Saturday, January 8, 2011

Meet the parents

Burchells or plains zebras (Equus burchelli). Photo by Vince Smith.

Subject of numerous movies and sitcoms, the old 'meet the parents' saga is one we're all familiar with.

And I wouldn't mind betting that tucked safely away in a dusty corner of your mind is at least one cringe-inducing memory.

Ah, you know what I'm referring to: that fateful dinner where you dropped the saltshaker into the wine, stepped on the cat (attracted by the clam chowder) and imprudently pretended that you weren't allergic to shellfish.

But unless your encounter actually ended in fisticuffs, you had it easy.
Compared to zebras, that is.

Why am I contemplating the tribulations of courting zebras?
Because yesterday, while Koppiekats and I were resting in the shade of a large corkwood tree (life's hard), a herd of six zebras came moseying by. Now Burchells zebras don't know about Women's Lib. Lady zebras live in small harems chivvied about by a chauvinistic stallion. Of course, it's possible they're just humouring him, since he does have his uses: valiantly attacking anyone intent on consuming the kids, and searching out misplaced family members. Yesterday's herd, unaware of my presence (I was downwind), sauntered past within a few metres/yards, snorting and stomping at pesky flies and pausing to nip the heads off seeding grasses.

Now I've always believed that zebras have chosen an amazingly innovative way to be grey; from a distance you can't distinguish their stripes and they blend in as discretely as any drab-coated duiker.
But up close: well!
I'm sure you've read the quaint similes (wearing pyjamas or prisoners' uniforms) but, in truth, my immediate reaction to such an in-your-face encounter with their stripes was one of shock and recoil. Sitting there with the mongooses, I flushed with embarrassment and dismay. I mean I adore zebras. I love their consistently roly-poly shape, the warm familiarity of their horse-like gestures, and the way they're always horsing around. But whether it's innate or learned, my instant, unconscious interpretation of the astonishing dazzle of black and white was: BEWARE, DANGER!

From porcupines and skunks to wasps, beetles and bees, black and white stripes unequivocally signal trouble. Is it coincidence that zebras sport these aposematic colours?
Photo by Arno and Louise Meintjes.

I was sitting pondering zebra stripes - and the herd had disappeared over the hill - when a movement caught my eye. Following along after the herd was a young stallion. He was walking briskly with his nose at ground level, zigzagging back and forth across the path the herd had taken. Preoccupied with his search, he inadvertently zagged within a metre/yard of where I sat, then, after another sweep, he picked up the scent and trotted off, head high, in pursuit of the herd.

This young man zebra was on his way to meet the parents. And I didn't envy him.

In zebra society, adolescents of both sexes leave home. The guys happily trot off to join gangs of like-minded peers, but the girls (due to their sexist upbringing, no doubt) wait around to be swept off their hooves by Mr Right. Of course they know how to catch the eye of potential beaus. When ready to move out, fillies become flirtatious. Very flirtatious. For five days each month they trip about coquettishly, tail raised and mouth agape, dribbling a stream of alluringly scented urine. And this flamboyant oestrus display (adult mares, who aren't seeking a new lover, display for only a few hours) doesn't go unnoticed. Up to 18 young hopefuls have been seen trailing a herd with a beguiling filly.

Of course, an autocratic Dad won't let his little girl run off with just any young buck zebra. So, in the doozey off all meet the parent encounters, he puts his daughter's suitors through their paces.

Fighting Dad for the hoof of his daughter.
Photo by Kimberly Brown-Azzarello.

As soon as a would-be suitor approaches the herd, Dad attacks, forcing the interloper to show his stripes. The pair rear up, striking out with their front hooves and attempting to bite the other's neck, ears, face and legs. Whirling and snapping, they'll drop down to battle on their knees, in an attempt to protect their legs (if an opponent gets his teeth into a hock or knee he'll hang on, grinding away viciously). Brawls are interspersed with bouts of chasing, and this horrifying test of endurance and commitment continues until either the suitor gives up or Dad grows satisfied that this prospective
son-in-law is worthy. Only then will he back off and let his little girl leave home.

So if you thought you'd been given a hard time at the hands of your
in-laws, maybe you should think again.

I couldn't resist this photo (taken by Martin Heigan).
Any caption suggestions?


  1. Wow. Super interesting. I am really interested in things like a person's initial, unconscious reaction to things, since I think it's a peek into what I call the cave man brain. Very cool. Hadn't thought of that re: b&w coloring. And wow, is that a round belly, or what?!? The 1st thing that came to mind re: caption was a la Wallace and Grommet: I do love a good dust bath. Not riotous, but there you are. =) Thanks for the edification.

  2. The rolling zebra looks to me like it is saying 'Please come and play'. Great photos. How is the beast doing? Diane

  3. I don't know... I'm lucky in my current parents-in-"law," but I might have welcomed an honest, straightforward attack rather than the more subtle unpleasantnesses that parents subject their children's suitors to.

  4. Biobabbler,
    I love your Wallace-&-Grommet-style caption, but I'm not sure how I feel about being edifying.

    Yes, she looks so playful I was considering a caption about flirting, but her belly suggests that she's way beyond the flirting stage!
    If The Beast is still in my roof, it's only consumed non-squeaking items for the last week (or else is sleeping off a big meal). I suppose it's too much to hope that it's moved house...

    Yes humans are such devious animals; far too socially sophisticated for my tastes.
    The straight-forward, honest approach might make weddings less boring too.

    Thank you for the encouragement.


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