Traveling the winding ranch road to Hearst Castle, guests once passed through fenced fields populated with many species of exotic wild animals freely roaming over the hillsides as though they were native to this land. It was an amazing sight, featuring an ever-changing collection of animals—like American bison, Rocky Mountain elk and zebras.
Formally named the Hearst Garden of Comparative Zoology, the zoo had its antecedents in the menageries and game parks maintained by royalty and other wealthy classes of society for thousands of years. The Hearst zoo followed an ancient model, a zoo owned by a wealthy man calculated to impress, amaze and entertain.
A Naturally Powerful Sight
The zoo did provide a rare and overpowering visual display. There were two separate zoo components. A menagerie of caged animals was located a few hundred yards north of Hearst Castle. Several fenced enclosures provided a habitat for fifty species of herbivores. In a letter to his architect Julia Morgan, Hearst stated that he wanted his guests to feel as though they were driving through an area populated by interesting and exotic animals in their natural state, not a zoo.
Animals of All Varieties
The field animals were indeed a memorable sight. With a herd of more than 300 animals, white fallow deer were the most numerous and prolific species. These striking white animals are of a breed that has graced European animal parks for centuries. Other exotic animal species which grazed the hillsides included: several species of African and Asian antelope, zebras, both Bactrian (two-humped) and dromedary (one-humped) camels, sambar deer from India, red deer from Europe, axis deer from Asia, llamas, kangaroos, ostriches, emus, Barbary sheep, Alaskan big horned sheep, musk oxen and yaks. As many as four giraffes were kept in a small pen located next to the road.
The Menagerie Cages
Additional animals were housed in menagerie cages. Hearst and his guests enjoyed visiting the menagerie to view the many strange and exotic animals. Among the many species in the menagerie at one time or another were: black bears, grizzly bears, sun bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cougars, chimpanzees, orangutans, monkeys, macaws, kinkajous, coati mundis, swans, storks, a tapir and an elephant. The animals were housed in cages of various sizes. Diet and exercise were carefully controlled and a veterinarian was on the staff during the 1930s.
The dismantling of the zoo began in 1937 after William Randolph Hearst experienced great financial difficulty and was forced to curtail his construction activities and cut other expenses at the ranch. Many animals were donated to public zoos or sold. Dispersal of the zoo animals extended over more than fifteen years and it was never entirely completed. Most of animals had been placed by 1953, two years after Mr. Hearst’s death, but many animals were permitted to range free on the ranch. In 1958, when the State was given Hearst Castle, there were Rocky Mountain elk, tahr goats, llamas, white fallow deer, zebras, Barbary sheep and sambar deer still on the ranch. Today, few of these animals survive, but often zebra may be seen grazing in the pastures along Highway 1 near the town of San Simeon.