(A capybara, Credit: cohdra)
A rodent estimated at weighing between 100 and 120 pounds was recently spotted, "calm and serene," hanging out at the Paso Robles Wastewater Treatment Plant, according to MSNBC and numerous other media reports.
Outside of zoos, capybaras are primarily found in South American countries. Every so often, however, they wind up in warmer U.S. states, such as Florida and, as this incident proves, California. This particular story probably went viral on the Internet because the capybara is so unlike the usual rodents we see. It's heavy and has a barrel-shaped body with a short head. Its fur is reddish brown.
The fur on this individual must be clean, or as clean as the capybara can keep it after swimming at the plant. Wastewater operator Nick Kamp told MSNBC that he saw the enormous rodent swimming in a pond at the site and marching around the grounds. The pond is the last step in the treatment process before the water goes into the Salinas River, so the capybara showed some good judgment there.
"It was just a different-looking animal than we've ever seen here," Kamp said, after he took photos of the later-identified capybara. "It had the body of a pig, but it had a longer nose and head to it."
The Los Angeles Times today reported that Paso Robles area officials might set out traps to capture the rodent and relocate it to a local non-profit animal group. That sounds like a good plan to me. Capybaras are popular zoo animals and generally aren't considered to be dangerous. That having been said, if you're a human-sized rodent and someone is messing with you…
"Like any wild animal, they're going to defend themselves, so we wouldn't want anybody to get close to it," Tognazzini explained.
The rodents aren't particularly threatening, "just weird looking," Department of Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan said. "Somebody probably brought it in as a pet and they either got away or people couldn’t deal with it anymore. It's no harm. It's just going to root around."
You can own capybaras as pets in CA and some other places, but a license is required and may be hard to get, for reasons such as this incident. When socialized, they can be quite loyal, playful and affectionate, like most pet rats.
In this case, the wild or homeless capybara wound up in wastewater—the ultimate sewer "rat." But the savvy animals are usually spotted wandering around more posh environments. Three or so years ago, one was seen in a pond near the Hunter Ranch Golf Course. It could even be related to this latest capybara individual, since the golf course is about five miles east of Paso Robles.