When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras. Except for all the many cases when they belong to zebras…
In the medical world, this phrase means don’t leap to the exotic diagnosis and overlook the obvious. Which is fine, except when you are a zebra and everyone is telling you that you’re a horse… As in the case of Ehlers Danlos Syndome, the condition I have.
Anyway, that aside, let’s look at the animal type of zebra…
Zebras are part of the horse family so do take a look at the post for horse as there will be so overlap.
As you probably know, they have black and white stripes which are unique, like fingerprints, and ask us to be proud of our individuality. The stripes may have a number of purposes; camouflage, visual identification, possibly to keep them cool and possibly to deter flies. Interestingly, when you see a herd of zebra on the horizon, their stripes can make them appear like a mirage, questioning our sense of what is reality and what is illusion.
In terms of family life, they live in herds; one male and his harem of females. There is a strict social order with an alpha female who gets to mate first with the stallion. New mares go to the bottom of the pecking order.
In terms of the next generation, females have a gestation period of a year after which it is essentially for survival that the foal is virtually born running. Zebras are very protective parents and have been observed risking their own life for that of their young.
Safety in numbers is key for this animal – their black and white stripes are most useful for camouflaging them when they are together in a large group. Instead of using their stripes to blend into the background, they blend into each other which makes it hard for predators to spot and thus kill individual zebras. This strategy really emphasises the importance of the herd – without it, the camouflage is useless. This tight knit family really does need each other to survive. Who is in your herd?
Remember though that their stripes talk to us of individuality, and this combined with the intimate community, asks us to look at how we can maintain our uniqueness whilst still fitting into our tribe.
Like the horse, the zebra is associated with movement. Whilst they are slower than horses, they have great stamina which helps them when being chased. They are well known for their long migration and are restless, not staying in one place for long.
This restlessness is exacerbated when the zebra is under stress, leading to unpredictable, skittish behaviour. They panic and when they being chased, they run in a zig zag movement to try and outmanoeuvre the predator. How do you react under stress?
Zebras are considered untamable with a wild nature and no concern for our rules but their social structure suggests that they do follow the rule of the zebra. I’m not suggesting you should go and break lots of rules, but I think this may be a call to consider why the rules are there, which rules feel more relevant and which you feel you can cast off.
In terms of folklore, the main references I could find were African tales about how the zebra got its stripes. It was once white but got into a fight with a baboon. The zebra kicked the baboon and lost it’s balance, falling into a fire. The sticks scorched the zebra leaving black marks all over its white coat. A different tale says that overworked donkeys sought advice from a wise man who offered to paint them so no one would know they were donkeys.
I asked the Zebra,
are you black with white stripes?
Or white with black stripes?
And the zebra asked me,
Are you good with bad habits?
Or are you bad with good habits?
– Shel Silverstein