Broader Picture: Following the herd instinct

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


These two "zebra people", contentedly taking the air on Brighton beach, belong to Britain's growing menagerie of animal impersonators - people who relax in their free time by pretending to be an animal with which they feel a special affinity. One regular practitioner describes the hobby as a way of "taking a holiday from humanity".

There are several different schools of animal imitators, ranging from men and women who pretend to be dogs and cats, to those who prefer pigs and horses. Many of them communicate through "Pet Server" an Internet news group which welcomes new subscribers to: "the human pets mailing- list, dedicated to those who fancy being or owning two-legged pets, and those fascinated by theriomorphism, animal role-play and animal costumes".

Computer consultant Bruno Beloss (pictured here with first-time animal impersonator Susan Smith) first became a zebra seven years ago. "A friend of mine was studying photography and she took pictures of me painted as a zebra for one of her projects," he explains. "It started as a visual idea, but it turned out to be a wonderful form of escapism. I felt very free and I realised that a zebra has certain qualities - shy but also arrogant - that I identify with. For me, being a zebra is a chance to be honest about who I am. Which is a fantastic relief."

Since then, Bruno has appeared in public on numerous occasions, naked except for a layer of black-and-white stage-paint. In the early days he ventured tentatively on to deserted beaches in Norfolk and remote parts of Scotland. But in the past year his zebra persona has grown bolder, and taken to visiting busy pubs and crowded shopping streets around his home town of Brighton.

"Every time, the only plan is to look like a zebra; whatever happens next is down to chance," says Bruno. "This is mischief. It's fun, but it's also scary. In a way it's about being vulnerable and celebrating being vulnerable. I get a big high from it and yes, I suppose it is compulsive."

Bruno differs from the majority of animal impersonators, who enjoy their hobby away from the public gaze. "It doesn't mean anything to be a zebra by yourself," he claims. "For me this only makes sense if people have a chance to react. On the whole, the public are really positive and open, even in London. I've been stunned on occasions by cheers from the most unlikely onlookers. No one has ever got angry with me, not once."

Over the years, the metamorphosis from man to beast has become increasingly slick. After experimenting with different brands of body paint, he's found that water-based rather than oil-based is best. Ordered from a theatrical costumier and costing about pounds 70 a time, the paint is applied by Bruno's artist friend Halinka Tyszko (above), who has, with practice, perfected the shape and spacing of the stripes. The transformation takes about three hours, during which time the zebra has to remain standing. Zebras have to stay on their feet during role-play, too, for fear of smudging.

Other animal impersonators go to equally great lengths to enter their chosen persona. Malcolm McKee, another computer consultant, becomes Shep the old English sheepdog - with the help of a 20lb dog suit. This takes him 15 minutes to get into, and consists of a machine-washable inner layer and an outer suit of fake fur (which he washes in the bath with Woolite).

"From the beginning I wanted to aim for as much authenticity as possible," says Malcolm, who has also tried being a pig. "I try to do what a real dog would do, so I hate to talk when I'm being Shep. I like to be walked on a leash, and I play 'fetch' and tug-of-war. I eat what I'm given, though I find canned dog-food hard to swallow. The longest I've played Shep for is about 18 hours and during that time I ate Boneos. They didn't taste bad - just a bit gritty."

Shep has ventured into secluded woods with understanding friends, but avoids public appearances for fear of frightening anyone. "People can be really intimidated by weirdness, so it wouldn't be a very social thing to do," he says. Meanwhile, Zebra Man is planning to appear publicly this summer as part of a large herd (possibly at Glastonbury). Those interested in his movements should visit http:\\www.\bbeloss\zebras. !

Some names have been changed.

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