The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We Disneyfied the escaped zebras. The truth about exotic animals is a lot sadder.

Zebras in their more natural habitat, in Kruger National Park in South Africa. (Andrea Sachs/The Washington Post)

Real life for animals, it turns out, isn’t like a pixelated Disney film.

For nearly two months, the D.C. area has been captivated by the tale of three zebras that escaped in late August from a farm in Prince George’s County, Md., a suburban area of sprawling subdivisions that could hardly be more removed from the African plains that are the species’ natural habitat.

Their improbable saga — initially, it was reported there were five equine fugitives — offered what seemed to be a refreshing and much-needed diversion from the grim political news that so often dominates daily discourse here in the nation’s capital and its environs. Hoping to catch a flash of black and white, animal lovers have prowled the roadways and train tracks near Upper Marlboro where the trio was said to have been spotted. Parents have dressed their children in zebra costumes as they have joined these sighting safaris.

Rumors of the zebras’ whereabouts have set social media abuzz and fueled cartoonish speculation about the adventures they might be having, like something out of “Finding Nemo” or “Madagascar.” A parody @MarylandZebra Twitter account, which had nearly 3,500 followers as of this writing, portrays them as “Frolicking Somewhere in Maryland,” and their fan base as “Team Stripes.”

The longer they elude capture, the more an anthropomorphized legend has grown about their jolly life on the lam. The Post’s Maura Judkis, writing about the craze they have inspired, put it this way: “Among certain humans, the zebras have transcended the category of ‘loose animal’ and attained a near-mythical status as symbols of freedom and resistance and independence.”

If only.

The first dark sign of what their actual existence has been like came a week ago, when authorities revealed that one of the zebras had been found dead on Sept. 16, in a snare. That type of trap, typically used to catch smaller animals, is illegal in Maryland.

Now there is more evidence of the horror they appear to have endured, both before their breakout and since.

On Tuesday, Prince George’s County prosecutors charged Jerry Holly, the exotic animal breeder who owns the farm from which the zebras escaped, with several counts of animal cruelty, including failure to provide adequate nutritious food and proper shelter. That same day, a news crew on a helicopter spotted and reported another dead zebra on Holly’s farm. The animal’s corpse was in an enclosure with three dozen zebras and was in a state of rigor mortis.

New details have also emerged about the escaped zebra that met its end in the snare, which was within two feet of a fence line in which the captive ones were held. That means it was close enough that if a caretaker had been attending to the zebras still in his charge, he should have seen and heard its struggle, according to court papers.

As it was, by the time Maryland Natural Resources Police were notified of the zebra’s death and arrived on the scene, the animal whose hind leg had been caught in the snare was “completely decomposed.” Its final agony probably lasted for days, ending, most likely, with death by dehydration. The trap was on property owned by the Girl Scouts, which released a statement saying it had been put there by an “unauthorized trespasser.”

As for Holly, who has kept a large number of exotic species on his properties in Maryland and Florida — among them black-handed spider monkeys, brown lemurs, red kangaroos, giraffes and gibbons — it turns out he has been cited dozens of times for animal welfare violations. The Post reported that these include “inadequate veterinary care, unsafe enclosures and filthy conditions,” and are documented in U.S. Agriculture Department inspection records. (I attempted to reach Holly, who has not spoken to the media since the zebras began making news, and found his phone number’s voice mailbox full.)

All of this is a lesson that we should set aside our make-believe ideas about animals, in which we project our own narratives and daydreams onto them. The tragic story of the Maryland zebras shows it is time to take a hard look at what animals’ lives are actually like in a society where people are allowed to turn them into collectibles.

As Kitty Block, the president and chief executive of the Humane Society of the United States, said, “We hope that this incident will spur the county and state to reconsider their current laws to hopefully prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future.”

In the meantime, let’s hope that the other two zebras are found alive and safe, and that better homes can be secured for them and Holly’s other animals, where they can live and be treated as they were meant to be — not as the meme-ified fulfillment of human fantasy.