Cook: Where the wild hybrids are

Cook: Where the wild hybrids are

May 4th, 2014 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

The news out of Mexico came fast and without warning, like a mule kick to the you-know-what.

"Rare zebra-donkey hybrid born," ABC News announced.

At the Reynosa Zoo in northeast Mexico, a cebrasno was born. Its father was a blue-eyed donkey; its mother, a zebra named Rayas. Zoo officials alerted the world, and the world applauded ... maybe too quickly.

"Experts say a match between zebra and donkey is rare," claimed the New York Daily News.

Amigos, please.

Zedonks have been in Alabama for years.

"That ain't no big news," said Pat Poole. "I can write a book on that. I bred the zebra to the donkey all the time."

Poole lives in L.A., or lower Alabama. He owns Bubba's Barbeque, just off Highway 83, right on your way to the Gulf.

About 12 years ago, Poole took a crazy notion: He bought seven zebras -- one male, six females -- and added them to the herd of donkeys on his 40-acre farm. His vision? Breed his stud zebra with a female donkey.

"When you know she's in heat ... the smell of her is going to be more than that zebra can stand," Poole said.

Others have bred zebras with horses -- "It's called a zorse," Poole said, "with a 'Z'" -- but he wanted something different, something rare.

He found folks in Texas and Missouri who were selling a type of a zebra called a Grevy. (No, not gravy. Grevy). They're as big as a horse, the kind you'd see in Kenya.

Over the years, he bred eight zedonks. They look like a donkey with stripes or a zebra that's been feather-dusted grey. He gave them Z-names: Zarah, Zachary, Zina. Folks would drive by his pasture, marveling at the Alabama zedonk, their Southern unicorn.

People paid him upwards of $800 per zedonk. Some broke them to ride, others just to enjoy, like an equine peacock.

"It's a novelty animal," Poole said.

When he says novelty, he also means a Southern mix of jury-rigged creativity and ambition. Poole's father turned a one-truck business into the nationally known Poole Transportation (now Evergreen Transportation). For his barbecue joint, Poole bought a used Cessna, cut it in half and mounted it to the roof. You know, to attract attention.

The story reminds me of a man who owned a wipe-your-windows, check-your-oil service station in the 1950s, not far from where Bubba's is now. To draw in Northerners driving down to air-conditioned motel rooms on the beach, he dug a big pit outside the station, filling it with all things reptile: copperheads, rattlers, snapping turtles, gators, anything not found in New York City.

That man?

He was my grandfather.

You see, Poole's from a town called Evergreen, and so am I. My people go back four generations to this red clay flatland, which sits on the map -- at least a few of them -- in between places like Burnt Corn and Pine Apple.

The first Cook there was a blend of pride and grief: He owned acres of farmland, and also buried nine of his children, including one child named Sally Blue who got strangled in a barbed wire fence. Soon after, he buried her mother, his wife.

Growing up, I'd summer in Evergreen, fishing for shell crackers with cane poles, sleeping with the windows open as the midnight train whistled, and eating Sunday fried chicken from the Piggly Wiggly with more cousins than I could count.

Hog farmers, newspaper men, clothiers. The dapper and the dirt. The worst crime was if your word wasn't reliable. The second, if you couldn't tell a good story.

Evergreen was and is poor, but to me, it held some red clay magic, like the Narnia wardrobe led to this little corner of forgotten Alabama.

It's easy to overlook the poor places, the good country people who have long labored in ways the rest of the country hasn't.

"There's no question," said Poole.

He's since sold off all his zedonks. Most Cooks have moved away. My aunt and uncle are still there, teaching Sunday school and trying to hold down the corners on their manufacturing business. I'm taking my kids to visit this summer, just like last.

That Mexican zedonk? Hearing about it was like a time machine, triggering all these old memories. So maybe I'm saying this more to myself than you. Maybe not.

But place matters. The people there matter. And we're all hybrids, a mixture of past and present, a blend of land and story.

I hope never to forget that, any more than a zedonk can its stripes.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at DavidCookTFP.