In the afternoon of Thursday, August 16, 2018 Ryoko and her sister Keiko were sitting beside the entrance gate to the capybara enclosure hoping to escape. Ryoko is the biggest capybara in the herd and her sister Keiko is by far the smallest. They are from the same litter and for the first few months they were a similar size. Because of her small size it is much easier for Keiko to escape which she frequently does. The keepers are quite happy to let her stay outside the enclosure grazing as she needs to put on weight and she never strays far.
Ryoko was heavily pregnant having mated with Kona, the breeding male capybara, at both the beginning and the end of April. I was told the keepers did not think she had become pregnant at the beginning of April. The gestation period for a capybara is generally considered to be five months, although some people believe it is four and a half months.
On seeing that Keiko had escaped the keeper, quite unnecessarily, ran over to the gate at great speed. This alarmed Ryoko who ran as fast as she could to the edge of the pond and sat there looking very upset. She then lay down and experienced three violent spasms. I was very worried that Ryoko had miscarried and when we arrived the following morning I was expecting to see her in a distressed state.
Ryoko gave birth on September 5. She gave birth to two pups one of whom was very weak and died shortly after. Ryoko is the largest capybara in the herd and was in her prime at four and a half years old. In the wild capybaras reach their prime reproducing age at 4 years and give birth to 4.2 pups on average per litter. Capybaras can give birth to up to 8 pups in one litter.
As the largest capybara in the herd, and in her prime, it might be reasonable to assume that Ryoko is also the healthiest and fittest. I had expected Ryoko to give birth to at least 3 healthy pups and very possibly 4 or 5. I believe the trauma she experienced on August 16 may have caused a partial miscarriage in which the umbilical cord attaching the weak pup (who only lived a short time) to his mother’s uterus was compromised.
Being heavily pregnant for the first time must be stressful. I was also worried about an additional, unnecessary stress that Ryoko was subjected to. From about the second week in August Ryoko was being separated from the herd for 17 hours a day even though I was told she was not expected to give birth until about the middle of September at the earliest. (On one occasion Ryoko was put in her separate enclosure over an hour and a half early, presumably because the keeper on duty wanted to make a quick getaway at the end of her working day. Ryoko never presented a problem being put in her separate enclosure so subjecting her to this extra separation time was quite unacceptable.)
It is very stressful for a member of this highly social species to be separated from the herd and there is a danger that separation will undermine a capybara’s position in the hierarchy and leave her vulnerable to being attacked. On our last day Maple was aggressive to Ryoko and Ryoko swam away giving the appeasement vocalisation. Maple would never have done this before Ryoko was separated. Ryoko is number three in the hierarchy and Maple is about five in the hierarchy. It is my belief that Ryoko could safely have given birth in the main enclosure as Donguri and Ayu both did. Ryoko is a very intelligent capybara, one of the two most intelligent capybaras in the herd, and I believe she would have found a safe place to give birth. Obviously once Ryoko gave birth she would have to be separated together with her babies to protect the babies from visitors.
In an email to the chief animal keeper I warned that I thought Ryoko might be in danger of attack because of being separated from the herd for so long. This separation could weaken her place in the hierarchy and leave her vulnerable to aggression from capybaras seeking her place in the hierarchy.
Shortly after giving birth Ryoko suffered a dramatic loss of weight. From a video made at the end of September she appeared to be almost skin and bones. It was heartbreaking to see the largest, fittest capybara in the herd reduced to this. When she was released back into the herd in the main enclosure she was attacked (I have not yet been able to ascertain which capybara or capybaras attacked her). Because of the attack she has had to be separated from the herd once again. In her separate enclosure Ryoko looked extremely stressed and unhappy. Her surviving male pup spends part of every day away from his mother mixing with the capybara herd in the main enclosure. This must have been extremely stressful for Ryoko to be separated from her very young pup.
Researchers in South America have concluded that the dangers of separation for a pregnant female capybara outweigh any possible danger to the pup if the pup is born without the mother being separated from the herd. On my first visit to the capybaras, Fujiko, was separated from the herd at least six weeks before she eventually gave birth. She was put in an enclosure out of sight of the herd which caused a great deal of stress and distress not only to Fujiko but also to members of the herd. Every afternoon her daughters, Ayu and Hinase, would sit by the boundary fence closest to where their mother was, joined by Fujiko’s mother, Donguri, all calling plaintively to her. On some occasions the entire herd would sit here calling to Fujiko.
One afternoon when I was sitting petting Donguri she suddenly stood up and called frantically, then she began to walk over to the boundary fence nearest Fujiko. As we neared the boundary fence Donguri looked up at me appealingly and I realised she wanted me to open the gate so she could be with Fujiko. It broke my heart that I did not have the authority to open the gate and that I could not explain to her how much I wanted to help her but that it was not within my power to do so. Fujiko was moved to an enclosure adjoining the main enclosure after she gave birth and remained there for a further six weeks. In addition to her own two pups, she also nursed Syu and Autumn whose mother, Aki, had died five days after giving birth. When Fujiko returned to the herd she found life very stressful having lost her place in the hierarchy. Seven months later she died.
In 2013 Momiji found life very stressful when she was separated from the herd before and after giving birth to Choco and Doughnut. She frequently called to the herd. Her mother Donguri came and sat beside the entrance gate to her enclosure for long periods, calling softly to her. When Momiji was reunited with the herd following twelve weeks of separation the very intelligent chief animal keeper put Maple in a separate enclosure during the day for the first few weeks to prevent her from attacking Momiji. After this when Momiji and Maple were in the same enclosure Maple frequently tried to attack Momiji. Maple wanted Momiji’s place in the hierarchy and sensed that the demands of childbirth and nursing her two pups had weakened Momiji. Momiji had lost a lot of weight and was always hungry as I pointed out to the keepers. For some very strange reason there seems to be a reluctance to give a nursing mother extra food.
The demands of giving birth and nursing can undermine the health of a mother if she does not get enough to eat. Capybara babies suckle for four months; the second half of this period of lactation, i.e. the final two months place the heaviest demands on the health and fitness of the mother capybara. Momiji survived in part because of the intelligent intervention of the chief capybara keeper. (Ryoko was given no such protection by the current chief capybara keeper; whoever was attacking Ryoko was not put in a separate enclosure to protect Ryoko.) It also helped that Momiji is very fit and an incredibly strong minded capybara and her mother, Donguri, was leader of the herd. Having Donguri as her mother ensured that Momiji could always share her mother’s food trough.
The keeper who frightened Ryoko is new and is a very nice person he just needs a little more training. The zookeeper course should teach trainee zookeepers that they must always move amongst the animals in a calm, unhurried way, showing consideration and respect for the animals at all times. This keeper is always rushing, sometimes running, and this always disturbs and sometimes frightens the capybaras.
Keepers who understand animals would of course instinctively know how to move around the enclosure. They always show respect for the capybaras and move In a calm, relaxed and unthreatening manner. Even when the capybaras escape, keepers who understand animals are always gentle and considerate as they usher the escapees back into their enclosure.
It is imperative that anyone working with animals is able to see the world from the animals’ perspective. This is a fundamental teaching of Animal Welfare Science. Also fundamental to Animal Welfare Science is the knowledge that every behaviour an animal exhibits is meaningful and is the animal’s way of communicating with humans. Animals in captivity must be able to exhibit their natural behaviours, which in the case of capybaras means they should have access to grazing at will and access to a large pond or other body of water as they are semiaquatic. Animals in captivity must also have some control over their lives. Some keepers do not understand this and one keeper uses dog training methods and food to control and manipulate the capybaras in her care. This particularly affects the most senior capybaras in the hierarchy who are already under stress at not being able to fulfil their two most important natural behaviours: to mate and to graze at will. Capybaras are very intelligent and exceptionally sensitive emotionally. They know exactly what this keeper is trying to do and like most rodents species they respond negatively to any effort to control their lives. Capybaras are quite different to dogs who have evolved into a domesticated species over the course of 25,000 years! The result of this unnecessary control and manipulation is extra stress on the herd and capybaras who do not trust the keepers. Ryoko, in particular, is nervous whenever the chief capybara keeper approaches her. This chief capybara keeper should work in the dog section of the zoo.