How To Have the Best Relationship with Animals

My experiences with horses and capybaras.

The events of this summer set me thinking about my own approach to animals and the negative effect on some animal species when people try to control and manipulate them emotionally.

This year’s chief capybara keeper’s interaction with the capybaras was all about controlling them beyond the usual norms. This had a negative effect on the capybaras, particularly the most senior capybaras in the hierarchy who expected to be in control of their lives and already resented the restrictions on their behaviour as a result of living in captivity. They were particularly stressed at not being able to eat when they were hungry, and not being able to mate. Almost every interaction this chief capybara keeper had with a capybara involved an attempt to make him/her do some completely unnecessary action. Some of the methods she used to try to get the capybaras to bond with her come from dog training methodology; rodents are not dogs! Capybaras are very sensitive emotionally and they knew they were being manipulated. The result of her efforts to control them was that the capybaras did not trust the chief capybara keeper and often became nervous if she approached them.

Every behaviour an animal exhibits is meaningful; this is how animals communicate with humans, but not everyone understands or is sensitive to animals’ behaviour. I come from a family who seem to get on very well with animals and whom animals seem to like. From the youngest age I have always seen things from the animals’ perspective. I have never had any desire to control animals but I have formed the impression that some people who say they love animals, love animals because they enjoy controlling them. For some of these people I have sensed that they felt they had no control over other areas of their own life, or control over people in their lives, so controlling animals made up for this lack of control in other areas of their life.

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Donut

 

Many years ago I spent a few months working at a riding school grooming and mucking out horses. This riding school specialised in training students for the British Horse Society Assistant Instructor rating. I had two notable experiences during this time.

On one of our rides through the woods I was given a young pony called Kestrel to ride. Kestrel had a reputation for being naughty and a difficult ride and it seemed he sometimes enjoyed depositing his rider in the mud! We were supposed to ride on a tight rein but every time I tried to pull Kestrel’s head up he would shake his head and pull against my hands. It was obvious to me that he felt more comfortable on a loose rein and I felt a greater need to let him be comfortable and happy than to control him against his will, so we trotted along with Kestrel choosing how he wanted to hold his head. The track through the woods was occasionally crossed by fallen tree trunks over which the horses would jump. However I had not yet learnt to jump and Kestrel quickly sensed I was in danger of falling off if he jumped over these tree trunks. So every time we came to a tree trunk he would slow down and walk over it. Much to my relief! I couldn’t help feeling that he was repaying my kindness towards him in keeping the rein loose, by not jumping over the tree trunks to ensure that I did not fall off.

One of my duties at the riding stable was to take the horse I groomed to the blacksmith once a month early in morning. The horse I was looking after was in fact the chief instructor’s horse with all that that implies. His name was Darcy. We would go to the blacksmith in pairs and on my first trip to the blacksmith I was accompanied by an American girl doing a British Horse Society assistant instructor course who was a far more experienced rider than me. On our return as we trotted down the tarmac road Darcy suddenly veered off to the right up a narrow path leading into the woods. It immediately struck me that Darcy seemed to know exactly what he was doing and where he was going. Unlike me, he had been to the blacksmith many times before. I was very happy to let him canter through the woods and sure enough the path led directly to the stables.

What really surprised me was the reaction of my American companion. She was extremely upset and angry. Since her horse had not bolted but had simply followed Darcy I could see no reason for her extreme reaction other than she must have had a completely different mindset in her relationship with animals. Presumably, she had felt out of control as her horse cantered along the path and unlike me she was not prepared to trust her horse and enjoy the ride.

One other experience from my time at the stables still upsets me. When I first started working there I looked after a horse called Selworthy. He was a very sweet, gentle, calm horse. Earlier in his life he had suffered a back injury, a slipped disc, and had spent a year recovering in a field of sheep. Selworthy soon took to guarding these sheep as if he was responsible for their well-being and happiness. One day the instructor decided to show the students how to inject a horse and chose Selworthy as the unfortunate guinea pig. Poor Selworthy became more and more upset as inexperienced students tried to inject him. I pleaded with her to leave Selworthy alone and find another horse but instead she put a twitch on poor Selworthy’s mouth. A twitch is an extremely unpleasant way of controlling a horse by tying a rope around the horse’s upper lip and twisting it; the idea is that if the horse struggles the lip becomes more and more painful so the horse will stop struggling against whatever the person is doing to him. In the end the instructor had to abandon this exercise. After everyone else had gone I spent a long time with Selworthy stroking him and calming him down, and telling him how sorry I was about the behaviour of these people.

Research has shown that rodents, perhaps more than any other Order of Mammals, want to be in control of their own lives. The research is quite amusing. For example, in an environment where rats are able to control the light levels the rats prefer a low-level of lighting. However, if the research scientists set the light to this preferred level the rats immediately turn the light up to a right level. It is just so important to these rodents to be in control that they will choose the opposite of what they really like in order to exercise control of their environment.

Capybaras are exceptionally sensitive and emotionally sophisticated. They know when someone is trying to control them and this makes them deeply suspicious.

I will come back to the damaging effects of trying to control capybaras in my next blog: “What Happened to Aoba Capybara?”.

I have absolutely no doubt that the best relationship a person can have with an animal is based on mutual trust and the person’s ability to understand life from the animal’s perspective. There are far more productive and rewarding ways of achieving a desired behaviour in an animal then by using force or by attempting to control.

The Friendliest Capybaras in the World. Part One: Momiji’s Family 世界で最もフレンドリーなカピバラ。モミジ 家族

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.

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When Choco and Doughnut were babies in 2013.  With Macaroni, Ayu’s son, yawning in the background.  Choco is resting his head on Doughnut

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.

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Choco helping himself to pellets.

 

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.

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Choco snuggled up to Marc to read the news on Marc’s smartphone.  He looked quite depressed when he realised how humans behaved.

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.

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Choco has a very penetrating gaze.  He insisted that he did not touch the purple rucksack full of food which had mysteriously fallen onto the bench.

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.

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Doughnut by the capystove in winter

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.

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Despite the wound, Doughnut looks blissful as I pet him.  His raised emotional state from the fight made him even more responsive to being petted interestingly.  I have noticed with capybaras that they are especially responsive when their emotions have been aroused by some completely different activity like fighting, eating or the sexual excitement of visiting Toku the male.

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.

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Doughnut felt very vulnerable after losing his teeth and being badly wounded by brother Choco and sought refuge in the pond.

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.

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Aoba relaxing

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.

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Aoba on the left playing with Milk in the pond.  Aoba is very playful like her grandmother the great Donguri

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.

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Aoba looking seductive

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

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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, 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.

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.

 

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.