‘Bonnie and Clyde’ capybaras still on the run

The Toronto news-media is enjoying itself; two capybaras, which escaped from the local zoo, have become celebrities. 

‘Bonnie and Clyde’ capybaras still on the run

A drama began around 7am last Tuesday week, when keepers were transferring the duo to a new enclosure. While their handler’s backs were turned, the pair absconded. The alert was raised and a search for the fugitives began. First reports said that both escapees were female, so they became known as ‘Thelma and Louise’.

When it emerged that they were a male and female, they became ‘Bonnie and Clyde’. That film, celebrating the real-life activities of two 1930s serial bank-robbers, was released almost 50 years ago. Only oldies, like me, would remember it; the names must be lost on the young. ‘The Toronto Two’ is the best I can come up with.

The capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is found throughout much of South America. This vegetarian, resembling a reddish-brown guinea pig the size of a large dog, likes wooded areas near rivers and lakes. Its legs are ridiculously short.

The teeth grow continuously, compensating for the wear they endure from eating vegetation. Semi-aquatic, the feet are slightly webbed. A capybara can stay submerged for up to five minutes and sleep while in the water, the nose protruding from the surface. Rivers provide a refuge when danger threatens and a means of cooling down in hot weather.

Capybaras live in groups of a few dozen members. Dominant males try to monopolise the access to females but subordinate ones manage to copulate occasionally. Mating takes place in the water. Sperm competition applies; capybara sperm is the longest-lived of any rodent. People hunt capybaras for their meat and fur. Anacondas, the world’s largest snakes, have a penchant for them.

Capybaras, which escaped from captivity in the United States, have survived in the wild there, although breeding has not been confirmed. It’s ‘day 8’ since the great escape. The search continues and, by the time you read this, the renegades may have been caught.

It’s odd that such large animals can’t be located. On a trip up the Madre de Dios River in the Amazon basin some years ago, I saw several capybaras. They made little attempt to hide but Diogo Beltran, who hunts them in Brazil, where they are “a major nuisance”, told CBS News that “they have this survival instinct, it’s like running after a cheetah”. Nor can tranquilising darts be used; a capybara may take refuge underwater and could drown when the drug kicks in.

How will Canadians react when they come face to face with such strange animals? Human attitudes to rodents are ambiguous. Squirrels are everybody’s favourites. Squatting human-style on their haunches, with a nut held in the front paws, they endear themselves to everyone.

The brown rat, on the other hand, is reviled. Rats spread disease, and there may be a lingering fear of the plague deep within our psyches, but it’s the long naked tail that most disgusts us.

The cartoon-like capybara, with its huge box-shaped head, short legs and truncated fat body, is a bizarre, but mildly endearing, creature. Global News reported, however, that a woman ‘freaked out’ when she saw one in her garden. The animal was sheltering from the heat under an outdoor fridge when she came upon it.

It’s hot in Toronto at present so there’s little incentive for the escapees to return home. The phonelines are busy; reports of sightings come from all over the city. The search is concentrated on riverside areas. Corn, the fugitives’ favourite food, is being left out at locations where they might be hiding.

The duo picked the optimum time to break their parole. The weather over the next few months should suit them. However, come the autumn, things will change. Once the winter cold sets in, they may hanker for home comforts. Will they be too wild, or too proud, by then to give themselves up?

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