Stripe zone: on the trail of suburban Maryland’s elusive zebras | Maryland
Many interesting things have happened in Upper Marlboro in recent years.
In 2014, the Frederick Douglass high school football team recorded a perfect season. In 2019, to celebrate National Pie Day, a local museum hosted a lecture on the “history of pie”. This May, the town bought an electric car.
Those achievements have been overshadowed in recent weeks, however, and instead it is the whereabouts of five zebras, which broke free from a local farm at the end of August, that has dominated conversation.
Locals have shared photos and videos of the zebras roaming people’s lawns and gardens south of Upper Marlboro. For all these chance sightings, however, the zebras have proved difficult to capture, in part because they can run very fast – a trick that usually helps them survive on the African savannah rather than suburban America.
The story of the striped equids breaking loose has seemingly provided a tonic in these troubled times, and it was certainly all anyone wanted to talk about at Prince George’s county courthouse, in the center of town, one morning last week.
Jason Greenwald, who was waiting for a real estate auction to begin, had learned about the escaped zebras from Twitter.
“This is the first time,” Greenwald said when asked if he had heard of zebras roaming Upper Marlboro before.
Greenwald, 34, said he had had a previous encounter with a zebra.
“In Florida I went to this cool zoo,” he said. Greenwald confessed, however, that he was not an expert. “I was eight,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of real world zebra experience.”
Daniel Rubenstein, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University, very much is an expert. He has studied the behavior and ecology of all wild equids and is among the foremost zebra academics, most recently researching how the animals’ stripes might help them regulate body temperature.
While observers might think Maryland would prove challenging to a five-strong dazzle of zebras, Rubenstein said it was quite the opposite.
“They’re fine,” he said.
“Horses, the three species of zebra, two species of ass, they’re all basically grazers. They browse a little, but 90% of their diet is grass. And in the Maryland countryside there’s plenty of grass.”
Even in winter, when the average low in Upper Marlboro is around 32F (0C), Rubenstein said the zebras would be OK. In the wild zebras have thrived on the frigid slopes of Mount Kenya, while the animals could also choose to migrate south. In any case, Rubenstein said, people should not approach them.
“They’re wild animals. People are not their friends,” he said. He played a video of two wild donkeys having a fight. They were biting at each other’s necks, and Rubenstein said that zebras, like other equids, can also deliver a fierce kick to anyone who might be pestering them.
The Guardian was in Upper Marlboro to try to track the zebras, and John Henry Gray, who was making a purchase at the liquor store, which also sells lottery tickets and sundries, shared some thoughts.
“They took the railroad tracks,” Gray said, referring to a train route that runs north-to-south through Upper Marlboro.
Gray, a lover of the outdoors and self-described “nerd when it comes to animals”, added: “Follow the railroad tracks and you’ll find them. Because it’s off the beaten path and it’s their natural instinct to follow a path.”
Gray said he hadn’t seen the zebras himself, but as a regular hiker in the area around Upper Marlboro, he had seen otters, weasels and “everything else you can pick up”.
Gray recommended trying Jug Bay, a wetlands sanctuary near Upper Marlboro. He suggested the animals could have diverted from the railroad track in search of water.
“If I was a zebra, that’s where I’d be,” Gray said.
This matched a suggestion from Rubenstein. Zebra are “water dependent”, the professor said, and need to drink once a day. In his own research he has tracked zebras by observing water holes and tracking hoof prints.
It is unclear what type of zebras the fugitives are, but they are likely to be plains zebras or Equus quagga, the most common species. They tend to form tight membership groups, Rubenstein said, and are probably traveling en masse.
The Guardian set out for Jug Bay, in Patuxent River Park, in the late morning, just as light rain began to fall.
By public road, the freshwater reserve is 3.5 miles from where the zebras absconded, but a significantly shorter distance for animals with a track record of trespassing across private property. Numerous stops along the way to scan for zebras were unsuccessful.
At Jug Bay, Selby’s Landing boat ramp, a popular access point to the water, proved to be a scenic spot, but also revealed the scale of the task – wetlands sprawled out across hundreds of acres, with no zebras in immediate view. A brief, half-hearted, search for animal dung yielded no results.
Tracking the zebras in a mid-sized sedan, armed only with an iPhone and an umbrella, was proving futile.
A trip to Bellefields Farm, where the zebra had been kept after being purchased by a local man – legally, Prince George’s animal services division has said – was also unproductive. There was no sign of any zebras and no sign of the owner, who has been described in local press as “an exotic animal trader”.
Yet it turned out the search had been tantalizingly close. During a dejected lunch at Babe’s Boys Tavern, in Upper Marlboro, a woman said the zebras had just been spotted on the outskirts of Upper Marlboro. Unfortunately she couldn’t identify the location from the local news report, but it was time to head out again.
At Main Street Coffee Shop, Naomi Rutherford presented a lead. She knew a man who had seen the zebras a day earlier, and said she would facilitate a meeting.
Like others, Rutherford had little experience of tracking zebras in the field, although did see one at the zoo several years ago.
“I would probably act like a madman if I saw one,” Rutherford said.
“I would probably be running around trying to get photos and videos of it. I would honestly try to pet one, even though we’re not supposed to.”
Rutherford’s contact asked to be identified only as Mr Smith, due to what he said was rising animus among local residents at zebra sightseers. Smith said he had seen the zebras on five occasions over the past four weeks. His wife was the first to see them, he said, before they were even reported missing. He has always seen them in the same spot, and showed photos and videos of three of the zebras eating grass.
He confirmed that he had seen the zebras at 5.30pm a day earlier, but didn’t bother taking video footage this time.
“At this point I’ve already seen them and I was trying to get home to cut the grass,” Smith said.
“I didn’t have time to mess with the zebras.”
Smith recommended a specific location on Croom Road, a winding country lane that cuts through woodland on its way south from Upper Marlboro. He asked that the Guardian keep the location secret, as various amateur hunts for the zebras had begun to irk the residents of the sprawling houses and estates that dot the road.
Smith’s site looked like a zebra paradise. Woodland provided shade from the sun, while sprawling green lawns, many bearing “No trespassing” signs, looked like they would provide good eating.
Surely, if the zebras were to be spotted, this would be the place. But an excited walk up and down the road brought no sightings, and an attempt to recreate the sound of a zebra – like a dog’s bark but with a bit of wheezing mixed in – did not bring any zebras forth.
Part of the problem with catching zebras is that they have no incentive to be found.
“We domesticated horses. They’re dependent on us for their wellbeing,” Rubenstein said. “But zebras, we haven’t domesticated them. It is really a wild animal.
“So you can feed it, and it will be happy with that. But if it gets away it still has the ability to survive on its own. Just as horses could – but horses know life is easier if they come and associate with people.”
Before leaving Upper Marlboro, there was time for one final attempt to find the zebras. Smith had said that they were most commonly spotted at night, but a dogged, post-dusk expedition yielded similar results to earlier in the day, just in the dark.
In much the same way the animals have evaded capture, the zebras had outwitted the Guardian. But it is hard to begrudge the zebras their solitude.
For now, they continue to roam the Maryland suburbs, seemingly enjoying both the bountiful grass and their hard-earned freedom. The Atlantic seaboard may not be their natural habitat, but they appear to be making it home.