Don’t mistake them for escaped convicts in prison suits, but five zebras (yes, you read correctly — zebras) are on the loose in Maryland.
Animal services officials in Prince George’s County said Wednesday that the five zebras escaped more than a week ago from a private farm near Bellefield and Duley Station roads in the Upper Marlboro area. Officials said the owner, whom they did not identify, has been trying to catch them by luring them with grain to a temporary corral area but has had no luck.
County animal services officials said they’ve gotten four or five calls from residents reporting sightings of the zebras. Officials said there are five zebras on the run, with a trio traveling together and then the other two as a pair. Earlier reports from animal services officials were that only three zebras had escaped, but by Wednesday afternoon it was updated to five total that had gotten away.
“They got out, and they’re now still running loose,” Rodney Taylor, chief of the Prince George’s animal services division, said Wednesday. “We have not caught them yet.”
He said zebras can’t be chased but have to be corralled and then fenced in, loaded onto a trailer and taken back to their property. Taylor said it could take as long as a week for the zebras to be caught.
To many, the zebras’ escape has raised the question: Are they legal in Maryland?
Taylor said zebras are allowed in the state and the county under permits from the U.S. Agriculture Department. According to Taylor, the farm has 39 zebras on its land and it has the proper, up-to-date permit allowing for them from the USDA.
He warned area residents to call county officials if they see the zebras and not try to approach or catch the animals.
“Never approach them, and don’t try to pet them,” Taylor advised. “They’re not going to chase you down. But they are zebras, so they’re not handled by people a lot, so to defend themselves they could bite.”
The zebras’ saga started Aug. 31 when they got out and the owner couldn’t find them, according to Taylor. He said a homeowner called to report seeing the zebras in a wooded area.
At first, Taylor said his office was surprised to get such a call.
“I was like, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ " Taylor said. But he remembered a farm in that area had zebras, so he sent crews to check out the report, but they didn’t find them.
Taylor said several other area residents reported seeing the zebras out grazing in the past week. He said that it’s not immediately clear how they got out of the farm and that he’s driven around the property and didn’t see any loose fencing.
Catching a zebra is no easy task. Taylor said they get spooked very easily, so the owner has set up video cameras that are used to watch wildlife and is putting up a few panels of fencing each day in an area where the zebras will come to eat some grain he’s put there. By tracking them on the video, Taylor said the owner can tell when they’re most likely to come and eat and plans to catch them then. Taylor said Thursday that the animals were spotted on the cameras between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. over the past few days as they were eating in the area with fence panels, and authorities hope they keep coming back to the spot so they can eventually be caught.
“If you build a corral area all at once, they’re very sensitive, and they won’t come there to eat. So you have to put up a few panels at a time,” Taylor said.
Layla Curling, 10, looked out of the kitchen window of her family’s home in Upper Marlboro on Sept. 2 as she was getting a snack and saw the zebras grazing near a railroad track near their backyard, said her dad, Paul Curling.
Curling said the zebras were about 200 feet behind their property. At first, he said, Layla thought they were deer, which they often see in the area. Then she took a second glance and realized “those don’t look like deer,” Curling said. “Those are zebras.”
Curling said Layla went to her mom, Alexis, who was working upstairs and told her: “Mommy, you’re not going to believe what I’m about to tell you. There are zebras on the railroad tracks.”
Her mom responded: “Layla, are you crazy? How would there be zebras out there?”
When his wife went to look out the window she said, “Lo and behold, there was a zebra,” Curling recalled Wednesday. “And not just one.”
The couple’s older daughter got her phone and took a video of the animals, which they also shared on the app Nextdoor, where others in the area had mentioned spotting the zebras.
Curling said his wife called the county’s 311 line and told them about the zebras. When she told the operator that there were zebras near her backyard, the operator was silent for a moment, according to Curling.
His wife then said, “I’m telling you I haven’t been drinking, and I haven’t been doing any drugs. There are zebras in my backyard,” Curling recalled.
Curling said his family called him at work to tell him about it, but he was in disbelief.
“When she told me I thought: ‘I’m not coming home. It’s probably just deer,’ " he said. But after they sent a video, he realized they were in fact zebras.
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Curling said his family is still surprised at seeing the zebras.
He said, “We had no idea that anybody around here would own zebras.”
For Taylor, who’s been in the county’s animal services division for 39 years, the zebra escape is one of the more adventurous tales for his office, which usually gets calls about loud, barking dogs, more-mundane pet problems such as possible overcrowding, or complaints about pit bulls, which are outlawed in the county.
“This one ranks up there,” Taylor said, recalling another bizarre tale from the 1980s. According to Taylor, a driver for a traveling circus that was passing through the county got mad with the circus owner and left a trailer with a lion, a hippo in a big pool of water and an elephant parked behind a local bank and walked away.
Taylor said they saved the animals and got them to different rescue places in the D.C. region. But never, he said, in his nearly four decades in animal services has he heard of escaped zebras.
He said, “We’ve not had this before.”
Anyone who sees the zebras is asked to call the Prince George’s County animal services division at 301-780-7242.