And they’re probably steering clear of loud noises, highways and humans because they’ll be scared, the experts said.
“They’re very fearful, skittish animals,” said Michael Erskine, director of Virginia Tech’s equine medical center.
Experts said the zebras are probably sticking fairly close to the edges of their home — an 80-acre farm off Duley Station Road in Upper Marlboro — and roaming in large green spaces.
The zebras escaped Aug. 31 from their farm, where they were part of a herd of about 30 other zebras, according to officials with the Prince George’s County animal control agency.
Since then, the public has reported several sightings. They’re traveling in two packs — a pair and a trio — because they’re herd animals, experts said. And caretakers have been trying to lure them to a feeding area and gradually put up a fence to corral them. Chief Rodney Taylor, who runs the county’s animal control agency, said they’re “very close” to catching the escaped zebras.
Many onlookers are concerned about the zebras in the wilds of suburban Maryland, but experts said they don’t face the usual predators such as lions or hyenas that they would find in the their native homeland of Africa. Vehicles are a risk if they get close to any roads, but otherwise their biggest threat would probably be big dogs or a possible coyote.
But even that’s unlikely. Erskine said the zebras would be “pretty formidable for any naturally occurring predators.”
Even as winter approaches, experts said the zebras will be okay. Zebras are accustomed to cold, even in their habitats in Africa. In Maryland, experts said, they’ll be fine as long as they get out of cold winds and find shelter in bedded down, brush areas.
Catching them has been hard in part because they’re smart.
Experts said that because of their fight-or-flight response, if cornered, they’ll try to run; and if scared, they will — as a last resort — bite or kick.
Animal experts agreed the way the zebras’ caretakers and animal control officials are trying to catch them — by enticing and corralling them — is a good method but requires patience. Erskine said it is safer than trying to tranquilize or lasso them, which could be dangerous for them and for humans.
“If you have five zebras that get frightened at the same time and take off, and then they’re running flat-out into the highways — that could create a public hazard,” he said.
Some observers have suggested that officials hire sharpshooters to tranquilize them with darts, but animal experts said that’s not the safest idea.
Zebras get a “huge adrenaline rush” when they’re hit with the dart of a tranquilizer, and it can take as long as 15 minutes for them to become immobilized, according to Vanessa Roer, chief executive of Roer’s Zoofari, a private zoo in Reston, Va.
As they’re going down, they could have a burst of adrenaline and take off running toward a human, building or road. Plus, getting the dosage right for a zebra when experts haven’t examined it up close for its weight would be tough. On average, a typical adult zebra can weigh around 700 pounds, experts said.
“What you use for a horse or a cow isn’t going to work for a zebra,” Roer said. “You might have them down in 15 minutes, but if something startles them, it can get dicey and take longer.”
Animal control officials have identified the owner of the zebras as Jerry Holly. Attempts to reach Holly were unsuccessful.
Holly’s farm sits off a two-lane road and has rolling hills and grassy fields, along with several barns, sheds and tenant houses. According to Taylor, the farm has the correct, up-to-date permit from the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowing for the animals.
Animal experts said letting the zebras become the next “Free Willy” — the orca in the kids movie that was released from a theme park into the ocean — isn’t a good idea for their welfare or the public’s because they need vaccinations and are susceptible to diseases, including West Nile.
Experts advise that while it’s a good chuckle to think about the five zebras running around the suburbs, use caution if you spot them — so no selfies, and call local animal control officials to report where you’ve seen them.
“Don’t interfere with their safety,” Roer said.
Alice Crites contributed to this report.