In 2007, the local Andean government introduced a simple, yet effective means to clamp down on this churning chaos: Zebras! On working days, a veritable armada of around 100 life-size, two-legged plush animals invades La Paz to direct traffic. As soon as the lights switch to red, these adorable creatures hop onto the streets, dance across pedestrian crossings, help old ladies or little kids to the other side and counter any reckless behavior with a few fun tricks of their own.
Dressed in their full-body costumes, these young people aged 15 to 22 – often from deprived backgrounds or with previous convictions – serve as agile traffic wardens. And their job is no chore or state-prescribed labor. Far from it: Due to advantageous working conditions, many adolescents vie to join this urban fauna. All “zebras” receive health insurance plus 400 bolivianos – around 57 US dollars – a month; a sizeable sum in a country where the full-time minimum wage hovers under 100 dollars.
A firm fixture in their native city, the zebras have become welcome guests at trade fairs, festivals and events by now. With their tongue-in-cheek approach, they lecture on topics like drunk-driving or introduce primary school kids to the basics of road safety. Locals and tourists alike have come to love these active animals and often pay them – and their humorous performances – more respect than the average policeman on the street.
Text: Romy Uebel
Header image: Fritz Jünker