Charlie and Wilma Ward are well aware of the rigors of farm life—as their chores start at 4:30 every morning—but they’ve really earned their stripes this spring.

For the first time since the King George County couple added the exotic element of zebras to their horse herd 15 years ago, every black-and-white female on the farm has been in the family way.

Three already have given birth, to long-legged babies with downy coats and mesmerizing patterns on their sweet faces. All have names starting with “Z,” as is the Ward tradition, with the newest members christened Ziggy, Zadeja and Zarin.

The fourth foal is expected any time, but probably will make its appearance in a thunderstorm, which is what two other babies did.

“They’re just like horses,” Wilma said. “There’s something about the change in barometric pressure” that pushes them into labor.

Wilma couldn’t help but hover over Zadeja, who was less than two weeks old when newspaper people visited. Zadeja quickly demonstrated how wary she is of strangers, bucking against the halter and lead Wilma held.

But the 65-year-old woman, who’s dealt with one kind of equine or another all her life, calmly shushed the zigzagging zebra.

“I love ‘em, every one of them,” she said as she patted the frisky filly. “But she’s mama’s favorite. She’s a very good girl.”

ZANY MENAGERIE

The zany menagerie at the Ward farm includes 19 horses, nine zebras (when the fourth baby arrives), a camel that’s the star of local Nativity scenes, a miniature donkey and a regular-sized one.

In addition to taking care of animals and 10 acres, Wilma and Charlie, 63, both work full time. She’s the finance director for King George County, and he shares his knowledge of the building trades with King George High School students.

The farm and its inhabitants are their refuge, even though lots of babies bring on more chores.

“I teach 60 kids a day,” said Charlie. “Four zebras is a breeze.”

The two have been letting horses out of the barn all their lives. They met at a horse show and got hitched 43 years ago. They’ve led the King George 4-H Horse and Pony Club for almost 30 years.

When they first considered exotics, they decided to try a horse of a different color. The zebras they saw on farms out West barely tolerated a human in the same pasture, much less next to them, as their survival instinct to sprint goes back to the savannas of Africa.

“People say, ‘I’m gonna come steal your zebras,’ ” Charlie said, giving a look that suggested good luck with that. “Zebras don’t take to strangers.”

THE ZEBRA ZONE

The Wards hoped their horse sense, patience and love for all four-legged things would work with striped equines, especially the offspring born on King George soil. They imprint themselves on the babies, the same day they’re born, if the mothers allow them access.

Some are more zealous than others, but they quickly come to trust the Wards—and even welcome the break, as any new mother would, Charlie said.

The colt and fillies are haltered and handled, petted and paraded around daily. One of the Wards, or some of the young people who visit the farm for lessons or boarding, works with each young one, getting them in the easy-to-handle zone.

All probably will be sold, either to zoos or independent buyers, subject to background checks. The going rate for a zebra baby is $5,000 to $8,000.

The Wards are certified exhibitors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which means they can sell to zoos or take their animals to events, such as when Zena the mare makes an appearance at the King George Fall Festival.

Before the Wards sold offspring, they didn’t need any special licensing, as the zebras are considered equine animals, just like horses, in King George County. Regulations vary by locality and state.

WILD ANIMALS

While the Wards can lead the zebras to water, they know they’ll never make them act like horses. Zebras are wild animals, the Wards stressed, and while they’ve come to love and trust their owners, they’ll always have their feral instincts.

“These are just babies,” Wilma said about the little ones around her. “They’re not horses; they’re not domesticated. They’re just independent little thinkers.”

The same can be said for Zip, the senior member of the striped clan and the only zebra stallion. Given the chance, he’ll bite a chunk out of a stranger who gets too close, but he looks out for the Wards like any male protecting his herd.

Zip has been with the Wards since 2003, when they bought him from a farm in Mississippi and raised him from a bottle. Charlie trained him to carry his tools, and Zip regularly zoomed along with Hollie, the couple’s Australian shepherd mix.

Zip is protective of all the females, and he’s been known to jump over fences when he’s seen strangers near Wilma. He’s bolted toward the men—not to do any harm, but “to stand between me and them and say, ‘That’s my Mama,’ ” she said.

‘IS HE NOT ROTTEN?’

Zip is the daddy of all 29 striped babies born on the Ward farm. He’s even the grandfather of an unusual offspring in North Carolina. That’s a zedonkey, a cross between a male zebra and female donkey.

On the same visit that Zadeja tried to get away from Wilma because she stood near a stranger, Zip couldn’t get close enough to her. He was still in the stall when Wilma and Charlie entered the barn, and Zip ran to Wilma, pushing the front of his body into the bars so she could pet him.

“Hi, baby boy,” she said, and Zip practically purred in response.

The fierce zebra—whose wild cousins can kill a lion with a swift kick to the head—turned his best side Wilma’s way. As she worked one flank of his backside, his rope-like tail moved in the other direction, giving her more clearance to work and scratch.

“See his tail?” she said, laughing. “Is he not rotten?”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 cdyson@freelancestar.com

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