Jim and Kathy Stewart live on the west side of San Ramon where they share 450 acres of land with a veritable menagerie of animals -- a wild kingdom that snorts, brays and barks.
"They're just such beautiful animals," says Kathy, a researcher at Children's Hospital Oakland and a long-time San Ramon resident.
Kathy's family, the Muellers, were early settlers to the valley and helped develop Las Trampas Stables and Little Hills Ranch.
The Stewarts own three Grants and Plains zebras -- Zelda, Zara and Zeus -- along with 20 ostriches, 100 cattle, border collies and a "zonkey." They raise cattle for beef and routinely use their bovine facilities for herding their zebras, which, at one point, numbered seven.
"Some people will just want a pair because they have acres that need to be grazed and want something pretty on them," Kathy says.
"Zebras were meant to be something that could generate minor income as opposed to horses, which eat money," says Jim, a large animal veterinarian and professor at Carrington College.
California has strict rules on the sale of equine products such as meat an hides.
"You can't sell zebra products, so they're worth considerably more alive than they are for skin," Jim adds.
The Stewarts primarily keep their hoofstock for grazing or sale to other farm families. While they have had approximately 16 zebras since 1995, the Stewarts estimate that only 20 other Bay Area residents own the African equids.
"I always knew people who brought their zebras into Davis (during vet school residency) and I thought they were neat. My wife's been on horses since before she could walk, so it seemed to be a good fit," Jim says.
Although the Zelda, Zara and Zeus aren't halter or saddle broken -- meaning they can't be ridden or led with a harness -- the Stewarts have sold baby zebras to Southern California residents who will train the animals to show. Because training can be a lengthy and time-consuming process, Jim and Kathy prefer to acclimate their zebras to people and noise to make them more "workable" animals.
The result is a tame animal that can be pet and hand fed, but "they're still wild animals and not all people should have them," Jim says.
Jim and Kathy haven't had any problems with their zebras in more than 15 years and said most issues come from passers-by who will stop and ogle the stripped beauties or from overly adventurous college photography students.
"People will go in with the zebras and feed them. When they go over the fence and into the field and barn, that's just stupid," Jim says.
When the sight of Zelda, Zara and Zeus became too disruptive, they were moved from the front of the Stewarts' property to their back pastures, which are opened seasonally for grazing. Here the zebras can nuzzle, smile in greeting and mingle with the ostriches and Zsa Zsa, the Stewarts' 3-1/2-year-old zebra-donkey hybrid.
"She's our prized possession," Kathy says before pulling out a "Baby's First Christmas" card featuring Zsa Zsa in a red bow.
While zebras are often picky about mating -- it took almost seven years to produce a young zebra, though they are now "always pregnant" -- donkeys and zebras mate naturally and more frequently than zebras and horses. The resulting zonkey offspring are sterile hybrids.
"It's interesting with the behaviors. Zebras, donkeys and horses may look similar, but they are quite different and when you cross them, it's right down the middle," Jim says.
Zsa Zsa looks three-quarters donkey, with a light brown hide, zebra-striped legs and a long muzzle. Her coloring is indicative of animals from North Africa, as more southerly zonkeys will have only white legs, and she is less skittish than the zebra half of her family, which tends to keep to themselves when in the company of strangers.
"Zebras have an incredibly strong bond which was probably bred out of horses so they'd be easier to do things with," Jim says.
The Stewarts' ostriches are an African hybrid that was domesticated in the 19th century for their feathers. Kathy and Jim met at an ostrich conference where he was speaking. Jim was specializing in ostrich medicine at the time, and he convinced her family to raise ostriches.
At the Stewart farm, the ostriches are free to roam. But their various equines remain close, creating a tableau of a western savanna that those in the more densely packed parts of town might never know exists.