Second-place in the University of Pennsylvania Creative Writing Program Prize in Nonfiction
Awarded for the best nonfiction piece by an undergraduate
Judged by Barbara Hurd
Quagga mare at the London Zoo
The picture is black and white. It shows a quagga, a real life quagga standing and breathing and existing as a living organism, and not much else. Frederick York zooms in, filling his lens with only the captive beast standing in profile. His camera peaks through one of the pane-less rectangular windows made from the widespread metal bars enclosing the quagga on three sides. In one of the other four photographs (this one captured by Frank Haes) the bars can be seen running eight equidistant laterals high. The quagga stands six bars high – about four-and-a-half feet. Its perked ears and striped mane add a few inches.
The camera focuses. Through the lens York can see the quagga clearly now. What remains unclear is what exactly a quagga is. From nozzle to shoulders, brown and cream stripes alternate on coat and mane. Beneath the shoulders the lines blend together into a solid brown, covering back and sides, fading toward the belly and rear. White legs extend from the pale tan underbelly, ending in black hooves. The russet rump obscures a long white-haired tail. The quagga looks make believe. Front half zebra, back half donkey – a freak hybrid fit for a circus sideshow.
The coat seems to shimmer – even more so moving from the darker brown mid-section to the russet hind – but the mare does not cast any shadow on the brick floor or the wood-paneled door to her brick shelter. Maybe the high noon sun has managed to break through the seemingly constant clouds covering London and the Regent’s Park Zoo. Or maybe the weather is its usual overcast self and the shimmer comes from the primitive, bulky camera’s flash.
When York’s camera flashes, the mare’s left eye peers lazily back. She appears as confused as her coat patterning. What is that spontaneous illumination? Her question, like the burst of light, comes and goes in the same instant. The quagga redirects her sightline to the left adjacent cage. Her neighbor remains elusive now, having evaded York’s restricting zoom in this portrait. Most likely another African beast from the dry plains or maybe a close equine relative; zoos usually group their animals logically according to region or species. The conversation, if one indeed follows, is probably dull. Nice weather, eh? Has that goofy looking zookeeper with the spectacle and top hat brought your food yet today? You think they’re going to find me another friend anytime soon?
What the lonely looking mare does not know – nor her neighbor or the zookeeper or anyone from London to Cape Town to anywhere – is that potential companions are on the verge of nonexistence. When York captures this photograph, the year is 1870. Three years earlier, Amsterdam welcomed a new quagga – the quagga that would one day be referred to as the last of all the quagga. Two years later, the London mare will pass away. She will be outlived only by another female at the Berlin Zoo and the last of her kind at Artis Magistra. In South Africa, the quagga’s homeland for about 200,000 years, the situation is bleak at best.
*** When the lone quagga at Amsterdam’s Artis Magistra Zoo died on August 12, 1883, the news did not seem headline worthy. No one realized the mare represented the last of Equus quagga quagga. When the Dutch Zoo received the peculiar specimen on May 9, 1867, the species still roamed wild in the lower region of South Africa. True, the herds were noticeably smaller than in years before – but they just seemed so abundant even at the turn of the nineteenth century. How could there be none left? The question was raised too late. Like a love affair turned unrequited, man did not see the quagga vanish until it was already gone. The quagga had joined the ranks of the dodo, the great auk, the moa, the auroch, the giant ground sloth, the woolly mammoth, the saber toothed cat, and every type of dinosaur.
Scour the earth, search the galaxies. The closest encounter anything, anywhere in the universe can have with a quagga is at a museum – and those twenty-three are all stuffed. They are dead, like the rest of the quagga. They serve as mere verification of existence, proof that the bizarre looking creature depicted in verse and art was a product of mother earth, not the whimsical imaginations of man like unicorns, griffins, and dragons. Twenty-three mounted skins and thirteen skulls and seven full skeletons and five photographs. This is what hard evidence remains of the quagga.
*** As many radical changes do, it all started with a small band of individuals. It happened sometime during the Pleistocene, between 120,000 and 290,000 years before European imperialists arrived in the most southwestern African plains, dividing the land into political territories like Cape Province and the Orange Free State. In this region, now referred to as the Great Karroo, between the rivers now known as the Orange, Vaal, and Great Kei, a herd of plains zebra wandered astray. Unlike the more northeastern areas, the Great Karroo sees little rainfall – an inland sea of aridity.
Drier air meant fewer tsetse – the large, blood-sucking flies that plague plains inhabitants indiscriminately with biting and diseases. Without the threat of tsetse flies, the Great Karroo zebra’s evolutionary bug repellant – its trademark black and white stripes – became obsolete. The lost tribe needed to hide from predators, namely lions – a problematic necessity in the expansive open terrain. Survival required rapid adaptation. Nature was kind. Isolated from other plains zebra, the lost tribe did indeed evolve rapidly, shedding stripes for a darker coat, a more favorable camouflage considering the surroundings. They evolved into a new species.
During an era noted for so much wildlife’s demise across the planet – the giant beaver, the Irish elk, the woolly rhinoceros, the Haast’s Eagle, the short-faced bear – the brown, half-striped zebra found its beginning. The new species established itself on the Karroo. Parents gave birth year-round, most often during the early dry season heat. When the foals reached sexual maturity they abandoned their parents for a harem of their own – like their black-and-white predecessors, living in a group of many females headed by a dominant male. The docile herbivores fed by day in the luscious taller grass, survived by night in the safer lower grass.
For thousands and thousands of years, this is how they lived – never expanding beyond the Vaal to the north, remaining elusive to all humans outside the cradle of grassy plains. The only contact with mankind came with nomad hunters, the Khoikhoi. Cave rubbings dated as early as 200 AD depict the two animals’ coexistence. The natives sometimes killing the equine for food, other times domesticating them. The part-striped zebra proved adequate at warding off hyenas threatening the tribe’s livestock – rearing on its hind legs, emitting a high, barking neigh that kept enemies at bay. “The noise it made was much different from that of an ass, resembling more the confused barking of a mastiff-dog,” noted George Edwards later in Gleanings of Natural History, published in 1758. “It seemed to be of a savage and fierce nature.” The Khoikhoi imitated the distinctive call to identify the beast: “quahkah.”
*** Afar in the Desert I love to ride, Wit the silent Bush-boy alone by my side: O’er the brown Karoo where the bleating cry Of the springbok’s fawn sounds plaintively; And the timorous quagga’s shrill whistling neigh Is heard by the fountain at twilight grey. “Afar in the Desert” by Thomas Pringle, 1828
Almost two centuries before Pringle penned this verse, the Dutch settled at the Cape of Good Hope. Their arrival in 1652 disrupted the balance of nature in the Karroo that had remained static for millennia. The Dutchmen expanded inland, exploiting the natives, the Hottentots , as slaves to work the large cattle farms. Despite unfavorable conditions, the European colonists prospered and multiplied, producing the first African-born generation. These peoples were the Boers. Marked for their toughness and stringency, they overran and dominated South Africa well into the nineteenth century.
Hunting expeditions were exotic safaris with a new species for dinner every night. Like the Hottentots, the plains animals became helplessly subjugated to the Boers’ forceful rule. The colonists imposed Dutch names on the creatures of the veldt – such as wildebeest, hartebeest, sassaby, blesbok – then killed them in vast quantities for meat. Sometimes the order was reversed. With regard to the half-finished brown zebra, however, the colonists compromised with the Hottentots. First, the Boers reserved the use of Dutch, adopting a modified name, quagga; they thought the shrill braying sounded like “quay-hay.” Then, they killed the beast in mass to feed their slaves.
Naturalist William John Burchell witnessed a quagga hunt later in 1811: “I could compare it [the clatter of their hoofs] to nothing but to the din of a tremendous charge of cavalry, or to the rushing of a mighty tempest.” The Boers annihilated hundreds at a time. They converted the skin into leather shoes: veldschoen. They used the hide to make sacks. They fed the meat to the slaves; the Boer palette did not particularly favor quagga. Burchell described his one taste as “tender, and possessed a taste which seemed to be between beef and mutton.” If only the slaves had shared the white man’s distaste for quagga meat, harems of brown might still be grazing the South African green. Or at least the annihilation would have been less swift.
*** The sweeping exterminations never provoked conservationist action. When the British assumed Cape Colony at the onset of the nineteenth century, they noted the dwindling population in local areas but saw no reason to panic on the quagga’s behalf. To the north, in the sanctuary of uninhabited plains, Sir William Cornwallis Harris sighted more than enough. “The gay glittering coats of the quagga [grazed] slowly across the profile of the ocean-like horizon, uttering a shrill barking neigh…,” he wrote in 1840. “On those [northern] sultry plains which are completely taken possession of by wild beasts, and may with strict propriety be termed the domains of savage nature, it occurs in interminable herds.” Though the quantities per herd made the species population seem infinite, the quantity of herds was dangerously finite. Each mass execution dealt a devastating blow to the quagga’s existence. To their own tragic demise, the victims deceived their assailants.
Adding to the deception, humans viewed the terms ‘quagga’ and ‘zebra’ as interchangeable. Half-striped, full-striped; black-and-white, brown-and-cream. All one and the same. So, in man’s eyes, quagga still roamed rampant, just increasingly less of the half-strip, brown-and-cream variety. Even the Boers first dubbed full-striped, black-and-whites as bontequagga – “the painted quagga” or “the quagga with conspicuous stripes.” Swedish naturalist Andrew Sparrman later classified Equus quagga as a unique species in 1786, yet ‘quagga’ still generally covered any zebra variant. By the time humans resolved the discrepancies, the actual quagga was beyond salvation.
As York eternalized the London mare on film in 1870, the wild quagga disappeared from the Karroo landscape. Maybe a small herd survived beyond in a remote area plagued by drought, but no later than 1878. The world’s last quagga lived their final years spread throughout Europe. Upwards to twenty individuals were imported throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, mostly by members of the upper class. These wealthy men flaunted their novelties. “Among the equipages occasionally exhibited in the gay season at Hyde Park, and other fashionable places of resort, may be seen a curricle drawn by two [Quagga], which seems as subservient to the curb and whip as any well-trained horses.”
Only a half-dozen quagga reached zoos. Only the Regent’s Park Zoo ever housed a male and female at the same time. This pairing gave the quagga its only and final chance to reproduce in a haven of safety. Maybe if someone had informed the captive couple of their species’ dire situation they would have stepped up their efforts to procreate. But even humans did not realize the quagga’s imminent vanishing. The London couple never produced a foal. The male died of self-inflicted injuries in 1864 during a fit of rage. The female survived him by eight years – profiling in 1870, passing in 1872, posing in full skeleton at the Peabody Museum in New Haven to present day.
*** On August 13, 1883, for the first time in almost two hundred millennia, the sun rose over an Earth without quagga. Man would have shown more respect had he realized the Amsterdam quagga’s death meant ‘nevermore.’ Despite admittedly bearing responsibility for many of the most recent eternal exterminations, humans have always paid a curious homage to animals that can only endure as fossil and memory. Man manufactures plush purple dinosaur dolls, animates Ice Age creatures in movies, and personifies the dodo in fairy tales about a young girl chasing a white rabbit.
Extinction fascinates man. Maybe because he is self-aware, consumed by the notion of his own extinction. Maybe because he most desires what he cannot have, a thing that no longer and can never again exist. Maybe because extinct animals are simply a novelty. Or maybe because man is not yet numb to the idea of extinction. Earth has been dealt an asteroid in the side, endured extreme fluctuations in temperature, and tolerated the ravage forces of Mother Nature and mankind. She has witnessed countless species die out because of these destructive acts – and remains unfazed. Animals check in, check out, and the world keeps on spinning.
So, for some time, life went on. Technology advanced. Imperialists conquered. Business boomed. People gradually talked of the quagga less and less. They talked of “the taint of the quagga” – the theory that animals inherit traits from their father, mother, and mother’s first lover – portraying the beast as a symbol of male sexism. They talked of black-and-white striped equine as ‘quagga’ until the name, like the species, died away leaving only ‘zebra.’ They talked of the bizarre hybrid spectacle that used to thrive in South Africa not too long ago. In due time, most stopped talking of the quagga altogether.
There are some, however, who cannot deal with extinction. They spend their entire lives searching for ways to defy death, prevent death, reverse death – their death, an other’s death, anyone’s death. What they ultimately realize is that their efforts are inevitably in vain. There is no elixir of eternal life, no holy grail, no magic potion. Science has cloning, but even that cannot restore an obliterated species – at least not yet. Man should just accept the fundamental fact that extinction is final.
But if all men resigned themselves to that reality, there would be no Henry today.
*** Reinhold Rau began the job in 1969. A year later he had finished dismantling and remounting a stuffed quagga foal for the South African Museum in Cape Town. All the while, the obvious question lingered: What if? In 1971, Rau ventured to Europe on a mission to discover something contrary to the obvious answer. Visiting museums from Munich to London to Vienna to Amsterdam, Rau examined twenty-one of the twenty-three intact specimens. He had a theory. If the quagga was not genetically unique, but rather a subspecies of the highly varied plains zebra, it may be possible to rebreed the extinct animal in a controlled natural environment – without the modern, ethically hazy advent of DNA cloning. Rau extracted tissue and blood samples from three more quagga he remounted over the next decade; in 1984, he sent them to the University of California.
Rau got the answer he wanted and few others expected. In comparing the quagga’s mitochondrial DNA to that of the plains zebra, scientists showed the former to be a subspecies of the latter. In other words, the quagga was not truly a separate species unto itself. Through selective breeding of plains zebra displaying the most-quagga like features – a browned coat, fading stripes – the quagga could be reborn.
For years, fellow scientists had balked at the possibility of rebreeding a quagga through the plains zebra. Now, with these test results, Rau finally had the evidence he needed. Influential individuals threw their support behind the project and formed a committee in 1986. The following year, Rau identified and captured nine zebra out of over twenty-five hundred at Etosha National Park. On April 24, these selected specimens found their new home at Vrolijkheid – a sanctuary specially built for quagga rebreeding.
Over the past twenty years, the Quagga Project has faced plenty of adversity. Funds ran low – it gets expensive feeding all those zebra once they start reproducing. In 1992, Vrolijkheid needed to be abandoned, the cost threatening to jeopardize the actual rebreeding. The project zebra were split into separate camps, now totaling eleven with over eighty individuals between them. Even with the program re-stabilized, the problems of disease and death and unfit offspring still persist. So why go through all this trouble? Why is man undermining a verdict nature bestowed upon the quagga more than century ago?
“Attitudes towards the environment now are very different from what they were during the nineteenth century,” says quaggaproject.org. “The extinction of the quagga was caused by man out of greed and short-sightedness. It is believed that this extinction might be reversible.”
*** Something strange trots across the plains among a herd of black and white. He vaguely resembles the rest of the pack but looks incomplete. Is he an ugly duckling? A bastard child of a Karroo love affair between two equines? From nozzle to shoulders, he must be a zebra. Yet, from the shoulders down, his coat seems undecided on its desired coloring. Faint black stripes extend partially down the side over an unmistakable shade of brown before finally giving way to a cream-colored behind and white legs.
Henry was born on January 20, 2005, son of Luke and Elizabeth. His ambivalent appearance seems so wrong; to the Quagga Project, the distinct markings are so right. What Henry has lost in striping the world has gained in a quasi-quagga. The Project’s strategic breeding has put evolution – the quagga’s re-evolution – on fast-forward, and Henry exudes success. Compare the new foal to the Regent’s Park mare and the coat patterns are excitingly close. Only coloring poses an obstacle, and the discrepancy between individuals is impossible to gauge. York’s photograph is black and white.