The Capybara Scandal

I am trying to stop capybaras becoming the next “must have” exotic pet craze, and suffering the same fate as potbellied pigs, when they become large and difficult to handle.

I was talking to a lady who runs an Animal Refuge in Indiana who already has 2 capybaras who she rescued. She said there was a growing number of people buying female capybaras in order to mate them, and make money out of selling their babies. She expects to have many more capybaras who need to be rescued, because there are now so many breeders, and so many people who want a cute pet capybara.

When capybaras are portrayed as “cute” (dressed in clothes, hats and sunglasses) you create a market for pet capybaras among people who are not really interested in capybaras, but just love their cuteness. These people have no understanding of a capybara’s needs, and no desire to spend time doing the necessary research.

Capybaras are happiest as part of a herd in their natural habitat. These capybaras are in the Llanos of Colombia

People need to know that pet capybaras are sometimes aggressive. As they grow older and bigger, capybaras become very powerful. They have very sharp teeth (the Amerindians, in South America, use capybara teeth as weapons, attached to poles). Not many people want a pet who can cause painful, even serious, injuries.

Please see my blog: A Pet Capybara: Should I Have One?

The leading breeder of capybaras stopped selling capybaras to the public as pets, about 8 years ago, because so many pet capybaras suffered, often dying prematurely or ending up in animal refuges.

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

Many pet capybaras die prematurely due to tooth problems, inappropriate diet and stress.

A friend, who runs an animal refuge, reminded me of the craze for potbellied pigs, not so long ago. When these potbellied pigs grew larger, many were abandoned and ended up in refuges. The same is beginning to happen with capybaras.

Capybaras are very sensitive emotionally; they are intelligent, sentient beings who can think and feel.

If you look in Ran’s eyes you can see how frightened he is

I was heartbroken to learn that during the extreme cold spell in February 2021, many pet capybaras suffered frostbite. This indicates that most people who get pet capybaras should not. This has happened before. Over the years I have been horrified to hear of capybaras suffering frostbite in North America. If I had capybaras living outside in extreme weather conditions, I would usher them into my house, and if necessary cover them with blankets. No capybara should suffer frostbite.

I find it very depressing that people who say they care about capybaras like to see capybaras dressed in clothes. No one who dresses a capybara in clothes should have one of these remarkable animals.

It seems that most people cannot see life from an animal’s perspective. Like everyone who understands animals, I don’t understand why people like seeing capybaras in dresses. One of the reasons people love capybaras is they are so cute – naked!

People should know that capybaras don’t like wearing clothes. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who understands animals. I have witnessed first-hand how uncomfortable and unhappy capybaras are in clothes. Being made to wear clothes also interferes with the relationship between a pet capybara and their owner. The capybara is confused why someone they love is doing this to them.

I came across a website, by accident, which advertised capybaras for sale. These were capybaras who had outgrown their “baby” cuteness. They varied in age from about nine months to 3 years. The way in which they were described by the people selling them was heartbreaking. One seller described his capybara as “Sold as is, with defects”, as if he was selling a used car. Another advertised his capybara as: “Cannot be handled”; I wondered what had caused this capybara to become so unhappy and aggressive. Another seller described the capybara he was selling as “Suitable for display” as though this sensitive, living being was an inanimate object with no feelings or needs. I was in tears thinking about the unhappy lives humans had created for these loving animals. And I was appalled at the lack of compassion, concern or morality of the people selling these unwanted capybaras.

I was in conversation recently with a man who wanted to keep a capybara as a pet. He was convinced he could give the capybara a better life than the capybara would experience in the wild! Research has shown that wild animals kept as pets suffer much more stress than if they were living in the wild, in their natural habitat.  I was horrified at this man’s lack of understanding and arrogance. He obviously had no understanding whatsoever of animals, and unfortunately was not interested in learning.

Capybaras do not like to wear clothes. Dressing a pet capybara causes stress and interferes with the bond between the capybara and the human, as the capybara cannot understand why the human is doing this to him
Capybaras do not like to wear clothes. Dressing a pet capybara causes stress and interferes with the bond between the capybara and the human, as the capybara cannot understand why the human is doing this to him

It is well known that the market for “cute” animal photos and videos is detrimental to Animal Welfare. In some countries it encourages people to buy wild animals as pets when in fact these wild animals are totally unsuited to becoming pets and usually suffer. It also results in an increasing number of zoos, often very small and cramped, which house cute animals in prisonlike conditions. These animals suffer immense stress in small, unsuitable enclosures, often with concrete floors. In the case of capybaras, who are semi aquatic, their water source is a small plastic tub often barely larger than the capybara himself, when they need a body of water large enough for them to swim and play.

Capybara cafes should be banned. A cafe is a very stressful and unsuitable habitat for a wild animal. Animals in captivity should always be able to express their natural behaviours and have some control over their lives. Capybaras need to have access to grazing and a pond 24/7. Nobody who understands animals would want to see a capybara, or any other wild animal, in a cafe.

We humans cause so much suffering to the animals we call “cute”. Capybaras, and all other species, are so VERY MUCH MORE than cute.

For more on this topic see my blog: “Animal Manifesto, Animals Are Real Not Cute”

Anyone who understands animals and cares about capybaras will be very concerned about the welfare of the growing number of capybaras being bought as pets.

There is an increasing number of people breeding capybaras for sale as pets to meet this demand. The result is capybaras suffer, and end up in refuges.

Some of the people who say they love capybaras, understand animals and care about the welfare of capybaras. Other people who say they like capybaras, just like their cuteness and want them as entertainment, but have no understanding of, or interest in, their welfare. Unfortunately, I believe the majority of people who say they like capybaras, are in the latter category. I believe this is partly because most people cannot see life from an animal’s perspective. My mission is to prevent capybaras from suffering by helping people to understand the needs of these remarkable, sentient beings.

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.


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.


This video:  This excellent keeper has put branches of bamboo hanging from bushes around the enclosure to enrich the lives of these capybaras kept in captivity. Capybaras love bamboo. It is vitally important that animals kept in captivity live in an environment that stimulates them mentally and physically. Many animals in zoos suffer extreme stress because they are bored, often living in small, totally unsuitable enclosures. Every capybara should have access to grass in their enclosure and a decent sized pool. Many capybaras in Japan and America live in small enclosures with a concrete or hard earth floor and a small tub of water, sometimes barely large enough for them to fit into. Capybaras are semiaquatic, with partially webbed feet, and it is essential that they have a pond or pool large enough to swim around freely and exercise.

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.


Why I Would NOT Want to Be A Cute Animal, Especially A Cute Capybara

If I Was a Capybara:

I would not want to be dressed in uncomfortable and demeaning clothes. Most animals, including capybaras, hate wearing clothes. Capybaras are so beautiful why would anyone want to cover any part of a capybara’s body.


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

I would not want to have to earn my keep in a Capybara Cafe. It is a basic tenet of Animal Welfare that animals in captivity must be allowed to express their natural behaviours. For a capybara this means living in a habitat with unlimited access to grazing and a large pond or pool and a natural habitat with access to sun. A famous capybara lived inside the house and, therefore, did not get the sun his bones needed and his bones degenerated. His vet advised that he be put down to avoid further suffering.

Nobody who understands animals would want to see a capybara in a cafe.

It causes me great unhappiness that most people are not at all interested in me, my relationships with other capybaras, my personality and character. They just like my cuteness and only want to see cute photos of nameless capybaras. They do not want to learn about my species and the typical behaviours of my species

Most people who pretend to like us only want to watch very short videos of capybaras behaving cutely or exhibiting attention grabbing behaviour. They do not want to see slightly longer videos which show the normal range of my behaviour, how I behave with other capybaras and my relationships with other capybaras. Most people who pretend to love animals seem to have a very short attention span. My normal behaviour includes stopping to think or listen before continuing to act. Even a few seconds of inaction, on my part, results in these people becoming bored. The last thing they want to watch is a video where they might learn something about me or about capybaras in general.

Capybaras do not like to wear clothes. Dressing a pet capybara causes stress and interferes with the bond between the capybara and the human, as the capybara cannot understand why the human is doing this to him

Capybaras do not like to wear clothes. Dressing a pet capybara causes stress and interferes with the bond between the capybara and the human, as the capybara cannot understand why the human is doing this to him

I would not want to live in a zoo where I was imprisoned in a small, concrete floored enclosure with no grass and a tiny tub of water into which I could barely fit. Even a cattle trough would not allow me to swim and play and exhibit my full range of aquatic behaviours, which I so enjoy doing.

In Japan many people find that petting us relieves their stress, even though endless petting often causes us great stress. Because we are so useful as a source of stress relief there are many, many tiny zoos in totally inappropriate places like shopping malls (there are even 2 lions living in a small enclosure in a shopping mall in Japan!), or right next to noisy, polluted main roads.

I had incontrovertible proof today, if proof was needed, that many people in a Facebook capybara group do not care about capybaras when someone in this group asked what capybaras taste like and the moderator of this group thought this question and the concept it brought to mind were perfectly acceptable! Nobody who loves an animal would ever want to know what they tasted like. The very thought of capybaras being eaten brings tears to the eyes of anyone who loves these exceptional animals. People who really love animals would no more consider it acceptable to discuss eating an animal they loved than the husband they loved (or wife).

I realise that most people do not understand animals and cannot see things from an animal’s perspective. Therefore they do not understand what I am saying here.

I wish everyone who claims to like capybaras really loved us and cared about our emotional and physical well-being.

There is a link between the promotion of animals as “cute” and the trade in wild animals. Animals do not benefit in either case. In both cases animals suffer. Most people who are drawn to animals because of their cuteness do not understand animals and have no interest in these animals as sentient beings, individuals with their own unique personalities whose lives are important to them and to the people who love them.