Life as a zookeeper provided me with countless unforgettable experiences. I place rearing orphaned mammals – creatures I never expected to see up close, much less handle – right at the top of my list. I’ve had the great fortune to have raised a number of species (i.e. Snow Leopards, Gorillas, Wolves, Red Pandas), but it is the good-natured Capybara that I remember most fondly.
Observations in Venezuela
Largest of the world’s rodents, Capybaras inhabit river edges and flooded grasslands from Panama to northern Argentina. Quite common on a cattle ranch in the Venezuelan llanos where I was involved in Green Anaconda research (please see Hunting Anacondas in the Venezuelan Llanos), I was able to spend a great deal of time observing them.
Near the ranch buildings, they were quite tame, even wandering through open doors on occasion. The Capybaras that lived further out on the llanos, however, were entirely different creatures. Their meat is considered a delicacy, and they have learned to charge headfirst into the water, uttering their strange “barks”, upon sighting people.
A Capybara Ruins my Film…
The Capybara is a highly social animal. Females are very protective of their
young (I’ve seen them stand between intruders and their litter on many occasions), and the dominant male will try to hold off a threat while his harem flees.
Well, not always…while explaining this very behavior during the filming of a sequence on Capybaras, I was made to look foolish by a male who considered chivalry quite dead. Approaching a group by boat and with my back to the Capybaras, I rambled on about the male’s soon-to-be-seen valor. Noticing my colleagues laughing hysterically, I turned to see him disappearing into the brush, leaving his females and offspring unprotected and confused!
Capybaras as “Pets”
Baby Capybaras, or “Chiguires”, as they are known in Venezuela, are often taken in and raised until their care becomes too much of a burden (multiply your Guinea Pig’s droppings a thousand-fold, add the need for a pond, and you’ll see why they are not ideal house pets!). After that, they are kept at semi-liberty – feeding largely on their own but returning to their adopted families regularly. On many Venezuelan ranches, Jaguar, Puma, Caiman and Anacondas render life dangerous for a solitary Capybara unschooled in the ways of the wild, and I imagine that some meet their end when they wander too far afield.
I cannot recommend a Capybara as a pet – their teeth are not to be believed, and throughout their range stories persist of hunters and horses killed by bites that severed leg arteries. And no matter how well adjusted, any wild animal remains wild – those that become very calm are in a sense all the more dangerous, as it is easy to forget that they are not domesticated. However, cared for in a zoo setting, by well-experienced keepers, Capybaras make ideal animals for use in educational programs. They are just as responsive as their cousins, the Guinea Pigs, and readily bond to people who care for them…and it’s hard to put into words the looks on the faces of children when a “tame” Capybara enters the classroom!
If you are interested in working with wild mammals, consider becoming a licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator. Learn more here.
I was surprised to learn that a small population of Capybaras – released pets, no doubt – thrives in northern Florida. For more info, please see this article.