Thursday, July 26, 2007

Article: The cutest rodent in the world

Close-up of a baby capybara named Caplin

I’m writing this article with a capybara sleeping on my lap. Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents with adults reaching 150 pounds. Caplin weighs about four pounds but she’s only fifteen days old. She has already doubled in weight since she was born.

Caplin is my new pet but she’s not the only pet rodent to have inhabited this house. When my daughter was a teenager she had a pet rat named Rainbow. Properly treated and maintained, rats make excellent pets. They’re smart, clean and personable. They can identify people and can learn tricks.

Capybaras don’t look like rats, they look like another rodent commonly kept as pets, guinea pigs. Capybaras have big, square heads, short bodies and no tails. Also like guinea pigs, capybaras are native to South America. They range from Panama down the eastern side of the continent. Unlike guinea pigs, capybaras are semi-aquatic. They have partially webbed toes to allow them to move easily on moist or muddy ground.

My kids and I went to the Los Llanos region of Venezuela earlier this year. We saw hundreds of wild capybaras sitting on the roads, wading in the swamps or swimming in the multitude of lakes. The setting looked idyllic but life in the wild is hard for capybaras. They share the swamps with caiman, crocodiles and anacondas all of whom enjoy a delicious meal of capybara. Those are some fearsome predators. And that’s not counting the occasional jaguar.

Of course, the wild capybaras main threat comes from humans. In addition to the standard issues of habitat destruction, capybaras are also hunted. This hunting is exacerbated by the fact that capybara are considered legitimate to eat by Catholics during the forty days of lent, the only mammal to have that honor. During our stay in Los Llanos, our guide told us that capybaras in that area are only eaten during lent and hunting is prohibited the rest of the year, but this is probably not true throughout their range.

Capybara gestation takes between five and six months which seems like a long time for a rodent. A typical litter contains five babies who are born with fur and with their eyes open. In the wild, baby capybaras stay with their mothers for up to eighteen months. Even though they nurse, baby capys eat grass from their first day of life.

Pet capybaras are not easy to come by. We searched the web and could find only one breeder in the United States, fortunately located not too far away in south-western Arkansas. When we contacted her we found she didn’t have any babies for sale and that her sales were booked for many litters in advance. Luckily she pointed us to one of her previous customers who had just had a litter. His location in Nacogdoches was fortunately even closer. By the time we got there less than a week later, only one of the original five babies remained.

We’ve had Caplin five days and can already see she will make a great pet. She loves being scratched or having her ears rubbed. She litter box trained herself. She’s still a bit skittish when she thinks someone is going to catch her but otherwise she will climb all over you, chew on your hair and take food or a bottle from your hand. When she’s happy she makes quiet chirping or purring sounds, more high-pitched than a cat’s.

The large size of a mature capybara probably means Caplin will have to move out to the backyard when she gets bigger. I’m hoping she’ll help with the mowing and maybe even cut back on the plants growing in my pond. Cute, friendly and useful, capybaras make the perfect pet--I hope.

Here’s a link to a YouTube video of Caplin getting her chin scratched.

Photo: Caplin sitting under a chair.

Photo: Caplin on the couch.
Photo: Coral holding a wild baby capybara in Venezuela. At night you can pick them up when they're sleeping on the road.
Photo: A capybara family swiming in Los Llanos.
Photo: When two capybaras meet, their birds swap places.


Carl said...

Caplin is so cute! I hope she still likes to cuddle when she is grown.

Anonymous said...

Arn't these poisionus?

kizzy said...

capys are the cutest rodents in the world and shmappy is the cutest capy in the world.

Anonymous said...

Caplin is so adorable! I love rodents. The capybara is one of my favorite rodents. I think caplin will be an even better pet when she's all grown up!

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