The Fantastical Capybara: An Interview with Melanie Typaldos About Her Caplin Rous

Update: Caplin Rous’ FACute, answering many questions.

My first encounter with a capybara was sad and strange: I saw one in a cramped cage at a county fair as a teenager. In amongst the rides, the shooting galleries, and the weird food, just this tiny cage and this incredibly peculiar creature that I’d never seen before, or even imagined existed. It had unbelievably beautiful eyes. Ever since then, I’ve been fascinated with capybaras because they seem so fantastical and they also have this gruffly wise look to them. (I only wish I had found some way to rescue that first one from what couldn’t have been a great life.)

Recently, I had a dream about capybaras, and, astoundingly, a capybara named Caplin Rous, responded in the comments! This led to further investigations, and the discovery that Caplin Rous lives in Texas, and that Melanie Typaldos dons the Caplin Rous (Rodents of Unusual Size, if you remember your Princess Bride) persona for her website devoted to her capybara. Not only that, Typaldos has just released a kid’s book called Celeste and the Giant Hamster, which does include appearances by a capybara. (The book is well-written, clever and interesting–definitely worth buying.)

It seemed only natural, given the topics that crop up on Ecstatic Days, to interview Melanie Typaldos about Caplin Rous, as wonderful a capybara as I’ve ever seen. The answers about capybaras may surprise you, including what sounds they make! It’s just a great interview.

How did you wind up with a capybara in Texas? And had you ever had one before?

Six months before we got Caplin Rous, I went to the Los Llanos region of Venezuela with my two grown children, Philip and Coral. One of our goals was to see capybaras in the wild. We were lucky enough to see quite a few of them… actually hundreds, maybe thousands. Our most amazing experience was holding a three-month-old capybara that our guide simply picked up off the road one evening. The docile nature of that capybara in our first up-close experience started us thinking that a capybara might make a good pet. When we got back to Texas we researched capybaras on the web and found surprisingly little information on their suitability as pets. However, we did note that some sites stated something along the lines of “commonly kept as pets” with absolutely no data to back the claim.

What kind of a pet is a capybara? How smart? And what kind of temperament?

When we questioned locals in Venezuela, they stated in no uncertain terms that capybaras are the dumbest animals on the planet. Our experience is quite the opposite. Caplin is at least as smart as a dog, although differently motivated. He won’t do anything if there isn’t something in it for him. It seems like he recognizes every person he’s ever met and reacts differently to them. In general, he is a very sweet and affectionate animal. He likes to sit on the couch next to me or in my lap while I feed him treats. Since he weighs 100 lbs, I can only have him in my lap for a few minutes before it starts cutting off circulation in my legs. At night, Caplin likes to sleep under the covers if the weather is cold, or on the floor beside the bed in warmer weather.

In a single word, I would describe him as needy. He always wants to be with me and can “eep” loudly if he knows I am nearby but he can’t get to me. He follows me around the house and the yard and expects me to watch him while he swims or grazes. He panics if he doesn’t know where I am. When he thinks it’s time for me to come home from work, he will go to the gate and wait for me.

How on earth did you train Caplin Rous?

Like many rodents, capybaras are very smart and Caplin is no exception. When he was a month old I taught him to shake hands by saying “shake” and tapping his paw until he picked it up. It took 15 minutes for him to figure it out. The last trick I taught him was to go in a circle when I signal. I saw a video of a capybara in a zoo in Japan that could do this trick. There aren’t many other capybaras that can do any tricks at all and I didn’t want the Japanese capybara to one-up Caplin. To teach this I used one of his favorite foods, a fruit popsicle. Keeping the popsicle just out of reach, I led him in a little circle, rewarding each correct step. After two popsicles, he knew the trick.

What is it that you like so much about capybaras?

What I love most about Caplin is how much he loves me and how smart he is. I also love his noises. When people hear him they are always amazed. His voice is often mistaken for a birdsong. When he’s nervous he sounds like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When he’s happy he sounds like a Geiger counter.

Do people do double-takes when they see Caplin Rous for the first time? I shared photos with friends and they thought they had been Photoshopped.

I take Caplin out in public a lot just because I like to have him with me. It is fun to watch people’s reactions. Most people have no idea what he is and some take that as a personal affront, angry that such an animal could even exist. But most people are excited and enthusiastic about him, often referring to him as a giant hamster. That usually means they like him. Those who refer to him as a giant rat are more likely to be afraid. He is confused with a variety of animals such as tapirs, wombats and peccaries. One thing that amazes me is that very small children in strollers who can hardly speak a dozen words will point at him and say, “Mouse!” They are almost better at making that connection than adults are.

How many other animals do you have? Does Caplin get along with all of them?

We have four horses, three rainbow boas, two leopard tortoises and a rabbit. Caplin and the rabbit are great friends although we constantly worry that he’ll step on her. The tortoises sometimes invade Caplin’s corner of the yard and he will do his threat display of clicking and barking to try to drive them off. They ignore him. He is scared to death of the snakes, probably imagining they are anacondas. Of the four horses, only the oldest and gentlest one is allowed near Caplin. I don’t trust the others not to paw him out of curiosity.

Does Caplin Rous roam free? And do you need a permit to keep Caplin?

I treat Caplin just like a dog. He goes in and out of the house at will and has pretty much free roam of the fenced area. I don’t let him out at night because we have coyotes that sometimes come near the house. When we’re outside the yard I always keep him in his harness and leash. Catching a capybara is something like catching a greased hog with their similar body shape and his tendancy to be wet and covered with mud.

Where I live in Texas, no permits are required to own a capybara but this is not true in many places. State and local restrictions may apply. New York and California have particularly stringent rules concerning rodents.

What’s your favorite thing about Caplin Rous?

It’s hard to pick just one aspect, but I think I love his noises the most. Since I used to do pharmaceutical research and had frequent occasion to use a Geiger counter, I never would have thought that sound could bring a smile to my face the way it does now.

Did Caplin play a role in the writing of your book?

Caplin was the inspiration for my book. My granddaughter wanted a book about cats but I soon found the capybara taking over the story. The cats mimic human reactions including fear, anger, curiosity and surprise, finally resulting in friendship and acceptance when they get to know the capybaras in the book. Without Caplin, I would not have known about these reactions or about capybara behavior, which is very poorly documented.

When did you start pretending to be Caplin Rous? What do you find interesting about inhabiting the persona of a giant rodent?

One day as I explored MySpace I noticed that a surprising number of guinea pigs had their own pages. Just for fun, I created a Caplin page. He immediately attracted friends, either people or “anipals,” who were interested in capybaras. Since I’d had so little luck finding information about pet capybaras, I wanted to do my part to contribute to the knowledge base. Even though the blog entries are written in Caplin’s voice, they contain a lot of information about his behavior, both good and bad. The day Caplin bit me I posted a blog expressing both of our confusion over the event and his subsequent hostility. Over time, I realized he intended me to be part of his herd and I was not cooperating. Eventually we worked through this. I also kept a chart of his growth and had him discuss his medical issues, which included a brief period of paralysis following neutering. New capybara owners now have a little more information about what they are getting into than I did when I got Caplin.

What about capybaras do you think would come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t have one as a pet?

The existence of capybaras surprises people more than anything else. Once they get over the shock of a giant rodent, they tend to admire his calm demeanor. When Caplin does a trick, such as shaking hands, they are surprised by his intelligence, frequently claiming that he is smarter than their dog. I think he is just better trained.

People with some prior knowlege would be most surprised by what active and agile swimmers they are. If you see capybaras in the zoo, they are almost always doing nothing. Caplin is a very graceful in the water, more like an otter than a dog. He has an above ground swimming pool that is about 15’x10’x5′ and he zips around underwater, putting his forepaws against his stomach and pushing off with his hind feet. I love to watch him play with his pool toys. He especially loves to swim through hoops.

UPDATE: Just a couple of videos added, in response to some comments below. First of singing. Second of meeting other capys (can hear some capy noises). Third of something silly…More on YouTube.

Comments

  1. says

    Bob – That’s a great question! I’m caplin’s (less-loved) sibling, so I know him pretty well. And I have guinea pigs. Caplin does popcorn! When he was a baby he popcorned much like a guinea pig, but slightly less coordinated. Upon reaching the ground again he often fell, a little unsteady on his feet. Now he does something similar, but I think his fat body and ridiculously small legs make jumping straight into the air a little more dangerous. What he does now is jump up a little bit and then take off running. Generally this is accompanied by a bark, sort of like a dog.

  2. teaver says

    They seem to be quite skittish for such a sizable animal. But I have to admit – the sounds it makes are fantastic! :D And they have these funny paws with fingers. I guess I know why people want to have it as a pet…

  3. paul says

    you’ve got to be kidding!!!! i wouldnt want a 1lbs. rodent let alone a 100lbs one in my house. better pets out there. very wierd.

  4. says

    Hi all. I am happy to see there is so much interest in Caplin Rous and in capybaras in general. I think the more people know about capybaras, the more they will love them. Rodents make up 1/4 of all mammal species and the capybara is the largest member of this group. There used to be giant capybaras about the size of a cow but those went extinct about 10,000 years ago but Caplin, at 100 lbs, is big enough for me (although he is a little small for a capybara).

    Capybaras are closely related to guinea pigs so a lot of their sounds are very similar. Surprisingly, they are not usually any louder than guinea pigs and are a bit higher pitched. One of the most common questions we get when Caplin goes out in public is, “Is he making that sound?” People are confused because he is a large animal with a small voice. Unfortunately, his sounds are very hard to record. One of his most amazing vocalizations is a very low thrum that is almost inaudible. When he does that in the pool, I can feel it through the water.

    As Sheldon explained, Caplin always goes to the bathroom in the water. Usually he uses his bowl by the toilet or a similar bowl I have outside. But he does sometimes use the pool. When he does, he always gets out of the water right away. You may see capybaras in very dirty water in zoos and such but this is not their choice. They are clean animals…except that they like to roll in the mud.

    At the beginning of his blog, Jeff comments that he saw a capybara at a fair. That could almost be Caplin. His parents are carnies who travel around to local fairs and carnivals and are billed as “The World’s Largest Rats!” They are wild animals; you cannot pet them and they are afraid of people. When not traveling, they do have a nice enclosure and more room to roam. But they do not have the easy life Caplin does with his grassy yard and personal swimming pool.

    Please visit his blog at http://www.GiantHamster.com for more information. I am going to try to get a new post, FACute, up later today to answer more questions.

    Thanks to Jeff for getting the word out about Caplin!

  5. Susan says

    Having had hamsters, mice, gerbils, chipmunks (don’t ask *laugh*) and guinea pigs as pets, I don’t get the hamster comparison. He reminds me of a guinea pig on steroids and even sounds a lot like one.

    And, despite having seen pics of them in the wild, etc. I had no idea they were that big. *s*

  6. says

    We see some of these in Alabama, in the lowlands surrounding former Fennicup Swamp (US 11 near Gadsden). They are cute, but best treated with the respect you give any wild animal. Some people have claimed to see flying capybaras (80-pound “capybats”) but that is almost certainly legendary.

    Also, I love the gray caps, freshwater squid and meerkats, and wouldn’t mind seeing capybaras join that particular menagerie. Thanks for this post.

  7. says

    Are you sure you don’t see nutrias?

    I’ve already included capybaras in an early short story. But I think wombats are more likely to enter the canon first.

  8. Jeff VanderMeer says

    it was in there, but I deleted it when I added the photo of Melanie’s book, just cause too much stuff was going on. Thanks for the link.

  9. madilene alltizer says

    through the years. i have ejoyed both rats and guinea pigs. i must say. i found the rats to be quite a bit smarter. during the 80’s i was a volunteer at the L.A. ZOO for 5 yrs….thats where i grew a fondness of the capybara. i had no idea they could be pets!!! now i want one!!! except. about 16/18 years ago i rescued a pot bellied pig,who is still with us, and now is a very cranky old girl!!! so… i will have to put that dream on hold for the time being. but thanks so much for all the great info.

  10. alex says

    To Zach: yes, “Capyboppy” is a classic. But it’s a very sad story, of a big failure of the owners.

  11. Justathought says

    Beautifull animal. But why does people insist to have everything as pet? I think capybaras belong to the wild in herd with it’s own kind, not alone in somebody’s backyard.

  12. says

    I live near London and they have a few of these living at a local wildlife centre (known to residents of Hanwell, West London, as “the bunny park”). They were incredibly cute and my kids were fascinated by them. I’d never come across them before so I did a search and came up with your site, which I am about to show to my kids, so thanks for the useful and interesting information.

  13. K P says

    Capybaras are cool animals,I have had many wild animals as pets and love all wildlife. Through my experiences with having racoons, foxes.deer.hawks,squirels,skunks, turtles and many different types of snakes is that they are better off in the wild where they are ment to be. I hope these capi”s are not being taken from the wild, what are we teaching children by this behavior. Granted some people may have the ability to care for a wild animal but most do not have any idea what they are getting into and the animal suffers. I dont mean to be a downer, your site is really cool and positive as well as educational but there is another side of taking animals out of the wild.

  14. thecursor says

    Well OF COURSE cats dislike him.

    Imagine you’re a cat, you just got done catching a mouse or a rat, your turn a corner and bam, there is a distant cousin of the thing you just ate standing in front of you and he’s three times your size. I love eating chicken, imagine what it would be like to meet a chicken the size of a buick? That’s the cat’s whole experience right there.

    If I were a cat, I would freak the hell out.

  15. WenKen says

    I love capybaras! I didn’t know anyone kept them as pets in the states. We got to know a semi-tame capybara who lived outside one of the Explorama lodges on the Peruvian Amazon. This big, friendly guy came up to us, and when I touched him, very tentatively, he rolled over. I jumped back–it took a few seconds to realize that he just wanted his belly rubbed. Once the belly rubbing started, he began clicking, purring, and making other happy sounds. We’ll never forget that.

  16. Sam says

    I have always wanted a Capy but since we move around a lot for my husbands job (we are stationed in Germany now!) we have not been able to get one yet… This one is very cute, my pet rats are litter trained but I wonder how long it would take a Capy to outgrow a litter pan…

  17. says

    Very charmed by the idea of an oversized whistlepig pet. I’ve always wanted a groundhog (aka”whistlepig) . I’ve been raising packgoats for years now- and like the capybara- goats are written off as big dumb animals. Indeed they are not, if imrinted upon a human at birth or bonded to a human as a kid a socialized goat is a wonderful pet- especially a neutered male called a wether…these are the “throw away” variety of goats used for weed eating ditches- and usually die from a dog attack (aka dog treat on a rope). So sad. They love attention, love to play and to lay next to you and snuggle…they will even protect you while on hikes if another human or car or dog draws near. LOVE my packgoats…but after having a guinea pig for five years- I’d love to try a larger variety! Maybe someday?

  18. Percival says

    I stumbled upon this page because I was searching the Internet for information on what happened to poor Capyboppy, but the link displayed above only leads to some pictures on Bill Peet’s page (or rather, the page his son dedicated to him). I assume the poor thing did not live very long in the zoo – having lived as a family member and then having to cohabitat with a species unknown to him (with different habits and dietary requirements) he either died of a broken heart or of unsufficient care. Even if I would much prefer not to know what happened (=if I don’t know it, it did not happen), me and my family would be grateful if you could let us know. Ever since reading the book almost 40 years ago I have always wished to have the means, time and lifestyle that allowed me to welcome at least one capybara into my life! Suppose I will have to settle for guinea pigs…..
    P.S.: Say hello to Caplin Rous for me (tweetletweet)!

  19. Jann says

    WHAT A FANTASTIC SIGHT!
    Being disabled (MS), this could be a great pet! I have a chihuahua (“OY”)that is a gift from god – -anytime I get in trouble, he goes and barks at the door until help comes – -who would have thought?!?
    Why not a capybara?? They love to be loved – -have a calm temperament and are smart! Just like my little chihuahua, God could train a capybara just for me too!!

  20. Nyoaka Koone says

    Wow! That is the cutest thing. I have a guinea pig (Bacon) and Caplin reminds me of a giant Bacon. :) It must be amazing to have such a pet. What does he eat and is he house broken or is there accidents?

  21. Elspeth says

    I don’t think he looks very happy when you’re shoving that stuffed toy in his face….retarded american

  22. AnimalLover says

    I agree that with the person who said that capybaras belong in the wild in a herd of it’s own kind, not alone in somebody’s backyard. People should respect an animal’s nature.

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] link What I love most about Caplin is how much he loves me and how smart he is. I also love his noises. When people hear him they are always amazed. His voice is often mistaken for a birdsong. When he’s nervous he sounds like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. When he’s happy he sounds like a Geiger counter. [...]

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