Animal Talk: The Zebra Whisperer

Nancy Nunke of Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue in Ramona has a way with the zebras and other animals in her care. Sentinel Photos/Jae Marciano
Nancy Nunke of Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue in Ramona has a way with the zebras and other animals in her care. Sentinel Photos/Jae Marciano

By Jae Marciano

We have all heard of the Horse Whisperer, but Zebra Whisperer?

Yes, that’s right and right here in our own backyard. Nancy Nunke, a 40-year horse clinician, operates the Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue, a non-profit 501c3

organization located at the Spots and Stripes Ranch (www.hhar.org).

The ranch donates the land to the rescue mission, which takes in injured wild and domestic animals and rehabilitates them.

When I drove up to the ranch, I was immediately greeted, rather aggressively, by Zinty, one of the rescue zebras. He came straight up to me and pushed me up against my truck and sniffed me. Then he showed me his teeth.

I looked up for help. Nancy quickly came out and told me what to do. I was amazed at the strength of a zebra. I have owned many horses and this was a completely new experience. I could not believe how strong this zebra was.

Nancy explained that Zinty was checking me out and letting me know right away that it was his territory. He was treating me like a predator.

This is the first big difference in training wild animals versus domesticated ones. Zebras never leave behind their wild side, so the rescue and training of these great creatures becomes a lot trickier and intimidating. But not for Nancy, who lets the zebras teach her how to teach them.

Her trademark in this business has always been alternative training methods where she incorporates four strategies of getting the animals to perform. The methods she uses retain the personality of the animal without breaking the animal’s spirit.

After many years as a horse trainer, Nancy learned an entirely new way to train animals that the zebras showed her how to do.

“We have to grant them their intelligence. They will do things happily without force if you just ask them in a different way,” explained Nancy.

She has over 25 head of three different species, including Grant’s Zebras, Hartmann’s Mountain Zebras (endangered) and Grevy’s Zebra (endangered). She also has Pres. Horses, chickens, cats, dogs, camels, alpacas, miniature horses, goats, and more, all living together happily at the ranch as one big family.

I spent about two hours with Nancy and her camels and zebras and it felt truly like a zoo family. The baby zebras run around and greet you. Zinty, of course, keeps an eye on everyone to make sure he knows where you are and what you are doing at all times. Donkeys and zebras are baying in the background, and camels look on and wait their turn for attention.

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This camel seems to have adoring eyes for Ramona’s Nancy Nunke, who operates Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue at her ranch east of downtown Ramona.

I watch as she works with a 6-month-old camel in the ring, first showing him what she wants him to do and then telling him to do it with one word commands. As he follows her lead, she rewards him with an “I Love you” and a kiss.

The connection between Nancy and these wild animals is amazing to say the least, hence her nickname as the zebra whisperer is most fitting. Nancy has strong views on training that she has accumulated through all of her experiences and continues to modify as she learns from her animal rescues.

She believes that every horse should be trained the way a zebra MUST be trained, as they are the ultimate equine. As an example, with love and affection she helps one of the baby zebras back into a bean bag chair to sit for a rest. Quite a sight to see.

It’s been a magical morning for me and all I can think of is that this place has been here for years and I never knew about it. More people need to know the fantastic work that animal lovers are doing in our community; so I ask Nancy how I can help.

The Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue organization spends roughly $8,000 per month on feed alone. The veterinary bills are another subject as she tries to do the majority of the work herself, although some of the conditions of the animals she takes in need veterinary care right away.

Every day all of the animals need to be played with and trained and cared for, and Nancy only has a handful of volunteers to help out. Her greatest needs are more volunteers and of course a way to pay for the enormous feed bill every month. Since her home burned down in the last firestorm, she has had to spend all of her money on feed rather than rebuilding her home.

If you would like to extend an end-of-the-year tax-deductible donation, this is the place to spread some of that charity around. Nancy will soon be open to the public and will begin sharing her experiences and wonderful animal family with the community. In the meantime,

I will be writing a series of stories on the rescue efforts of the Hearts and Hands Animal Rescue. Stayed tuned for next month’s article, as we check in on Chancey, the pony that was mauled by pit bulls and left to die, but is now living happily at the ranch with Nancy and all of his new friends. If you would like to donate, please visit, www.hhar.org.

To comment or talk with me, email jaemarc@gmail.com. Have a happy and safe holiday season!

   
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