Anyone who loves capybaras will enjoy spending time with the capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park.
Just like humans they all have different personalities and characters.
There are three families of capybaras in the herd at Nagasaki Bio Park. Those of Momiji, Hinase and Maple. The great Donguri was Momiji’s mother, and Hinase’s and Maple’s grandmother. Only one capybara, Zabon, is not descended from Donguri. Her mother was Aki, Donguri’s sister.
Momiji’s Family are my favourites: the neutered males Choco and Doughnut born in 2013, and their sister Aoba who is one year younger. Momiji’s family are very sensitive and intelligent; this is what draws me to them. They seem to respond to me on a more emotional level and because of their sensitivity they often suffer more than other capybaras which makes me want to help them and make them feel better.
When they were yearlings Choco was the dominant of the two brothers. However, a year later Doughnut had become the dominant of the two with a slightly larger morillo. Interestingly, after their big fight in 2017, which was the first fight that Choco won, Doughnut’s morillo seemed to almost disappear while Choco’s morillo had grown. As Choco began mating his morillo grew even larger. In the wild, the dominant male capybara tends to have the biggest morillo and a large morillo is considered indicative of the dominant male capybara in the herd.
Choco is highly intelligent and pioneers many new behaviours. I have written a blog about him and he has become famous with people coming from as far away as Australia and America to meet him. He solved the problem of being a junior capybara in the hierarchy by bypassing hierarchy altogether and going straight to what he wanted. If it was food he wanted he went into the monkey house and ate the monkey’s food. Amazingly the monkeys accepted him but every other capybara who tried to copy Choco’s behaviour was chased away from the monkey house. At other times when he is hungry Choco climbs up on his hind legs and knocks over the bowl of swan pellets on the bamboo stall or steals a branch of bamboo.
Choco was the first capybara who worked out how to open the gate to the capybara enclosure. Sadly, the handles on the gate have been changed to round handles which a capybara’s mouth cannot grip so poor Choco is no longer able to open the gate and go out and graze on the grass which is an essential part of a capybara’s diet but which the capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park never have access to.
Changing the handles on the gate was a very misguided move on the part of the Bio Park as the visitors were enchanted watching Choco open the gate: they found it much more exciting than watching capybaras eat watermelon. From an Animal Welfare perspective it would have been much better to allow those capybaras who want to escape and eat grass, to go out for five or ten minutes and graze on nutritious grass before bringing them in. The capybaras are sometimes hungry and it is very important for animals in captivity to have some control over their lives. Grazing animals need to be able to eat when they are hungry, not when the humans who control their lives give them their two meals a day. Grazing animals have not evolved over millions of years to eat two meals a day. Having to beg for bamboo and compete with other, possibly more aggressive, capybaras for that bamboo, and often being taunted or teased by the visitors who hold out the bamboo and then pull it away just as the capybara goes to eat it, is not a solution to how to feed these wonderful and emotionally sensitive animals.
The frustration of no longer being able to open the gate changed Choco’s personality. At first he became much more aggressive. His brother Doughnut is usually the more aggressive of the two brothers and frequently used to challenge Choco to a fight. Choco’s response was either to turn his back to deflate the situation or if they did fight, the fight was very brief with Choco running away and always coming off worse with a few injuries. However, after the gate issue, when Doughnut challenged him Choco took Doughnut on. A horrible fight broke out and Doughnut suffered badly. His two upper front teeth broke off at the root and he had many deep wounds. These days, denied the challenge of opening the enclosure gate, Choco often seems depressed and spends much time just sleeping. He has also lost a bit of weight.
Animal Welfare is a vitally important issue when it comes to wild animals in captivity. It is essential that keepers are well-trained in Animal Welfare and Animal Behaviour and understand the behaviour of animals in their care from an animal’s perspective. Every behaviour expressed by an animal is meaningful. Unfortunately, Animal Welfare is in its infancy in Japan. I am told it was only added to the curriculum of the zookeeper courses in Japan very recently. This means that the more senior keepers often have no understanding of advances in Animal Welfare Science, and the junior zookeepers when they get jobs working in zoos do not have the authority or confidence to change the prevailing ethic. Mr Ban, a leading zookeeper at Omuta Zoo (sometimes spelt Omuto) in Fukuoka is on record as saying that Japan (and no doubt Asia as a whole even more so than Japan) lags behind the West with regard to Animal Welfare, and that the Japanese do not understand animals; they think animals are cute but nothing more. I suspect this is true of people in many other countries as well including America.
Choco has a very pleasing, laid back charm and he is absolutely fearless. When the senior capybaras would not allow neutered males into the Onsen bath Choco pioneered climbing up into the large wooden channel which carries the warm water to the Onsen bath; after that many other junior capybaras were able to enjoy a warm water bath by copying Choco and climbing into the water channel.
Doughnut has a completely different personality to brother Choco. Of all the capybaras in this herd he seems the most in touch with his wild side and the least trusting of humans. I have nicknamed him the Samurai capybara. Like his mother Momiji he is very intense and is prepared to fight over food or access to capybaras in separate enclosures. He is nervous of the keepers and the vet and where some capybaras will roll over hoping to be petted when a crowd of noisy schoolchildren gather around them Doughnut takes fright and tries to run away.
Perhaps because of his mistrust of many humans he and I have developed a bond and he often comes to me to be petted.
After Choco and Doughnut had the big fight I mentioned above, and Doughnut lost his two front teeth (capybara teeth are hypsodont teeth which means they keep growing throughout the capybara’s life) it took just over two weeks for his teeth grow back. Doughnut completely lost his confidence after losing this fight and his teeth. Feeling very vulnerable Doughnut spent the next two days hiding in the large pond. Capybaras feel much safer in water and when danger threatens they will usually run to a pond or river.
However, on the third day the pond was emptied for cleaning and Doughnut had nowhere to seek refuge. The timing couldn’t have been worse for Doughnut as the pond is very rarely emptied. In five years of visiting the Bio Park this is only the second occasion I have witnessed the pond cleaning.
Doughnut resolved this by seeking refuge beside Maple. Last year Doughnut had shown great interest in Maple and tried to mount her but she rejected his advances. He often slept near her and seemed to like being close to her and in her company.
To add insult to injury, the very next day Choco mated with Maple. He then continued to do so on many more occasions. Following this Choco spent a lot of time with Maple. They often shared a food trough and slept next to each other.
It took Doughnut about 11 weeks to recover after their big fight. Doughnut regained the weight he lost when he couldn’t eat properly. He has also regained his confidence although he no longer challenges Choco. At about this time I noticed Doughnut and Maple together and Choco seemed happy to leave them alone together. Perhaps Choco is frustrated when Maple is not as interested in mating with him as he would like and wants Doughnut to share that frustration!
Soon after this their love lives became much more complicated and interesting! Before the big fight Doughnut had mated with Butter, Maple’s daughter and the most junior member of the hierarchy. Ten days ago Choco, frustrated with his lack of progress with Maple, also mated with Butter. The expression on Maple’s face as she watched Choco mate with her very junior daughter was priceless; one of absolute surprise. She immediately pursued Choco into the pond and mated with him! Doughnut followed them. Choco mated with Maple many times over the course of about forty minutes. Then Doughnut began to mate with Maple! Surprisingly, Choco didn’t seem to mind at all. He climbed up onto Capuchin Island and watched intently; he looked as if he was enjoying being a voyeur. Since then Choco and Doughnut have been very friendly and affectionate towards each other.
From time to time when Choco or Doughnut are with Maple, Momiji will swim over as if keeping an eye on her boys behaviour, and the boys swim away as if knowing their mother does not approve of their liaison with Maple. Normally Hinase seems to prefer Choco to Doughnut. When Doughnut was mating with Butter, Hinase swiftly swam over, her eyes blazing and chased Butter, who she particularly dislikes, to the far side of the pond. As leader of the herd Hinase might disapprove of the neutered males mating. However she seems to tolerate Doughnut mating with Maple more than Choco mating with Maple. It is almost as if she finds some relief from her frustration at not being able to mate with Toku, the breeding male at Nagasaki Bio Park who is in a separate enclosure, by watching Doughnut mating with Maple. When Choco and Maple are together in the pond she often comes over to keep an eye on them and sometimes she chases Choco away.
Aoba was Momiji’s only baby in 2013 and Aoba was very spoilt. Momiji is a fantastic mother and every time Aoba demanded milk Momiji would get up and walk somewhere quiet so Aoba could suckle. Aoba was exceptionally demanding and frequently Momiji would toss her head in frustration and bark but she never denied Aoba milk. Most capybaras are weaned at about four months of age, but Aoba carried on drinking Momiji’s milk until she was eight months old. Consequently she is a bigger capybara than her brothers Choco and Doughnut. Additionally, she sometimes drank Maple’s milk even though I was told that as a first-time mother Maple had not produced enough milk for her own babies, Butter and Cookie. However, Aoba never let Butter or Cookie drink her mother, Momiji’s, milk! Capybaras go in for Alloparenting which means any lactating female capybara will allow any other mother’s babies to drink her milk. Aoba is more than twice Butter’s size now that they are three years old, thanks to all that milk.
Aoba may well be the most intellectual of the capybaras at Nagasaki Bio Park. I once saw her pick up a bamboo stick with two paws to eat it, like a human or monkey would. I have never seen any other capybara do this. Capybaras would normally pick up sticks with their mouths. I assume she has watched how the humans and capuchin monkeys in her enclosure pick up sticks. Being so spoilt she grew up thinking she was the most important capybara in the world. It must have come as a shock to her, after she was weaned, to discover that she was near the bottom of the hierarchy. Her clever solution to this problem was to try and make friends with all the senior capybaras in the herd so that she could share their privileges and their food trough. This worked with Donguri, who was always very generous and unaggressive. Sometimes it worked with Maple but I never saw her near Hinase. Donguri was the most playful adult capybara I have ever seen and Aoba and Donguri frequently played together in the pond. Aoba has inherited her grandmother’s playfulness.
However, because Aoba is so sensitive she is often nervous of being attacked and tends to sleep and relax slightly apart from the other capybaras. She would like to be aggressive and sometimes in the past was perhaps too aggressive which resulted in some painful deep bites. I thought she might one day be the leader of the herd at the Biopark. In her first year she was the only capybara aside from Donguri who showed an interest in everything that was happening in the capybara enclosure. I think her confidence has been dented and her rival for the number one spot is Ryoko, Hinase’s largest daughter and a very large capybara.
Ryoko is the only other capybara in the main herd who knows how to open gates. They inherit their intelligence from their father, Toku, who also knows how to open gates and is highly intelligent but he is in a separate enclosure. However Ryoko, like her mother Hinase, is a very clever capybara who knows not to be aggressive unless she is certain of winning so her confidence has never been undermined. Hinase’s family seem much more tough-minded than Momiji’s family.
Hinase is number one in the hierarchy and Momiji is number two. Amazingly they appear to be the best of friends and often sleep together and play together in the pond.
It is interesting to watch Momiji when she wants to intimidate another capybara. Her body arches and stiffens slightly, she raises her head and and her hair bristles, there is an intensity about her body language which is difficult to describe. The other capybaras, when they wish to intimidate, just nibble, nip or bite to get their message across. Momiji is a small capybara and has done very well to achieve such a high ranking in the herd. I believe she has done this by the force of her personality.
These capybaras never bite which always amazes me as not everyone treats them the way they should be treated. Sometimes hordes of noisy schoolchildren descend on them, screaming, shouting and running around and they never seem to be frightened, even when a large number of these children crowd around them and poke sticks up their noses. Some people taunt them by holding out a branch of bamboo and then just as the capybara goes to eat it the human pulls the bamboo out of reach, and then repeats this over and over again. As one wise American mother told her child “once you show the bamboo to the capybara you must feed the capybara”. Other people flick the sleeping capybaras ears or nose continually, seemingly amused that the capybaras ears wriggle or nose wrinkles in response to this rude and thoughtless behaviour. I want to say to these stupid, ignorant people “how would you like it if somebody did that to you when you are trying to sleep?”.
Many people are kind and gentle and loving with the capybaras. However, unlike many zoos in Britain which request that people do not run, shout or scream and behave with respect towards animals, there is no control over how people behave in the capybara enclosure. As a result the older capybaras often prefer to stay away from the visitors. Fortunately, the capybara enclosure was designed with this in mind so the capybaras can escape to the islands, or into the pond, or to an area of the enclosure which is off-limits to the visitors.