Grays Harbor County ranchers recount role in zebra capture

Larry and Gwen Mielke of Milky Way Ranch helped catch famous escapee in North Bend


Larry and Gwen Mielke have spent their lives around animals.

In 30 years of living on the “Milky Way” ranch near Elma, the couple has raised cattle and hosted plenty of rodeo trainings for youth. They each coached the Elma High School equestrian team, a club they initiated, and mentored kids as they raised livestock in 4H programs.

None of that involved zebras.

So, when asked last week to help capture an escaped African equine in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains, they jumped at the opportunity.

On April 28, a mishap with a trailer carrying four zebras from a Western Washington farm to a petting zoo in Montana allowed the animals to escape along Interstate 90 about 30 miles east of Seattle.

Almost immediately, the Mielke’s had a personal connection to the story — their longtime friends, Dave Danton, a former rodeo bullfighter, and his wife, Julie, were a big reason three of the zebras were quickly brought back into the trailer, forming a makeshift pen to guide them.

One of the zebras, nicknamed “Sugar,” remained on the loose.

As news of the runaway zebra reached national media outlets and satirical zebra photos plastered Facebook, people and trail cameras spotted the animal skirting the fringe of the small town of North Bend. Tourists traveled to North Bend to try to spot it, while authorities closed nearby trails to prevent them from spooking it away.

Four days after the zebra bolted from the trailer, Larry got a call from Dave Danton, who had continued with the capture effort at the request of the zebra’s owner.

“I thought he was joking at first,” Larry said in an interview. “He said, ‘Hey you want to come and help me capture that last zebra?”

“I was excited about it,” he added. “I had never done it before.”

He and Gwen loaded up 200 feet of metal livestock paneling from their Elma ranch and drove to North Bend the next morning. They met with Danton and a few others — including Mayor Mary Miller — in the Safeway parking lot and decided to check out an area where a mountain biker reported several zebra sightings.

For the first step, they strategized to guide the zebra into a nearby private landowner’s one-acre field, where an existing perimeter fence would provide containment. The Mielke’s and others helped move a horse that inhabited the field into a separate pen and headed toward a back gate, the planned zebra entrance.

Larry said he was prepared for a scouting mission. But when they arrived, the zebra was already standing no more than 100 yards from the gate.

“We didn’t have to go anywhere,” he said.

The Mielke’s suspect the zebra frequented the area to see its fellow equine, the horse.

Larry said the zebra was “a ton of fun to be around it. It would look at you … it’s just different.”

Danton coaxed the zebra toward the gate with an offering of white bread.

“The zebra really liked white bread,” Larry said.

Danton enclosed the zebra in the field a short time after 5 p.m. But the zebra was still far from secure. They still needed to get the foreign animal into a horse trailer without injuring it, or anyone involved.

Though the striped equine was not a wild animal, it wasn’t entirely complicit with humans, either. Larry said his mindset was similar to when he and Danton helped a friend move range cattle, which are allowed to roam across large swathes of land.

The key, he said, was to be patient and easy-going, and maintain a “bubble” around the animal.

“When you get too close, you can see the animal start getting a little excited and you just back off,” he said.

The Mielke’s said the zebra never got into a dangerous position and was probably most agitated by a flying drone hovering above the area, Gwen said.

“Every time it would get a little excited we’d just stop, let it settle down, and reassured a little bit by talking to it and throwing a few more pieces of bread out there,” he said.

Working with Mayor Miller and others, the Mielke’s moved their paneling around the zebra, gradually cornering it. As darkness fell, they continued under headlights of the local animal control officer’s car.

Finally, after six days on the loose, the zebra walked into the trailer, guided by a narrow alleyway the crew constructed.

“It really couldn’t have gone much better,” Larry said. “When it got in that trailer and we shut the door on it, it was pretty cool.”

When the story spread of the capture, so did false rumors — that the group had chased the zebra with mountain bikes, that the zebra was injured or tranquilized, and that the wranglers made a profit from the ordeal — none of which were true, Larry said.

“An experience like that, you can’t put a dollar figure on it, nor would you want to,” he said. “It was just great being able to do it.”