The Mysterious, Free-Roaming Zebras of Hearst Castle

By kassidy - August 31, 2018

California is widely recognized for its perfect weather, amazing beaches, Hollywood, and…wild zebras? Sure, California is known for its, “anything is possible reputation”, but we didn’t think that meant free-range zebras.


Zebras Aren't Native to the Americas:

Credits: The wild zebras of California. Image Source: James Brewins / Flickr

However, as wonky as this statement sounds, many animal enthusiasts from all over the globe take a stop along California’s Highway I to admire the exotic beauty of these fascinating animals. What’s interesting about these zebras is that they are not controlled, confined, or monitored by anyone. Sound fishy? Quite the contrary.

It should be noted that Zebras aren’t native to the Americas. In fact, a vast majority of the zebra species, if not all, are found in eastern and southern Africa. So, how did a group of remote animals settle in an area almost 9,000 miles away?

The answer lies in the mighty dollar. With a pocket full of cash and seemingly good credit, anything is possible.

The Man Behind the Stripes:

Credits: William Randolph Hearst, 1906. Source: James Edward Purdy

This mentality was the norm for wealthy publisher William Randolph Hearst.

Founding one of the most lucrative publishing companies of the 21st century, Hearst was no stranger to the world of money.

In fact, his father was a multimillionaire who stumbled upon a hefty amount of gold during the Gold Rush. Movie buffs may even recognize Hearst as the inspiration behind the cult-classic Citizen Kane.

Growing up as a childhood prankster, Hearst was repeatedly expelled for playing tricks on his teachers and classmates alike. This must have driven his schoolteacher mother insane!

Harvard School of Law:

Credits: Bedroom Chamber Pot.

However, he somehow made it into Harvard School of Law at the delight of his parents. As Hearst grew older, though, he never quite grew out of his eccentricities. Not even in the presence of Ivy League scholars.

In fact, he played a rather clever yet cheeky prank on his Professors that resulted in his untimely expulsion. Chamber pots were fancily referred to as toilets in the late 1800’s.

They were kept under the bed so people could handle their business throughout the night.

For some strange, yet hilarious reason, Hearst sent his professors individually engraved chamber pots. This prank could be likened to the gold-plated feces estranged individuals send to naysayers as a sign of revenge.

The Daily Examiner:

Credits: Following his explosion from Harvard, Hearst took on the Daily Examiner as his first big venture.

Needless to say, Hearst was not the class favorite.Hearst was now an expelled Harvard student and son of a multimillion-dollar mogul with no real direction. It seemed as if he would just soak up the sun and relax.

However, it wasn’t until 1887 that he found a way to turn his love for jokes into a solid income. Something that was quite rebellious yet genius for the time. Previously, Hearst’s father George bought the newspaper company The Daily Examiner during its failing age.

William, always one for the spotlight, asked his father for the newspaper corporation as an investment. He agreed and vowed to change the course of the company forever.

Hearst's "fake news" ploys:

Credits: Hearst was famous for the fake news he published. Source: Library of Congress

Instead of playing remedial pranks on those in his social group, Hearst started curating false stories in an attempt to evoke shock. Needless to say, Trump would have a real field day with Hearst’s “fake news” ploys.

He created stories that captivated millions through star-studded casts, scandals, and blissfully interesting stories.One writer described the newspaper as, “like a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut.”

He was known for sensationalizing stories and ultimately drawing unnecessary attention to “innocent officials.” One 19th-century cartoon showcases a red jester throwing piles of Hearst magazines into a crowd of people.

Democratic Party:

Credits: A 19th-century cartoon illustrates how the public felt about Hearst's fake news. Source: Library of Congress

The headlines were overly exaggerated and comical. This illustration showcased how the public viewed Hearst and his humorous marketing schemes.

Although Hearst enjoyed creating imaginative tales and engaging headlines, the real purpose behind acquiring this newspaper company was to push his political agenda.

The funds incurred from the paper were used to support the Democratic Party. Although monetarily supplying political candidates with resources, Hearst dramatically opposed the plan’s that 19th-century Democrats like candidate William Jennings Bryan had.

For example, Bryan was strictly against United States participation in the Spanish-American war. On the other side of the spectrum, Hearst was a firm advocate.


Make America Great Again:

Credits: Source: Library of Congress

Much like the marketing strategy of the Trump “Make America Great Again” campaign, the stories found within The Daily Examiner appealed to “the troubled masses”. They sought to evoke emotion through compelling headlines that drew the reader in.

Many of the stories were simply ploys to get the public to support Hearst’s campaign. Therefore, they, along with Hearst saw no real implication from the effects of the war. However, this marketing ploy was not enough to keep Hearst hot on the campaign trail.

From 1900 to 1904, he went from city-to-city developing unique newspaper publications that fell under the Hearst empire.


Challenging Feats:

Credits: Source: W. A. Rogers

Such included the Chicago American, Boston American, Los Angeles Examiner, and the Journal. Many of which can still be found today.By opening different newspapers in well-known cities, he hoped to gain the financial backing needed to push his political career.

Ultimately, it was his goal to run for President and maintain a lucrative executive career. However, he would soon learn that juggling a journalistic empire and presidential campaign were extremely challenging feats.

In fact, his constant need for more ultimately led to many of his life-long challenges.

He eventually won a seat within the House of Representatives between the years of 1902 and 1904.

Newspaper Empire:

Credits: A list of publication owned by Hearst.

However, he seemed to bite off a bit more than he could chew. His impulsive nature and need to accomplish everything made it quite difficult to attend to all of his responsibilities.

His newspaper empire continued to grow and become more demanding; especially since he decided to expand to different areas. In addition, he was also devoting a pretty penny towards his presidential campaign.

Because of this, he could not devote the time needed to attend to his Congressional duties. After ambitious, yet failed attempts at securing mayor and governor positions, Hearst ultimately put a halt to this political endeavors.


Financial Mistakes:

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

1911 marked the year of both grief and opportunity. When Hearst’s father George died in 1887, he left his entire fortune to Hearst’s mother, Pheobe. During that time, Phoebe would allot Hearst a monthly allowance from the fortune so he could continue to support himself.

One could conclude that father George saw the early financial mistakes Hearst was making and developed a means to preserve that fortune. However, in 1911, Phoebe passed away, thus leaving Hearst with the remaining wealth.

Although his political career had gone to shambles, Hearst was still actively involved in his journalistic endeavors.


Jurisdiction of Hearst:

Credits: Source: Russell Street / Flickr

One of the most fascinating and glorious heirlooms was the grandiose, 250,000-acre plot of land in San Simeon, California. As a child, Hearst and his parents would use this land for camping trips and family retreats.

There was virtually nothing built on the land and this posed a great opportunity for Hearst to create something great. Now, this plentiful yet barren mass of land was at the jurisdiction of Hearst.

Never one to skimp out on originality, he decided to build something magical that combined both his childhood memories and personal interests.

Just a Little Project:

Credits: Source: Zlatko / Wikimedia

Today, this property is known as the Hearst Castle.
With 165 rooms and 127 acres of manicured gardens, pools, and guesthouses, this “little project” is far from tiny. Sitting upon a mountainous pasture of green trees and smooth land, this villa resembles European architecture with a California flare.

Not far from the home, patrons can even hear the brisk crash of waves from the Pacific Ocean.

The idea behind the castle stemmed from Hearst’s childhood trips to Europe with his mother. They spent well over a year exploring the culture and different areas of this continent. Although Hearst was young at the time of this trip, he never forgot the allure of art and architecture that makes Europe unique.

Miss Morgan:

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

Many of the architectural aesthetic is reminiscent of Italian or French structures that exude royalty. Almost like a tremendous cathedral with gaudy finishes. The genius behind the design was the first-female architect Julia Morgan.

Upon reaching out to Morgan, Hearst definitely didn’t warn her of the magnitude of his ideas. He stated, “Miss Morgan, we are tired of camping out in the open at the ranch in San Simeon and I would like to build a little something.”

That ‘little something’ turned into a nearly 30-year project that in total amounted to almost 10 million dollars.

70,000 Additional Trees:

Credits: Source: Zlatko / Wikimedia

One of the pools, (yes, one of them) took around 15 years to construct due to its detailed tiling and large structure. It was designed after the Roman Baths of Caracalla with nude statues surrounding its sidelines.

The dim lighting and rather serious fixtures make this pool pretty eerie yet fascinating. In addition, Hearst’s love for nature prompted him to have almost 70,000 additional trees added to the property to enhance its botanical appeal.

Many were even moved and placed in different areas per his request. In order to keep the novelty of California, there are giant palm trees that gracefully align the entrance of the palace.


Credits: When people think California they don't usually think of Zebras.

The property truly bridges European elegance with the relaxing ambiance of California. Many stars like Gone with the Wind stud Clark Gable enjoyed spending time at one of Hearsts fantastic parties. He was known for hosting elaborate events that lasted for days. Interestingly, he had no set-time for people to leave.

However, if a guests seat was gradually moved farther from Hearst as the days went on, that was their clue to leave.
However, what sets this Graceland apart from others is its contribution to zoology.

Many would assume that wealthy palace owners would cringe at the thought of wild animals tainting their manicured grounds.


Burning Love for Animals:

Credits: Source: Krystal Hamilin / Flickr

However, Hearst had a burning love for animals and sought to create his own elaborate grounds with exotic animals.Hearst also enjoyed the idea of being removed from the stressors and implications of everyday life.

This could be attributed to his childhood camping trips on this very estate. Upon building this estate, he wanted the animals to be able to roam about freely without being confined to small, constricting cages.

Their environment was developed to mimic their previous naturalistic surroundings. In fact, photos of the zoo resemble something out of National Geographic.

Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology:

Credits: Source: DocentJoyce / Flickr

Visitors could feel as if they were in the African safari or another exotic land. This fairy-tale like magic made the estate an ideal place for entertainment. Virtually any animal that you dreamed about could be found wandering the estate or held within the designated menagerie cages.

Originally called the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology, the entire estate was home to rare and beautiful species. Wild, field animals numbering well into the 300’s could be seen roaming about the trails and behaving in a natural manner.

The conditions were paradisiacal and almost resembling an early 90’s Jurassic Park film. Many of these animals had never been seen by human eyes and were idolized in movies or books

50 Herbivore Species:

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

Such rare sightings included the American bison, the Rocky Mountain elk, and those unique zebras. North of the main house was home to a menagerie of 50 herbivore species and other caged animals that made guests feel as if they were entering an unknown world full of wonder.

Such species included grizzly bears, sun bears, lions, tigers, and even an elephant! In order to keep these animals safe, Hearst employed an in-house veterinary and monitored their diet and exercise. The free range field animals were among the most fascinating.

White fallow deer were native to Europe. However, Hearst accumulated dozens of these species that created quite the spectacular sight.

Kingdom of Animals:

Credits: Hearst inspired the film Citizen Kane. Source: Citizen Kane / RKO Radio Pictures, Mercury Productions

Others included sheep, giraffe’s, camels, and even kangaroos. This exotic oasis created quite the reputation for this Kingdom of animals.

However, as Hearst continued to spend his elaborate earnings, he ended up in about $126 million in accrued debt.

In order to prevent seizing and possible bankruptcy, Hearst had to give up much of his personal savings and even relinquish his position as the newspaper’s proprietor. This meant giving up those beloved animals to better homes.

Since a vast majority of California homeowners weren’t in the market for a lion or chimpanzee, many of the animals were donated to wildlife preserves or even zoos.

Completely Wild:

Credits: Source: Devra / Flickr

However, what makes this property so astounding is the free-ranging animals that weren’t forced to leave. Out of those left were the zebras.

From a 2016 survey, researchers found that 113 zebras can be found grazing the long paths of the castle.

Bin Higgins who works on the Hearst Ranch explains that the zebras are “completely wild.” Because of this lack of domestication, they are living in a totally natural state. This means, finding them own food, caring for themselves, and even producing offspring that will continue this novel legacy.

Many of the zebras who die of natural causes are swept away during storms and other occurrences and displaced into the ocean.


Unfortunate Situations:

Credits: Image: FastfabNA / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Since the Hearst estate is so close to the water, every so often a deceased zebra will wash onto the shore; causing quite the site for innocent bystanders.

The zebras have also found their way into the yards and barns of local palace neighbors.

Many are simply curious wanderers, hoping to take a peek at what life outside of the palace looks like. Others, like to spook their neighbor’s horses. Regardless of the reasoning, there have been unfortunate situations where the zebras have been poached for showing up unannounced.

One account speaks of a known property owner shooting two zebras who wandered into his yard. Not one to waste good skin, he had the hides tanned and hung as a decoration.

Lack of Respect for Fences:

Credits: Image Source: BMilne / Wii Commons

He blames this encounter on the zebras “lack of respect for fences.” Thus, they continuously sneak into his beloved property and allegedly scare his horses. Reports such as these occur quite frequently and could pose a possible threat to the safety of the zebras.

Especially if there is no one to control or monitor the behavior of the zebras long-term. Although they are not considered an endangered species, it is shameful to think that these beautiful aspects of history are being attacked for simple curiosity.

Today, millions flock to the Hearst estate to view the impeccable grounds and get a firsthand glimpse of these striped beauties.

What Makes This Phenomenon So Great:

Credits: Image Source: Justin Ennis / Flickr

Hundreds of beautiful photos can be found online showcasing the freedom and sheer elegance of these animals. What makes this phenomenon so great is that people usually don’t get a firsthand glimpse of animals in their natural state.

Typically, they are confined to zoos or others establishments. Being able to see zebras behave in an unaltered manner is quite the sight and definitely worth the trip. Although Hearst passed away in 1951, his legacy for bringing one of the most unique and elaborate castles to the west coast will forever live on.

We also have Mr. Hearst to thank for his creation of the fake news epidemic. Whether you’re taking a Sunday to drive through Highway I or visiting the castle with a mission, make sure to stop and admire the zebras that reveal an overlooked moment in history.