Zebras are being reintroduced slowly to Disney's Animal Kingdom theme park, where they will be the new finale of the Kilimanjaro Safaris attraction that carries guests through an Africa-inspired savanna.
Fifteen Plains zebras have been adjusting to their Florida surroundings in backstage areas of Walt Disney World since arriving in February, said Matt Hohne, animal-operations director.
"Zebras are probably one of the most iconic of all the African mammals, and guests have repeatedly, through the years, told us that it's one of the animals they'd really like to see more of," Hohne said.
The herd was acquired en masse through the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that backs the conservation and science sides of animal studies.
"It was important for us to get a group that already knew each other so the transition would be easier," Hohne said.
They spend their days eating hay, resting in the shade, rolling in the dirt and sometimes frolicking, he said. Recently, the zebras have been in fields not far from — but not within sight of — the Kilimanjaro Safaris. The voices of the attraction's guides and the rumble of its open-air trucks are heard in the distance.
"I've heard them referred to as the watchdog of the savanna. They're always on the lookout," said Jonathan Miot, director of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo in Gainesville.
In a herd of zebras, one member is on constant watch — for lions and other enemies — even if everybody else is grazing, he said.
"When something happens, when something alerts them, the one who is paying attention will then alert the rest of the herd in a very subtle way," Miot said.
But the natural curiosity of zebras contributed to problems when the species previously appeared in the safaris. There were compatibility issues with small antelopes.
"Zebras are very inquisitive. When we introduce new animals to the safari, and they'll come over and those animals might not be used to it," Hohne said. "So it's just easier from our collection-management standpoint to have zebras by themselves." Zebra were removed from the attraction "a few years ago," he said.
Zoos frequently show off animals together in a "mixed-species exhibit," Miot said. After an initial adjustment, they start to cope with one another, he said.
"Typically, animals will learn their own niche in the area," Miot said. But zebras can be stubborn and "pushy" about their desires and habits, he said.
"I've worked in zoos where zebras have displaced giraffes," Miot said. "They're known to be pretty tough animals."
Disney's new animals will be stationed near the end of the Kilimanjaro Safaris, near the spot where an animatronic elephant called "Little Red" stood. The zebras will relocate there in phases. Disney officials have set no specific date as to when the zebras will be in their permanent home, Hohne said, but expects they'll be settled by the end of the month.
"We let them tell us when they're good to go," he said.
Members of the herd are 5 to 10 years old, weigh between 650 and 800 pounds, and are all females. Disney has no plans to breed the Plains group, Hohne said.
However, it has one female Grevy's zebra, an endangered species, that has been living with the Plains zebras. It's possible the company eventually would try breeding Grevy's zebras, in cooperation with the AZA, Hohne said.
There also are zebras — the Hartmann's Mountain variety — living at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge.
"To our normal guests, it may seem as though a zebra is a zebra is a zebra, but each one comes with its own unique story," Hohne said. "We want to tell compelling stories about as many different species as we can."
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