Beware the Capybara

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How to survive three (not really) dangerous capybara encounters

by Kyle Brown

It has sharp teeth. It can weigh up to about 150 pounds. It has 3/4 of the word “bear” in its name.

All three of these things are true of the capybara, the largest rodent in the world. While gifs on Twitter might make them out to be some of the most relaxed animals on the planet, they could secretly just be waiting for an opening to attack.

“They’re actually really easygoing,” says Matt Mills, keeper at the Akron Zoo, where he watches their capybara, Atlantis. “Most capybaras, if they’re afraid of people, they would just walk away from you.”

But you can never be too prepared, even though wild capybaras live far away, mostly east of the Andes Mountains in South America. Here’s how to survive a few of the most (possibly) likely dangerous encounters with the capybara.

– A capybara chases after you in a dark alley, holding a knife in its teeth. What do you do?

First, a capybara isn’t likely to have a knife in its teeth, because its teeth are dangerous on their own. Their teeth grow continuously, and capybaras wear them down by chewing on bark, shaping them “like little chisels,” says Mills. They’re thick and sturdy, but come to a point. If one did decide to bite, it could do some damage. But they’re mostly content to eat grass, aquatic plants, fruits, vegetables and occasionally nuts or bark.

They’re also surprisingly swift runners, with powerful, longer hind legs that let them “kind of bound like a rabbit,” up to about 30 miles per hour over short distances, says Mills.

“If you had a good head start and keep going, they’d tucker out,” he says, “but in the first 15 feet, they’d probably get after you if they felt like it.” Even then, it’s not likely because they’re more apt to be using that burst of speed to run away, rather than at you.

But if an armed capybara does corner you in a dead-end alley, you only need one big step to get clear, as long as it’s on top of something. Capybaras are poor climbers, says Mills, and those back legs are good for leaping forward, not up. Get a few feet off the ground, and the unlikely assailant will get frustrated and move on.

 

A huge group of capybara swarm around you, sniffing, like a small, fuzzy zombie apocalypse.

As social animals, it’s also not uncommon for capybaras to gather in herds, especially while foraging, says Mills.

“They usually live in groups of 10 to 20 in the wild,” he says. “In the dry season, those groups will congregate to find water, so you can have a herd of 100 capybaras.”

But that herd is usually more to help protect the group rather than to look for a defenseless target.

“Their strength lies in numbers. When they get in groups, there’s always a couple somebodies watching out to see what’s going on,” says Mills. If a lookout feels stressed or unsafe, it barks to warn the group.

It’s also possible the herd just likes your scent, since capybaras have a strong sense of smell, and rely on it more than their eyesight. Capybaras have scent glands on their bodies (all have anal scent glands, and males have scent glands in a bald patch above their noses), and they use those scents to communicate and set up territories.

So if you find yourself surrounded by capybaras, keep calm, and remember that they’re vegetarian. Even if they were zombies, they’d be more interested in grains than the other thing. Since you’re among some of the most easygoing animals on the planet, maybe relax a bit yourself. Try not to smell like a cut of delicious South American grass.

 

– The water seemed safe, but now a capybara in scuba gear and armed with a harpoon gun is headed your way.

A capybara would never wear scuba gear, mostly because they’re already wearing it all the time. They’re a semi-aquatic species, and are well-suited to handle the water with wiry, brush-like fur that allows quick water runoff rather than a dense coat that will get wet and heavy, says Mills.

“They have webbed feet, which makes them great swimmers. When they’re feeling scared, that’s their natural place to go,” Mills says.

They can swim almost wholly submerged with just their ears and nose above water, similar to a hippopotamus, and when it’s time to dive, they can hold their breath for a remarkable five minutes at a time. While underwater, they look for aquatic plants to snack on, or just wait out a danger at the surface.

They spend so much time in the water that the Vatican classifies the capybara as a fish. This gives the added bonus of allowing it to be eaten during Lent, when it’s usually forbidden to eat red meat.

Out of these situations, this one might be the worst, according to Mills, since capybaras are very capable swimmers. Even without the harpoon gun, it’d be easier for one to bite when it doesn’t have to climb anything to reach you. The easiest way to get out of this situation is to literally get out – of the water. Then maybe find something to climb on.

Under most conditions, capybaras are relaxed, social animals, says Mills. He’s witnessed an exhibit where a capybara shared space with a small crocodile, turtles and flightless birds.

“They all got along with the capybara,” says Mills. “They’re not aggressive. They have no reason to be.”

That said, they’re still wild animals, and shouldn’t be considered for pets. Though capybaras aren’t native to the U.S., there’s still the occasional report of one being spotted in the wild after someone attempted to keep it captive and realized they were in over their head.

In the off chance that you do actually see a capybara in the wild, there’s an easy way to avoid conflict: Just avoid it altogether.

“Just leave it alone,” says Mills. “You don’t want to stress it out. Give it some space.”

Just don’t give it an opening to strike.

 

(Images courtesy of the Akron Zoo)

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