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

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.

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.

pond Donguri eating bamboo

The Large Pond with Trees and Bushes

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.

 WN Aki escapes to eat grass August 2012

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.

empty pond who stole

This view of the pond when it was emptied for cleaning, gives an idea of the placement of stone ledges and stepping stones which allow the capybaras easy access in and out of the pond, and also provide ledges where the capybaras can rest partially submerged in water.

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.

WN scent marking capybara straddling plant for a blog

Capybaras love to mark  their territory by rubbing their anal scent glands on twigs, as in this photo, branches or other vegetation

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.

WN pond play

Capybaras are very playful and energetic in the pond or pool. It is essential that this pond/pool is large enough for capybaras to exercise and express their natural behaviours.

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, sage 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.

Juanita eating grass

It is important that capybaras can graze when they feel 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.

Romeo swimming

Capybaras are very graceful as they swim in this large pool.

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.

20% May 16 2014 Mud 045

Capybaras Enjoy Mud.  They enjoy rolling in mud and it is good for their skins.

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.

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. It is essential that the enclosure and husbandry provides the animal with choices so that the animal has some control over its life, its environment and its daily routines, as it would in the wild in its natural habitat.

Positive human animal interactions are the foundation of providing good welfare for the animals we manage. These animals 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 animals 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 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.

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 a vital component to providing appropriate housing and husbandry. It is important to remember that the expression of these behaviours has evolved over millions of years and conferred evolutionary success and indeed the survival of this species.

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