Zebras killed: One sad tale’s gray areas

bmorem@thetribunenews.comJanuary 12, 2011 

File this one under “D” for “Damn Shame All Around.” I refer to the recent shooting of three Hearst Ranch zebras on the Fiscalini Green Valley Ranch south of Cambria.

The incident has now gone viral, having been picked up by national and international news agencies, so perhaps the barest of bones reconstruction of the incident is necessary. Here is what we know:

The animals, which were descendants of William Randolph Hearst’s menagerie at the Castle during the 1920s and ’30s, found their way to David Fiscalini’s ranch on Highway 46, some 15 miles south of the Hearst Ranch. A zebra stallion showed up on Fiscalini’s ranch Jan. 4 and “spooked” his horses in their pasture. Another zebra showed up, and both were killed.

Over the next couple of days, a third zebra showed up in a herd of cows getting ready for branding; it too was shot.

There is a ton of conjecture as to why Fiscalini didn’t simply call Steve Hearst and ask him to remove his animals. In one breath, Fiscalini said the zebras weren’t threatening his horses and, in the next, said he felt the threat was imminent to his animals and he had to act quickly.

It seems a contradiction, but here are some facts. Although a member of the horse family, zebras can be savage fighters; that makes sense if you remember that the species is from Africa and has had to evolve in a world fraught with lions and crocodiles. Their genetic code has developed to the point that they will bolt at the sight of movement or shadows — and those runs can be up to 40 mph.

As for temperament, zoos consider them vicious animals that will kick or bite a zookeeper on a whim.

So, for all of those folks who have seen Hearst’s zebras on the hillsides leading up to the Castle, docilely ranging among cattle, these aren’t domesticated animals waiting to be saddled up. They’re simply wild animals that have adapted to a slower pace on the Central Coast. They aren’t tame by any measure.

There’s a point to be made that the herd of zebras varies in number through the years because members of the herd periodically seem to vanish. As a free-ranging species, they don’t always honor fences, a fact even Hearst acknowledges. And if you’ve followed the 300-plus comments posted on the original story, you’ll find that there are North Coast ranchers who have been dealing with zebras on their property for years, alleging that when they call the Hearst Ranch to come and get the animals and fix the fences, their complaints are met with deaf ears.

And that begs the question: Just how difficult is it to round up zebras on the run? For those who think the answer should have been roping them and putting them in a trailer as the solution, it probably wouldn’t have happened.

A tranquilizer gun and helicopter harness would have done the trick, yet the chances of getting those tools together in a timely manner would have been pretty slim — unless this drama really did play out over a two-to-three-day period.

So, were the Fiscalini horses and cattle really in imminent danger? Perhaps. Horses, like zebras, have been known to stampede blindly through fences if the perceived danger is great enough. If Fiscalini’s horses and cattle had broken out of their pastures and ended up on Highway 46, getting hit by a car and taking a life — much like what happened on Highway 166 a decade ago — the tragedy would have taken on much greater dimensions.

Bottom line, though: Regardless of the perceived imminent danger factor, Fiscalini should have notified the Hearsts of their wayward charges as soon as the animals showed up on his property.

Why he didn’t do so may be due to reportedly strained relations between the two families over a disputed piece of property and easement on the Fiscalini ranch that’s owned by the Hearsts. Any other details can’t be corroborated by North Coast sources.

Other questions: Was Fiscalini breaking the law when he killed the animals? Not according to Lt. Todd Toggnazini of the state Department of Fish and Game. Zebras are considered domestic animals and don’t fall under Fish and Game ordinances.

Are the Hearsts responsible for maintaining the integrity of the fencing of their 83,000-acre San Simeon ranch? Without question. Not only maintaining it, but building it higher and stronger if need be to keep their animals on their property.

Yet the most puzzling part of this story is Fiscalini deciding to have the zebra hides tanned at an Atascadero taxidermy shop.

Does he own the skins? A deputy district attorney who contacted us said he didn’t think so; otherwise, ranchers would be killing neighboring ranchers’ strays on a regular basis.

So here’s a modest proposal: At roughly $1,500 a skin, $4,500 for the three could be used to strengthen and heighten the ranch’s fences.

If they end up as Fiscalini reupholstered patio furniture or rugs in their den, that would tend to cast a gimlet eye on the rationale of imminent danger. File this one under “D” for Damn Shame.

Bill Morem can be reached at bmorem@thetribunenews.com or at 781-7852.

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