Capybara Enclosure Design. Husbandry and Welfare of Capybaras in Zoos and Captive Environments

 

I am afraid I have had to remove the photos as some nasty person has been removing the watermark from my photos and uploading them to the internet. It is illegal to remove the watermark.

 When designing an enclosure for capybaras it is essential to provide them with an environment in which they can display their natural behaviours. The two most important requirements for a capybara enclosure are a large pond/pool and access to grazing.

wn-branfere-july-2012-murmel-tier

This is the perfect enclosure for a capybara: lots of grass and a large pond. Photo by Martin MurmelTier Hees

Animal Welfare is the foundation of what all good zoos do. We can provide good Animal Welfare by taking a behaviour-based husbandry approach to how we manage animals. That means we do not focus on what we are providing for the animals. Rather we focus on what the animal’s behaviour is telling us that the animals’ need. We do this by recognising that all of the behaviours which an animal exhibits are meaningful, and therefore helpful in informing us about what that animal may need.

Behaviour based husbandry incorporates all elements of good animal welfare: good health, psychological well-being, and the expression of natural behaviours. In addition to the design and enrichment of the enclosure, we MUST also ensure positive human animal relationships. The capybara must have choices so that he/she has some control over his life, his environment and his daily routines, as he would in the wild in his natural habitat.

It is imperative that keepers do not try to control capybaras. Rodents, as a species, are particularly intolerant of being controlled. Keepers must understand capybara behaviour. They must be sensitive to a capybara’s mood and what the capybaras’ behaviour is communicating, otherwise the capybara will suffer stress.

In order to understand capybara behaviour the keeper must immerse himself in the lives of the capybaras in his care. He must learn the relationships between the capybaras in the herd. He must be aware that these relationships may change. He must be able to distinguish between different behaviours in order to understand their significance. A good capybara keeper will intuitively understand animal behaviour. He will need to be sensitive and intelligent. He will need to have the patience and interest in capybara behaviour to spend long hours observing capybara behaviour.

Positive human capybara interactions are the foundation of providing good welfare for the capybaras we manage. These capybaras rely on us to provide for all their needs: food, shelter, enrichment, mating opportunities and companionship. If we are unresponsive, negative, unpredictable or aggressive in our interactions with our capybaras we can create significant stress for them.

At all times it is vitally important that we are aware of how what we do may affect our capybaras.

In 2009 Vicky A. Melfi, Zoologist and Animal Welfare Scientist, Identified three primary gaps in our knowledge and approach to zoo animal welfare. Two of these are relevant to capybaras:

One: We tend to focus on indicators of poor welfare and assume that a lack of poor welfare is equivalent to good welfare. However, a lack of poor welfare does not necessarily indicate good welfare.

Two: it is important that we look at an animal’s housing and husbandry from the perspective of what that species needs and not from a human perspective.

Zoos have traditionally built hygienic enclosures that meet human requirements in terms of cleaning and sweeping and housing structures, but which do not provide for the psychological needs of the animals they are designed to house.

In good zoos today these traditional enclosures have been redeveloped or modified as we recognise that animals have very different behavioural priorities to people. Understanding Animal Behaviour is vital in order to provide appropriate housing and husbandry. It is important to remember that the expression of their natural behaviours has evolved over millions of years and conferred evolutionary success and indeed the survival of this species.

The size of the enclosure should be about one acre or half a hectare for a herd of about 15 capybaras. The size required for the enclosure will depend to some extent on the size of the herd. The landscape of the enclosure should reflect the natural habitat of a capybara living in the wild as far as possible.

Capybaras are semiaquatic, and can be very energetic and playful in water, therefore a large pond or pool should be provided. Capybaras are grazing animals, grasses form the staple of their diet, which means they should have access to grass.

 This five year old female capybara escaped from her enclosure where there was no grazing in order to eat grass. Interestingly capybaras often know what food is best for them. The capybaras at one zoo do not like the carrots which are given to them and try to escape in order to eat grass.It is also essential that the keepers who care for the capybaras have a deep interest in and understanding of capybara behaviour and animal welfare. They must spend time observing the capybaras so that they can recognise behaviours and understand the relationships between the individual capybaras in order that they can manage the herd to ensure the best welfare and to avoid aggression. They should observe the condition of the capybaras including their size/weight, the condition of their coat/hair, how much they eat, how they chew (for possible tooth problems) and any signs of abnormal behaviours so if there are any developing health issues these can be treated at an early stage.

Capybaras in captivity may be fed pellets and appropriate vegetables to ensure that their dietary requirements are met. There should be a feeding station for each capybara to ensure that every capybara gets enough to eat. If capybaras in a herd are competing for food this will lead to aggression. Once aggression becomes established in the herd it is extremely difficult to eradicate. For this reason every effort should be made to ensure that feeding does not involve competition between capybaras for food. The keepers may need to sit beside and guard some capybaras at the bottom of the hierarchy if they are not getting enough to eat because other larger and more senior (in the hierarchy) capybaras intimidate them and push them away from food.

In their natural habitat in South America researchers have not found evidence of a female hierarchy. However, in captivity where the capybaras are living in a confined environment and sometimes competing for food or facilities, a strong female hierarchy develops. The keepers will need to be observant and ensure the well-being of capybaras at the bottom of the hierarchy. Male capybaras are hierarchical and can be very aggressive to other males including their own adult male offspring.

If a capybara is so badly injured that he/she has to be taken out of the herd and put in a separate enclosure to recover from the wounds, it will almost certainly be impossible for that capybara to be reintroduced back into the herd. The capybaras most likely to attack an injured capybara are those immediately below the injured capybara in the hierarchy.

Enclosure Enrichment: the purpose of enrichment, both environmental and cognitive, is to ensure the well-being of animals in captivity. Enrichment allows animals to make choices and lead interesting and stimulating lives, and to be able to exhibit their natural behaviours.

The physical enrichment of the enclosure should include:

A large pool or pond. The capybaras should have easy access to this pond or pool. Depending on the number of capybaras the size of the pond/pool should be at least 12 feet/4 m x 24 feet/8 m. Most of this pond should be 4 feet/1.3 m in depth, but some areas should be at shallow depths of 1 and 2 feet, .3 and .6 m, so that the capybara can rest partially submerged in water, and also easily get in and out of the pond/pool. When the weather is hot capybaras go into the water to thermoregulate, i.e. to keep cool. They also seek water as a refuge from danger. In captivity a capybara might be being chased and therefore seek refuge in water. Additionally, if the capybara is injured in some way, perhaps his/her teeth have broken at the root (capybaras have hypsodont teeth which means they grow continually. These broken teeth will grow back in just over two weeks) and the capybara feels vulnerable, he/she will seek refuge in water.

Shelter: the enclosure must provide some shelter from sun, heat and rain. This could be provided by trees and bushes, or by a man-made structure.

Enclosures in Cooler Climates: Capybaras prefer a temperature of at least 24°C or 75°F. If the capybara enclosure is in a climate with cold winters than the capybaras must be provided with a sheltered hut with heating to prevent suffering and frostbite.

Grass: it is essential for capybaras to have access to grazing. Capybaras’ digestive system has evolved over 30 million years for a diet of grasses which are high in fibre but low in calories. In their natural habitat, in South America, capybaras eat grasses, aquatic plants, sedges and chew on the bark of bushes and trees. For the health of capybara teeth it is essential that they have access to coarse materials to chew on in order to control the growth of their teeth. Several capybaras in captivity have died because their diet was based on soft foods which did not ensure the health of their teeth. It is essential for animals in captivity to exhibit their natural behaviours and grazing is one of the most important behaviours for a capybara. Capybaras did not evolve to eat two meals a day; they must be allowed to have access to grazing/appropriate food when they are hungry.

Diet: the capybara diet should be augmented by the provision of appropriate pellets. If there is insufficient grass to provide enough grazing daily than green leaf vegetables such as cabbage, lettuce etc can also be fed. The vegetable should not have a high sugar content. Capybaras should not eat carrots as carrots have too high a level of Vitamin A and this can cause liver damage. Many capybaras in Japan suffer an early death due to liver damage. Capybaras should also not eat fruit because of the high sugar content. A probiotic like Benebac or Bio 3 can be given to treat mild cases of diarrhoea.

Appropriate Vegetation: this should include branches or palm fronds and perhaps leaves which provide soft bedding for the capybaras to lie on when resting or sleeping. Capybaras like to mark their territory by rubbing their anal scent glands over vegetation such as branches and palm fronds. As mentioned above it is essential for the health of capybara teeth that they have access to coarse vegetation, like branches or palm fronds, to chew on. Some capybaras like to chew on stones. These stones must be hard so that they do not disintegrate in the capybaras mouth when chewed, and get swallowed causing injury to their digestive tract.

It is essential that animals in captivity are able to express their natural behaviours. It is also very important that the visiting public should see how animals behave in their natural habitat.

The lives of animals in captivity can be very boring and boredom leads to stress. To avoid boredom and stress the enclosure should provide cognitive and occupational activities to stimulate the minds of the capybaras and encourage physical activity to keep the capybaras healthy.

These enrichment activities can include the appropriate vegetation mentioned above and other natural objects which can be manipulated or played with. Feeding can also be done in a way that provides entertainment for the capybaras. For example, branches of bamboo can be positioned in different parts of the enclosure so that the capybaras have to rise up on their hind legs to eat it or pull it down. Branches of bamboo can be tied to the bushes overhanging the pond/pool so that the capybaras can entertain themselves trying to rise up to eat it. Food pellets can be scattered, or hidden in different areas for the capybaras to find.

The activities described above would also provide cognitive enrichment as the capybaras engage in problem-solving to achieve their food reward.

Sensory and Social Enrichment: capybaras are a highly social and gregarious species. A capybara should never be housed alone, on its own in an enclosure. This would be extremely stressful and would lead to changes in the capybara’s behaviour and personality. Stress levels can be determined by analysing faeces for the presence of stress hormones like cortisol. Extreme stress can lead to changes in the brain structure and an early death.

As capybaras are extremely social and very responsive to tactile stimulation, it is important that the zookeepers responsible for the capybaras pet them and are very friendly. Initially the capybaras may not trust the keeper, so the keeper first has to gain the trust of the capybara in order to get close enough to pet the capybara. To achieve this the keeper could offer food or perhaps a branch of bamboo, and when the capybara comes close to eat the food the keeper can slowly and gently begin to pet the capybara. Capybaras love to be petted; their hair rises, they lie down and roll over and vocalise. Capybara vocalisations include the most beautiful sounds. Positive human animal relationships are vitally important for the well-being of the capybaras living under the care of humans.

If visitors to the zoo will be able to enter the capybara enclosure it is essential that there is an area of the enclosure which is not accessible to these visitors. This is to allow the capybaras to go somewhere private otherwise they may become stressed if they cannot choose whether they wish to be in the company of human visitors or not. Also, ideally, there should be an island in the pond to which the capybaras can go to escape humans.

Mud: capybaras love to roll in mud. It is good for the condition of their skin and can help to exterminate mites or ticks. Mud provides capybaras with enjoyment and relaxation. Rolling in mud is a natural behaviour which capybaras should be able to exhibit in a captive environment.

At all times it is vitally important that we are aware of how what we do may affect our animals.

The basic Animal Welfare protocol is The Five Freedoms:     

Freedom from hunger and thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour.

Freedom from discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

Freedom from pain, injury or disease: by prevention through rapid diagnosis and treatment.

Freedom to express normal behaviour: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind.

Freedom from fear and distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.

The Five Welfare Domains: However, The Five Freedoms protocol was developed in 1965 to rectify the suffering of farm animals, i.e. animals used in agriculture. The Five Freedoms protocol simply emphasises what is our basic duty but does not go far enough to ensure the well-being that we would want for animals kept in captivity and in zoos. We need to provide animals with enjoyable and positive experiences. To address this, David Mellor, an Animal Welfare Scientist working in New Zealand, has developed The Five Welfare Domains. The aim of The Five Welfare Domains is to ensure that animals have positive physical and emotional experiences. This is essential for good animal welfare and the well-being of animals in captivity.

Capybara Diet. Includes Treatments for Dietary Health Issues.

https://capybaraworld.wordpress.com/2021/10/10/capybara-diet-includes-treatments-for-dietary-health-issues-%e6%b0%b4%e8%b1%9a%e9%a3%b2%e9%a3%9f-%e3%82%ab%e3%83%94%e3%83%90%e3%83%a9%e3%83%80%e3%82%a4%e3%82%a8%e3%83%83%e3%83%88/

 

Kiss the Critter, “Cheap Laughs, and Bullying”. Nobody Who Cared about an Animal Could Ever Submit It To a “Kiss the Critter” Event.

Sweet, Gentle, Trusting Capybara

Sweet, Gentle, Trusting Capybara

In the summer of 2012 an animal that I care very deeply about was subjected to a “Kiss the Critter” event. At the time I was heartbroken and horrified. I expressed my concerns very forcibly. I couldn’t watch the video, I was in tears. The animal looked so confused and distressed. How could anyone do this to a sweet, gentle, loving animal.

At one point one of the men smeared his face with lipstick and kissed the animal, covering the animal’s face with lipstick. It was grotesque, and crude and horrible. Nobody who cared about their animal could possibly subject them to this heartless and demeaning experience.

Last night I came across this article in Psychology Today by Marc Bekoff. In it he condemns everything that I was horrified by.

What depresses me is that we live in an age where people pretend to be animal lovers, but in reality they view animals as entertainment, and very often the animals suffer as a result.

Animals experience very similar emotions to humans. In the part of the brain which processes emotions, the limbic system, all mammals (humans and animals) have the same structures. Mammals also share the same neurochemicals that are important in processing emotions.  We should treat them with respect and love. No human should cause suffering to an animal in the pursuit of their own interests.

Animals experience very similar emotions to humans. In the part of the brain which processes emotions, the limbic system, all mammals (humans and animals) have the same structures. Mammals also share the same neurochemicals that are important in processing emotions. We should treat them with respect and love. No human should cause suffering to an animal in the pursuit of their own interests.

Kiss the Critter and Kiss a Pig Contests, “Cheap Laughs, and Bullying”

As Marc Bekoff  says, and he says it applies to other animals as much as pigs “These inane contests demean everyone involved and should be stopped right now… Stunts based on contempt and ridicule…. These sensitive {animals}… Surrounded by shrieking…. promoting animal exploitation for cheap laughs. The animals have no understanding of what is happening to them. {Animals} are sentient beings who are capable of experiencing fear and pain. Just as none of us would appreciate being held up in front of a jeering crowd, neither do animals. Bullying is bullying, no matter who the victim is.”

Animals suffer when their needs and expectations and desires are not met. All mammals (humans and animals) have the same structures in a part of the brain called the limbic system, which appears to be primarily responsible for our emotional life and the formation of memories. Mammals also share the same neurochemicals that are important in processing emotions, so these arguments from analogy, as scientists call them, are extremely strong and valid ones. I.e. any differences between humans and animals are differences of degree rather than kind. And animals may well experience some things more strongly than humans.

Animals are not objects. We do not own them. There has been a paradigm shift among scientists who study ethology, animal behaviour. Scientists have come to understand that animals have emotions and feelings and are intelligent. We should treat them with the love and respect they deserve.

This is an article that Marc Bekoff wrote for Psychology Today:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/animal-emotions/201311/kiss-pig-contests-cheap-laughs-and-bullying

“Kiss a Pig Contests, Cheap Laughs, and Bullying

These inane contests demean everyone involved and should be stopped right now

Published on November 8, 2013 by Marc Bekoff, Ph.D. in Animal Emotions

Given that schools rightfully aspire to zero tolerance of bullying, they should be at the forefront of encouraging students to be respectful to each other, to their teachers and to all those around them, human and nonhuman alike. So, why are schools (and other organizations) holding events such as “kiss a pig” contests to reward students for reading or to motivate them in their fundraising? These spectacles send the reckless message that stunts based on contempt and ridicule are not only condoned but also encouraged.

Whether or not a student or teacher is well liked, it’s clear that the person who gets the most votes and has to kiss a pig is considered a “loser.” In “kiss a pig” contests, these sensitive animals are surrounded by shrieking kids and the pigs have no understanding of what is happening to them. The piglets often scream in fright, urinate and struggle to escape.

Schools should recognize that these kinds of incentives encourage students to be openly disdainful of their teachers and also foster derision and disrespect toward both educators and pigs. Instead of mocking pigs, students could learn a lot of positive lessons about kindness and compassion from them.

Pigs are loyal friends and amiable companions. Smart and inquisitive, they enjoy exploring and uncovering new and interesting things. They dream and also enjoy listening to music and getting back rubs. Calling someone “a pig” should actually be a compliment.

Pigs are sentient beings who are capable of experiencing fear and pain. Just as none of us would appreciate being held up in front of a jeering crowd, neither do pigs. Bullying is bullying, no matter who the victim is. The teacher who would stop a child from being picked on should extend the same compassion toward animals. Educators must recognize the danger of instigating group antipathy (the so-called “mob mentality”) and how doing so prompts otherwise kind people to behave badly.

If students were taught how personable pigs really are, I feel certain these contests would be stopped once and for all. Young people can learn to appreciate pigs for the truly remarkable beings they are. Pigs offer valuable lessons in forgiveness, resilience and confidence, and I know this firsthand from a pig I met a few years ago named Geraldine.

Geraldine was a rescued potbellied pig living at a lovely sanctuary called Kindness Ranch. Although she had known nothing but cruelty before being rescued, she was personable and clearly interested in assessing me for acceptance as a new friend. Once I passed muster and she trusted me, she demanded nothing but companionship and belly rubs. Geraldine had every reason to be hostile and fearful, but she put her bad past behind her and moved forward with optimism and cheer. The idea of subjecting Geraldine or any of her kin to derision or discomfort is utterly unthinkable.

Links between animal abuse and human abuse are well-known

In light of the devastating consequences of bullying, schools are doing the right thing to take steps to curb anti-social behavior. And those steps must include extending kindness to everyone, including other animals, as there are well-established links between abusing nonhuman animals and bullying humans (see also and “Animal Cruelty and Antisocial Behavior: A Very Strong Link“).

With so many innovative and humane ways to motivate kids, schools are failing themselves and their students by promoting animal exploitation for cheap laughs. These sorts of events should be stopped immediately and the reasons for doing so should be made very clear. Both humans and other animals will benefit from these discussions.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

Marc Bekoff is a former Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and is a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society and a past Guggenheim Fellow. In 2000 he was awarded the Exemplar Award from the Animal Behavior Society for major long-term contributions to the field of animal behavior. Marc is also an ambassador for Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots program, in which he works with students of all ages, senior citizens, and prisoners, and also is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Jane Goodall Institute. He and Jane co-founded the organization Ethologists for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Citizens for Responsible Animal Behavior Studies in 2000. Marc is on the Board of Directors of The Fauna Sanctuary and The Cougar Fund and on the advisory board for Animal Defenders, the Laboratory Primate Advocacy Group, and Project Coyote. He has been part of the international program, Science and the Spiritual Quest II and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) program on Science, Ethics, and Religion. Marc is also an honorary member of Animalisti Italiani and Fundacion Altarriba. In 2006 Marc was named an honorary board member of Rational Animal and a patron of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society. In 2009 he was named a member of the Scientific Expert Advisory Panel of Voiceless, The Animal Protection Institute and a faculty member of the Humane Society University, and in 2010 he was named to the advisory board of Living with Wolves and Greenvegans and the advisory council of the National Museum of Animals & Society. In 2005 Marc was presented with The Bank One Faculty Community Service Award for the work he has done with children, senior citizens, and prisoners. In 2009 he was presented with the St. Francis of Assisi Award by the Auckland (New Zealand) SPCA. Marc is also on the Board of Directors for Minding Animals International.

This is a link to Marc Bekoff’s homepage:

http://www.literati.net/authors/marc-bekoff/

 

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