By Cecilia Lang-Ree
Hearts & Hands Animal Rescue is the largest animal sanctuary in San Diego County, California and the main rescue in the United States for endangered zebras and Przewalski’s Horses. The director of the ranch, Nancy Nunke, is considered the United State’s pre-eminent wild equid trainer and a bonafide “Zebra Whisperer.”
Over the last 40 years, she has learned from the zebras how to communicate with them and has built up a wealth of training expertise. Because of these skills, Nancy has been featured twice on RFDTV’s The Horse Show and in several books by Dr. Robert Miller, DVM, on horse training. Many people travel from all over the world to come to Nancy’s Friendship Training™ clinics.
In 2007, Nancy decided to form Hearts & Hands as a 501(c)3 non-profit organization and use her skills to help all animals in need. Hearts & Hands Animal Rescue takes in much more than zebras – they have rescued horses, miniature horses, camelids, birds, zorses, a zonkey, goats and other species that have either been abandoned, abused, injured or neglected. Sidelines caught up with Jeanette Smith of Hearts & Hands in order to find out more about this unique rescue and their inspiring equine charges.
How did Hearts and Hands become a home for zebras?
Before the idea of an animal rescue was even conceived, the ranch had zebras. Originally we were known as the Spots ‘n Stripes Ranch. At Spots ‘n Stripes, we trained and showed zebras and behaviorally troubled horses and were known as the top zebra training facility in the world. [At Hearts and Hands,] we continue to keep all 3 species of zebras: the Grant’s Zebra, the Grevy’s Zebra and the Hartmann’s Mountain Zebra. The ranch is USDA licensed and is inspected regularly by Fish and Wildlife as well as the USDA.
What is the difference between training a horse and a zebra?
Many horse trainers have tried to train zebras using horse training methods. Horses are very forgiving of our mistakes and what ‘works’ on a horse may not be accepted by a zebra because they cannot be ‘force trained.’ Nancy has learned that it does not take much for a zebra to ‘believe’ it is being forced to do something. Horses give in; but a zebra won’t – a zebra will attack if it feels it is being wronged and will even attack from a distance. It is very important to have prior expert training in order to handle or even go near a zebra.
Are your zebras domesticated and can they be ridden?
We don’t use the word domesticated because they are always considered a ‘wild’ animal due to their inherent nature. We do have a “wild” herd that does not have direct physical contact with people unless necessary. Our zebras at the ranch were all born here in the US. They are not able to be released into the “wild” because they would not know how to survive. All of the zebras we have trained are able to do everything that a horse can do, plus a lot more. We saddle them, pick up their feet, hitch them to carts, show them in open horse shows, trailer them and ride them. Most of all, we are their best friends, which means everything to a zebra.
Do the other animals at Hearts and Hands get along with the zebras, or are they isolated by species?
Our animals are not kept separate by species. We have open pipe corral stalls where everyone can look at each other and interact with each other. We move animals around on a regular basis so that everyone at the rescue can meet everyone else. When we find a close friendship forming, we allow those to stay together to enjoy each other. Most of the animals we have at the rescue are given lots of run room in the round pens and riding arenas. The wild kinship groups are together. Since the ranch is fully fenced, many of the trained animals are allowed out to go where they please on ‘walk-abouts.’ They visit where they want to and often choose a certain number of ‘acquaintances’ to visit regularly, as Zintawa “Zinty” (our zebra ambassador – check out his Facebook page!) does. Zinty broke his pelvis six years ago and now has the run of the ranch for his daily physical therapy.
How many zebras do you have at Hearts & Hands?
At any given time at the rescue, we have between 20-35 zebras on the ranch. Total, we have over 100 animals varying from horses, miniature horses, camelids, birds, reptiles, rabbits and cats that are looking for forever homes. We even have the worlds only trained Przewalski’s horse – Kaia (check her out on Facebook at KaiaPHorse!)
We’ve been working with and understanding the intelligence and psychology of zebras for so long, it was just natural for us to include them [when the rescue was founded.]
Do zebras have unique personalities?
Each zebra has their own unique striping pattern, as well as their own unique personality. Zinty loves to play practical jokes and is a ham when it comes to being filmed… Some of our zebras love to cuddle and get hugs. The people who work hands-on with the zebras and train them become the zebras’ best friend – and our zebras love being around their human friends. Still, just like people, some [zebras] take longer than others and some come to the rescue with previous mal-training baggage, which can take time to overcome if their experiences with would-be trainers have been negative for them.
Can zebras be kept as pets?
Two of the three species of zebra are endangered, so a special license and training is required for those. The Grant’s zebra is more common, so if you have the expertise to house and train a zebra, and your state and local laws allow it, then you could have one. However we don’t recommend zebras as ‘pets’ as they are not at all like horses in their behavior or thinking and can be very dangerous. Each person who works directly with the zebras has had proper Friendship Training ™ and has learned from Nancy Nunke which behaviors to look for when dealing with them. Zebras are NOT horses with stripes. They are very dangerous and should be treated as such.
What is the mission of Hearts & Hands?
Our mission at the Hearts & Hands Animal Rescue is to give our skills in the animal communications and care fields and give our love and labor to [create] an environment for the healing of animals in dire need… In addition, we share these animals with children and adults through our Education and Therapy Center… Our educational programs teach people how to properly care for animals, how to train them with friendship and how we can learn from them. [However,] Hearts & Hands is always in need of additional funding to upgrade the Center.
If you are interested in donating, adopting one of our animals, or sponsoring one of the important endangered equines, please visit http://hhar.info or www.petbond.com. If you would like to have a Friendship Training ™ Clinic in your area where Nancy will bring a zebra or Przewalski’s horse if it is close enough or simply come share the amazing things the zebras have taught her so that you can apply them to your horses, please contact Nancy Nunke at (760) 898-3927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the writer: Cecilia lives in Los Gatos, California and has been riding since she was six years old. She currently rides with Avalon Hunter/ Jumpers and is having the time of her life with Holly, an affectionate, sarcastic and athletic Oldenburg mare. The two ride Hunters and Equitation and love hanging out with their awesome barn “family.”