Capybaras: Getting Comfortable

The capybaras living on Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo are doing great. Every morning they wake up, stretch (it’s very cute), and start walking toward me looking for a folivore biscuit or a slice of carrot. If I don’t arrive fast enough, in their opinion, they start cooing and vocalizing for their breakfast. In my last blog, Welcome, Capybaras, I was spending time getting them to eat out of my hands and allowing me to touch them. We have progressed wonderfully since then.

All nine of them will come over for food and sometimes it looks like I am swimming in a sea of large rodents! They have all been mostly polite taking food from my hand, but sometimes they get pushy and will chase one another out of the way. Along with hand feeding I have been working on getting them used to being touched. Checking their teeth, the pads on their feet, and general health care is always easier when they will come over for a scratch. So far five of them will allow me to touch them. In the beginning they are always scared and will do a sort of sideways hop to get away from my hand. But if they happen to stick around for more than five seconds, something clicks and they really start to enjoy it. All of their hair will slowly stand on end and their eyes will close. Usually if I can get to this point with one of them, they will come over again for touching easily the next time.

This entire group of capybaras is going to be living at the Zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey exhibit and this means training them for transport. As much as a parade of capys would be cute, I don’t think we could stop them from eating all of the leaves on the way over there! There is a side yard at their exhibit where most of their food is placed. At different times of the day I allow them access to this yard to eat. If you happen by the exhibit and see nine capys waiting patiently by the door, you’ll know why. Once I open it they all pop through the opening and enjoy their meal. When it comes time to move them to their new exhibit, it will be much easier than trying to round them up while on exhibit.

They will have a huge pool and many areas to hide out in if they choose to at Elephant Odyssey. Make sure to come visit them on the Mesa before they head back to be the present-day representative of the much larger Pinckney’s capybara.

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


Welcome, Capybaras

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