They are descendants of the beasts who inhabited what the opening credits of Citizen Kane called "the biggest private zoo since Noah". But unfortunately for the zebras of Hearst Castle, their skin also happens to make a natty sitting-room rug.
Three animals from a historic herd which still roams the rolling acres around the old home of the late American newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst in California have been shot and killed, after straying on land owned by local ranchers.
David Fiscalini used a shotgun to dispatch two zebras last week, after spotting them running through his paddock. He then called a local taxidermist, and asked him to skin the animals and tan their hides, so they could be turned into exotic fireside rugs.
A third zebra was shot by a different rancher, after turning up in the middle of a herd of cows. That neighbour also decided to have it tanned, said the taxidermist's wife, Rosemary Anderson. She called the killings "a wanton waste".
The killings set off a heated debate in the rural community around San Simeon, a small town off the Pacific Coast Highway. Conservationists and the animal rights lobby are against those who believe ranchers are entitled to do as they see fit to protect their property.
Mr Fiscalini claims he took no pleasure from dispatching the animals, but had "no choice," because they were spooking seven horses he keeps in his paddock. "These zebras have no respect for fences," he said. "They tear fences down and go right through them."
Asked why he did not simply call Hearst Castle and ask for them to be removed, Mr Fiscalini told the San Luis Obispo Tribune that he felt the threat was imminent. "It was going on now. They are not going to be able to show up and get those zebras. They are wild animals. How are you going to catch them?" That comes as a surprise to Steve Hearst, the great-grandson of William Randolph, who runs the family ranch. He is "a little shocked and disappointed that our neighbours wouldn't have just called to say, 'We have three of your zebras down here, and how do you want to get them back?'"
Mr Hearst, who keeps roughly 65 zebras on his 82,000-acre property, added: "Was the threat so imminent that his first thought was to make a rug out of them? It's just a shame, and it's a little bit rude. You know, neighbours are supposed to help other neighbours, not kill their zebras."
But the shootings were perfectly legal, local police say. In theory, zebras could indeed pose a threat, since they can be aggressive in the wild. Even if the animals were not interacting aggressively, their very presence among a jumpy group of horses might in theory cause a dangerous stampede.
Many outside the ranching community believe that Mr Fiscalini had darker motives. He has previously been involved in a property dispute with Mr Hearst and, as a keen trophy-hunter, may also have known that good zebra hides are worth roughly $1,500 each.
The surviving zebras are part of a valuable tourist attraction. Each year, more than a million people visit Hearst Castle, which was re-imagined as "Xanadu" in Citizen Kane. The property is run by the State of California, and holds a remarkable antique collection.
In its 1930s heyday, when Hearst entertained royalty, statesmen, and Hollywood stars, his private zoo held 300 animals, including crocodiles, bears and giraffes. These days, its only remnants, aside from zebras, are a few Barbary sheep, tahr goats and sambar. Wisely, they tend not to stray from the property.Reuse content