Be sure to come early and see all of the animals!
Associated Press August 2010
A baby zedonk, half zebra and half donkey, is drawing international attention and more visitors to the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Lumpkin County. She may have come from humble beginnings, but a baby zedonk has quickly become the star at Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Dahlonega.
The zedonk, half zebra and half donkey, was born at the preserve nearly two weeks ago and has since captured the attention of local residents and national media outlets alike.
“Our phones are ringing constantly,” said C.W. Wathen, the preserve’s founder and general manager. “We never really thought about how rare it is, but we’re finding that out more and more every day.”
Interest in the zedonk hasn’t been limited to the United States, either.
“We’ve gotten calls from Russia and have even had visitors from France,” Wathen said. “One group of visitors came by this weekend and said they came to see it because they got a call from their friends in Egypt that told them about her.”
Although the animals on the preserve have been running together in the same fields for more than 30 years, Wathen said this is the first time there has been any crossbreeding.
With her donkey mother’s bone structure and zebra father’s stripes, the baby zedonk is quite a spectacle. “Everyone that comes out can’t believe what they are seeing,” Wathen said. And interest in the zedonk is keeping the preserve’s all-volunteer staff jumping.
The zedonk now has a name, too, at least temporarily. After receiving numerous requests to name her Pippi Longstocking — a character in a children’s book who is famous for her striped hosiery — the preserve’s staff have conceded. “We’re calling her Pippi, but we’re still leaving that open for the schools. We’d like to do a naming contest for the kids,” Wathen said. “So her name may stay Pippi, or it could change.”
The preserve is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rescuing animals. In addition to Pippi, the preserve has become the home for white tigers, black leopards, a baby grizzly bear and numerous macaws — among other animals.
“I sort of fell into it. I used to raise a lot of horses years ago in Kentucky,” Wathen said. “One day, someone asked me if I wanted to trade a few miniature horses for a couple of zebras, and I did. And it just sort of grew from there. I love all animals, but I really fell in love with the exotics.”
Pippi has her own business card!
Father "Zeke the Zebra", Mother "Sarah" the Donkey and Pippi the baby girl.
She speaks zebra! Pippi was born July 2010.
2011 "Pippi" gets a sister "Pippa"
Pippi & Pippa always together!
Zebra a surprise on Dahlonega farm
Life Nov 24, 2010
By Michelle Hiskey, For the AJC
If you keep exotic animals on a farm, as C.W. Wathen does, safety depends on avoiding surprises.
Routine helps him calm the zebras, monkeys, white tigers and other creatures at 25-acre Chestatee Wildlife Preserve in Dahlonega. The .45 pistol on his hip is just in case.
The night of June 21 he bolted up the stairs into the loft he and his family call home. His usually serene face was pale.
“Is something wrong?” his wife, Kim Hunter Wathen, asked. “Did it die?”
“No, I can’t see, the flashlight’s dead,” he said, running off to find another.
Ten minutes later, he returned, his face lit up.
“You’re never going to believe this,” he said. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
A very big surprise, a miracle of sorts, had arrived at Chestatee that night.
A zebra named Zeke
One year earlier, there’d been another surprise. A fire of unknown origin burned down the Wathen family’s log cabin, home to C.W. and Kim, and their daughters, Tori, 12, and Bella Grace, 2.
As they scrambled to arrange new lodging and settle back into the routine of caring for the animals that Wathen had collected over the years — from lemurs to leopards, pythons to parrots — something unusual took place in their pasture area. Something no one at the preserve witnessed.
The pasture was populated mostly by donkeys. And then there was Zeke, a zebra with a bad hip. Maybe it was the hip, maybe typical zebra nature, but Zeke had a bad attitude, nipping other animals and humans if they got too close.
“We talked about getting another male, because we knew he couldn’t be a breeder with his hip,” Wathen said. “But because of the economy, we didn’t want to spend $10,000 to $15,000 on a zebra.”
Sometime after the fire, a gentle Jerusalem donkey mare named Sarah turned up pregnant. As time passed, everyone wondered: Why was Sarah carrying weeks longer than normal?
“Is she going to have twins? Or maybe an elephant?” Kim Wathen joked.
On June 21, Sarah walked up and down the pasture hills, restless, lying down and getting up again. From the loft in the elephant barn, Wathen, a lifelong farmhand, listened for any unusual sounds. When he heard Sarah’s labor, he rushed out to help.
Inspired by a circus
Low-key by nature, Wathen’s reputation glows in the world of exotic animals. National Geographic and Animal Planet have asked him to bring animals to their shows. The state legislature commended him for helping preserve wildlife.
Chestatee came about as the result of an unexpected offer 40 years ago. Wathen, raised on a family farm in Kentucky, raised livestock, including miniature horses. He traded one for a zebra.
The zebra tapped into a childhood memory of touching the extraordinary.
“When I was little, I saw a tiger at a circus, and I got to ride an elephant, and I never ever forgot it,” he said.
Funding for what became the nonprofit preserve came from his day job in construction. Wathen relocated to Atlanta during the 1980s to take part in the boom in road and commercial building. What paid the most was building bank vaults; with doors that can weigh 25 tons, they require major safety precautions.
“One little move and you can have a serious accident,” he said. The same is true of his menagerie, even though they are captive-born. “You can never take your eye off.”
To operate Chestatee, Wathen recruited and trained volunteers as diverse as his animals: white-collar professionals, waitresses, welders, all of whom grasped the seriousness of their work.
“The animals don’t do tricks,” said Alison Womack of East Cobb, 39, who comes twice a week with loads of past-prime produce from her local Publix to feed the animals. “We always remember they are wild animals. An uneventful day is a good day.”
The rare day carries a disruption that, instead of an emergency, is full of joy.
A striped surprise
On that late June night, a working flashlight in hand, Wathen returned to his pregnant donkey. June 21 was the summer solstice, considered in many cultures the zenith of fertility.
“Being on fescue, sometimes the [fetal] sac can’t get out,” he recalled. “I saw the feet and head come out, and I went up and busted the sac. My flashlight caught something that looked white but I couldn’t tell because [the foal] was wet. ... It had stripes ... and as she got cleaner, she got whiter and clearer.”
Sarah had produced a half-donkey, half-zebra female. Old Zeke, somehow, had made it happen. Zedonk is the offspring’s breed, but miracle is what the preserve people call her.
Between the drought and bad economy, Chestatee has been operating in the red — not enough tickets or grants to support its $350,000 annual budget.
The Wathen’s needed a boost, but never thought they’d get it from a donkey and a zebra with a bad hip.
The foal’s striped stockings inspired her name: Pippi, from Pippi Longstocking, the unconventional fictional girl from Sweden.
“She’s got this sassy little attitude, kind of prissy, but then she gets excited and has these bursts of energy where she runs and kicks up her legs,” Kim Wathen said. “I heard a woman cackling and saw she was looking at Pippi, who was jumping in the air, full of energy from the cool weather. ... She is so cute to watch, and a lot of handicapped children relate to her because she’s not like anything that anyone has ever seen.”
Boon and blessing
Pippi’s birth was a shock. So was the worldwide attention that came after a story in the Gainesville Times introduced her to the world. Tourists from Europe, Africa and the Pacific have made their way to Dahlonega. In early October, some visiting Australians stayed for three days to watch her.
More are coming. “I saw it on the news, it was so cute,” Emmy Wijnhoud of the Netherlands wrote in an e-mail planning a visit.
From Alabama came a request to settle an office wager: “Will a zedonk lose their stripes? Will the color of the zedonk baby get lighter with age? ... Why wasn’t it called a zebrey or zekey? This will settle bets.”
Networks raced to tell her story. “CBS Morning News” sent former Miss America Debbye Turner Bell, a veterinarian, for a report.
“It was surreal to have the supervising producer for the ‘Today’ show call us,” Womack said. “We are just a humble nonprofit ... and zedonk or no zedonk, our mission is the same, to love all the animals here.”
What has not changed at Chestatee is Wathen, who usually greets visitors in the parking lot and collects admission for self-guided tours. For most visitors, the last stop is Pippi’s corral — no gift shop or anything like that is planned.
“Pippi’s not for sale,” Kim Wathen said. “C.W. is very protective of her and won’t let her be exploited. He is a very religious man and sees her as a blessing.”
What fate awaits?
As Pippi grows, there may be more surprises.
“What we see now in her may not be what we see as an adult,” said Chestatee’ s veterinarian, Dr. Ben Benson of Crestview Animal Hospital in Cumming, who recently micro chipped Pippi for identification in case she ever gets lost. “She’ll change just like a child does, and one parent’s characteristic may come out.”
Generally, hybrids (like mules, which are bred from female horses and male donkeys) are sterile. Wathen is not sure what fate awaits Pippi.
Everything about her — her zebra alertness and long eyelashes, her long donkey ears — challenges his experience with animals. Pippi makes anything seem possible.
“Who knows? We have nothing to compare her to,” he said. “Pippi is our good surprise.”
Chestatee Wildlife Preserve
Open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $10 adults; $5 children. Free parking. 469 Old Dahlonega Highway, Dahlonega. 678-300-0019 www.chestateewildlife.com