Welcome, Capybaras

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The Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo always seems to have some new residents: new meerkat pups, two new Indian rhinos, and now nine new capybaras. In case you hadn’t noticed, they are the large tan-colored guinea pig-looking animals in with the Baird’s tapirs and guanaco. When I say large, I am not exaggerating. They are the largest rodent species in the world. They can weigh up to 146 pounds (66 kilograms)!

They arrived at the Zoo’s hospital for their quarantine in November 2008 and were brought to the exhibit on Elephant Mesa the next month. While at the hospital they were given numbers and, to make things easier, each one had a color painted on its back or side. With nine large rodents to handle, it was tough to tell them apart. Some had red, some blue and green. Some of our guests asked if they were decorated for the holidays! The capys’ colors are now fading, so it is definitely getting more difficult to tell them apart.

At the time the new capys arrived, we had one adult female capybara, Fran, living in the exhibit. She was brought to the hospital to be introduced to her future exhibitmates under controlled conditions. Fran has a history of not being very social or interacting well with her capybara family, but we hoped that she would be nice to the new capys. Things went okay while up at the hospital, but once they were all introduced to the exhibit, Fran became very aggressive with the new arrivals. Unfortunately, she had to be removed and is now living in a huge pen off exhibit. She is probably much happier now that she doesn’t have to deal with the kids!

I set out to make “friends” with my new charges. When I say “friends,” I mean encouraging them to come up to me, take food out of my hands, and allow me to check their teeth and visually examine their bodies for any problems. For the first few weeks they were all quite afraid that Fran might be lurking around a corner, and they wouldn’t come near me. But slowly, one by one, day by day, they would come closer and check me out. Soon they figured out that I was the lady who brought the food. This is usually the way the connection is made in the beginning. Every day I would sit on the ground with them and let them approach me. It started with two capys coming close enough to take a folivore biscuit out of my hand. Then it progressed to four capys, then five, and so on. This, of course, does not mean they are tame or domesticated such as a pet. I am always cautious of those big rodent teeth and aware when there are dominance issues in the group.

In my next blog, I’ll tell you about the great progress they have made. They are becoming very comfortable and are a guest favorite.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch video of Laura with the capybaras