, such as rubbing peanut butter on the bit to help Joey take it easier."

What a wonderful story. No doubt, if the colonials had been more gentle and persistent, we might have been riding zebras in the Zambezi Valley today. I find the idea of doing a zebra-back riding safari intriguing.

Below is a picture of a friend and fellow professional guide Mike Woolford on a horse-back safari. He is an expert horseman and farrier in addition to being a professional guide/ranger, so I take his opinion on this subject seriously.

Could he do this on a zebra some day? I asked him.

His answer; "As you said Rory, I don't think zebras would be strong enough to carry people on their backs without going lame or at least being uncomfortable! Who knows what they would do to the rider then?"

I think we can conclude then that although they could possibly be used to pull carriages or carts (as long as they were harnessed in order of dominance), it is not humane or safe for the average-sized man to ride them.

I guess this also means we won't be seeing Mike plodding around on a zebra then.

More questions on wildlife: