Mara Baygulova brushes Mona Lisa

Mara Baygulova brushes Mona Lisa, a zonkey, in a corral in Glendale on Thursday, January 26, 2012. Mona Lisa, a 17-year-old zonkey, a cross between a donkey and a zebra, was rescued by Baygulova when it was four. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)

“Oh my goodness.”

That’s the first thing Mara Baygulova said 13 years ago when she laid eyes on a donkey-zebra hybrid — called “zonkeys” or “zedonks” — in Shadow Hills.

She had to have the rare equine. Lucky for her, the donkey dealer had no idea what he had on his hands, Baygulova said, and she ended up getting for free what could have cost thousands of dollars.

“He didn’t know her value,” she said.

Baygulova grew up with a donkey named Mona Lisa and had promised her son, Andreas, a donkey just like hers.

On his fifth birthday, she showed him the zonkey instead. He named her Mona Lisa after his mother’s childhood pet.

The exotic hybrid lives in a corral in the Rancho-Riverside neighborhood in Glendale, long known for its love affair with all things equestrian. Mona Lisa is the size of a zebra, but has the low-hanging stomach and shape of a donkey. Her body is gray, but her ears and mane are black and white, and her legs are streaked with black stripes.

She also brays like a donkey, but caps off her vocalizations with the bark of a zebra.

“I have not given Mona Lisa voice lessons yet, but she sure can use it,” said Baygulova, an opera singer and voice coach.

To understand how rare zonkeys are, consider this: Zebras and donkeys almost never mate, and even if they do, the odds of procreation are slim, experts say. Their offspring often are sterile.

“It’s really rare,” said Janet Roser, a U.C. Davis professor who specializes in equine reproduction. “There may be a few in zoos.”

Horses and zebras have been known to mix, as well. Their offspring are called “zorses”

Mona Lisa was likely born in the Sierra Nevadas and her mother was probably a zebra, Baygulova said.

As Baygulova stroked Mona Lisa’s coat, it was clear the zonkey has a penchant for attention. She brayed and barked when Baygulova moved over to pet her horse.

“She’s like the bratty little sister,” Baygulova said, adding that despite the jealousy, the two animals love each other.

Mona Lisa runs alongside the horse, who is about twice Mona Lisa’s size and used to be an exercise racing horse. That’s unusual for donkeys, who typically move at a slower pace.

Due to the shape of her back, Mona Lisa can’t wear a saddle, but Baygulova said she can still be ridden.

“A lot of people say they’re untrainable. Maybe I’m half-zebra,” said Baygulova, who joked that she studies the black rings around Mona Lisa’s eyes to perfect her own eyeliner technique.

In her email newsletters about her work, artist and neighbor Susan Rios often writes about Baygulova’s animals. Mona Lisa, she added, has fans across the country.

“She needs her own Facebook page,” she said.