And why you should never pat a zebra
I like zebras. For proof that my obsession has lasted over thirty years, please see the above artwork.
I had to learn more about zebras when I was researching Guilty Pigs, as I discovered that zebras were categorised as ferae naturae (or intrinsically wild and dangerous) for the purpose of a tort called scienter. If you have the care and control of an intrinsically dangerous animal, and that animal injures someone, you will usually be strictly liable for the injury it causes, even if you did nothing wrong.
The case which holds zebras are intrinsically dangerous is an early twentieth century case called Marlor v Ball.1 The (rather hair-raising) facts are as given below:
The plaintiff was a working man. The defendant was the proprietor of the Chadderton-hall pleasure-grounds, at Oldham, where he kept an exhibition of wild animals. The plaintiff went with his wife and his brother-in-law to see the exhibition, and, having paid for admission, entered the gardens. While they were walking along they found the door of a stable standing open, and went in. There were four zebras inside the stable, each in a separate stall and properly tied up by a halter to the manger. The plaintiff went up to one of the zebras and stroked it. The animal kicked out, and the plaintiff being then standing against the partition, the animal pressed him through the partition, and he fell into the next stall, where another zebra bit his hand, which had to be amputated. At the trial the jury returned a verdict for the plaintiff for £175.2
Despite the fact that these zebras were quite evidently intrinsically dangerous animals, the defendant was not liable, because the plaintiff had brought the injury on himself. So A.L. Smith LJ said:
…it was conceded that a zebra was a dangerous animal, and that by law a man who kept a dangerous animal must do so at his peril, and that if any damage resulted, then, apart from any question of negligence, he was liable for the damage. But that was subject to this—that the person who complained of damage must not have brought the injury on himself. Where the plaintiff did something which he had no business to do—e.g., by meddling, as the plaintiff in this case had done—then the defendant was not liable.3
Hence, the fact that the plaintiff trespassed into the stables in which the zebras were properly kept and restrained meant that the defendant was not liable. There is a limited defence to the tort of scienter.
This led me to wonder whether it was normal zebra behaviour to kick and bite viciously, or whether these zebras were particularly angry. It turns out zebras are very aggressive beasts, because they have evolved in an environment where lions are the apex predator:
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.
The Rothschild referred to in the post is the famously eccentric Baron Walter Rothschild, 2nd Baron Rothschild, who successfully managed to get four zebras to pull a carriage.
He had an interest in zoology, and presumably researched the behaviour of the animals, ensuring that the zebras were in an order which would not cause them to be aggressive or distressed. Zebras generally cannot be ridden, however, because they are much smaller than horses, and have not been bred to carry humans. Moreover, they would be a dangerous ride, given the behaviour described above. To “break” a zebra would generally require immense cruelty.
In fact there are three species of zebra, the plains zebra (Equus quagga), Grévy’s zebra (Equus greveyi) and the mountain zebra (Equus zebra), all of which have slightly different patterning.
Zebras don’t neigh but make other quite extraordinary sounds, more like a yap or a bark.
So there you have it. Don’t pat a zebra, but do continue to admire these wonderful beasts. But they are dangerous, for a good reason. If I had to share the savannah with lions, I’d be dangerous too.
What Katy Did is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
(1900) 16 TLR 239.
Ibid, 239, 240.