San Simeon Zebras
San Simeon, California
So there you are driving North along the highway, amber grasslands to the east, wild animals such as zebras grazing in the grass. You'd think you were on a safari in the African Savanna, but you'd be wrong. With the ocean to the west, you'd be driving up Highway 1, passing by San Simeon in California, experiencing actual wild zebras!
Yes, that's right, there's an entire herd of wild zebras located just south of San Simeon. As of 2019, there are about 126 zebras in the herd, up from 119 in 2018. But wait, where'd wild zebras come from in California? Well they've been there over eight decades now, since William Randolph Hearst released several of the animals from his zoo in 1937.
During the 1930s, Hearst wanted his visitors to Hearst Castle to feel like they were driving through an exotic local, thus he had the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology built on the mountain his castle resided upon. The zoo was built with two areas, the normal caged area, holding a variety of animals, along with several large fenced enclosures, which held fifty species of herbivores ranging from the aforementioned zebras to camels, anetelope, bison, kangaroos, ostriches, yaks, several types of deer, just to name a few. The main cages, located just a few hundred yards from the house, are still viewable today, especially as you take the bus down from the hilltop while leaving the castle. Back then, the cages hosted bears (several different species including black, grizzly, polar, and sun), tigers, monkeys, jaguars, a variety of birds, and even a tapir and an elephant.
But in 1937, with Hearst having financial issues, he closed his private zoo, then the largest private zoo in the world. Many of the animals were sold off or donated to public zoos, but several of the animals in the large enclosures were simply released to roam wild on the grounds, including the zebras.
And thus the San Simeon herd of zebras was formed. The herd is completely wild; no one takes care of it, feeds it, or maintains it. It still mostly roams Hearst property, mingling with the cows that are raised there. Hearsts ranch consists of 83,000 acres, so there's plenty of room for the herd, which is steadily growing, numbering about 126 at last count in 2019. The herd mostly stays in the territory south of the Hearst Castle Visitor center, roaming down almost to San Simeon creek, east along Highway 1. You can often see them, just south of San Simeon, but you have to look closely, as they often blend in with the grass.
Besides the zebras, Hearst also released, at least, Rocky Mountain elk, llamas, Barbary sheep, tahr goats, white fallow deer, and sambar deer. The Rocky Mountain elk can still be found in the area, having taken over lands north of San Simeon. The elk herd numbers somewhere between 85 and 135. Unlike the zebras, the elk do cross Highway 1, going to the west ocean side every now and then.
Most of the zebras only have to worry about dying of natural causes, although occasionally some wander onto neighboring properties and end up shot by the property owners there. Those that do die of natural causes often end up swept away by storms, out into the nearby ocean. This causes the occasional dead zebra to wash ashore along the beach line there in San Simeon.
So when you drive up Highway 1, and have just passed by Cambria, start looking to your right, up in the hills. You might be able to make believe you are on an African safari! And if that is not enough, shortly after San Simeon, you can visit the elephant seals at the Piedras Blancas Rookery. Located on the beach, at peak times, there can be up to 17,000 elephant seals. October through May is the best viewing time. There is a visitor center and gift shop located back in San Simeon, and it does sell zebra souveniers, as well.
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Last Edited: 2020-10-02