A solidungulate mammal (the Equus zebra), a quadruped of Southern Africa, nearly as large as a horse, white, with numerous brownish-black bands of greater or less intensity, and lighter down the middle of each band. It is one of the species which constitute the genus to which the horse belongs. — Webster, 1882
The zebras mentioned in On the Banks of Plum Creek are part of Willie Oleson’s Noah’s ark toy. Laura Ingalls could have learned about zebras from reading about them in Pa’s big green animal book, The Polar and Tropical Worlds, by George Hartwig.
The Douw, or Burchell’s Zebra, differs little from the common quagga in point of shape or size; but while the latter is faintly striped only on the head and neck, the former is adorned over every part of the body with broad black bands, beautifully contrasting with a pale yellow ground. Major Harris, who had many opportunities of seeing this fine species in a state of nature, remarks that, “Beautifully clad by the hand of nature, possessing much of the graceful symmetry of the horse, with great bones and muscular power, united to easy and stylish action, thus combining comeliness of figure with solidity of form, this species, if subjugated and domesticated, would assuredly make the best pony in the world.” Although it admits of being tamed to a certain extent with the greatest facility– a half-domesticated specimen, with a jockey on its brindled back, being occasionally exposed in Cape Town for sale– it has hitherto contrived to evade the yoke of servitude. The senses of sight, hearing and smell, are extremely delicate. The slightest noise or motion, no less than the appearance of any object that is unfamiliar, at once rivets their gaze, and causes them to stop and listen with the utmost attention’ any taint in the air equally attracting their olfactory organs.
Instinct having taught these beautiful animals that in union consists their strength, they combine in a compact body when menaced by an attack, either from may or beast; and, if overtaken by the foe, they unite for mutual defense, with their heads together in a close circular band, presenting their heels to the enemy, and dealing out kicks in equal force and abundance. Beset on all sides, or partially crippled, they rear on their hinder legs, fly at their adversary with jaws distended, and use both teeth and heels with the greatest freedom.
The Gnu and the common quagga, delighting in the same situation, not un frequently herd together; but Burchell’s Zebra is seldom seen unaccompanied by troops of the brindled Gnu, an animal differing very materially from its brothers of the same genus, from which, though scarcely less ungainly, it is readily distinguishable at a great distance by its black make and tail, more elevated withers, and clumsier action.
Whilst the douw and the quagga roam over the plains, the zebra inhabits mountainous regions only. The beauty of its light symmetrical form is enhanced by the narrow black bands with which the whole of the white-colored body is covered. Buffon and Daubenton wished to see this elegant creature acclimatized in Europe, which would procure us a beast of burden stronger than the ass, and more beautiful in its nakedness than the horse, even when adorned with the richest trappings. A king of Portugal used frequently to drive about with four zebras; and, about the year 1761, two of these animals that were kept in the park of Versailles had been so far tamed as to allow themselves to be mounted. In spite of the proverbial obstinacy of the zebra, there are thus no insuperable obstacles to its domestication, and a course of training, continued through several generations, would most likely subdue its reluctant nature as completely as that of the original wild horse and ass. The zebra is supposed to be the real Hippotigris, or tiger-horse of the ancients; and this is the more probable, as he ranges much farther to the north than the quagga or the douw, and approaches the regions of Africa comprised within the Roman empire. Historians inform us that in the year 202 after Christ, Plautius, a governor or prefect of Egypt sent several centurions to the island of the Erythraean Sea to fetch horses which “looked like tigers.” The zebra seeks the wildest and most secluded spots, so that it is extremely difficult of approach. The herds graze on the steep hill-side, with a sentinel posted on some adjacent crag ready to sound the alarm in case of any suspicious approach to their feeding quarters; and no sooner is the alarm given than away they scamper with pricked ears, and whisking their ears aloft, to place where few, if any, would venture to pursue them. — George Hartwig, The Polar and Tropical Worlds (Springfield, Massachusetts: Bill Nichols & Co., 1872), 733-734.
zebra (BPC 22), see also Noah’s ark toy