I realize the photo on this month’s page is a bit difficult to recognize as a baby, but I assure you: it is. The photo at left is one I considered in its place, but I just didn’t think it lent itself well enough to a full-page photo for a calendar. If you disagree, I apologize; maybe download this photo, print it off at 8 1/2 x 11″, and tape it over the one I used! But seriously, if you look really closely at the muzzle shape of the baby in my photo – and its size relative to the grass – I think you’ll see the perspective well enough. But even if you don’t: it’s a capybara. Even at full-grown adult size, it’s a cute enough animal to be in a baby calendar! And now that you’re here, reading this post, you’ll get to see a lot more of these photos, and the cuteness may well overwhelm you. You’ve been warned. Continue at your own risk.
The family I have featured this month make their home in the High Park Zoo in Toronto, and the parents were minor celebrities in this city a couple of years ago. Let me take you back a year earlier first: In the summer of 2015, that Zoo had a little trouble with an escapee: a peacock who disappeared from his enclosure around this time that year, and led authorities on a “wild… erm, ‘fowl’ chase” for about a week before just returning on his own. I remember being asked many times that week, while leading Workshops, about the peacock that had escaped from our Zoo and having to explain that it wasn’t from the Toronto Zoo, but from the High Park Zoo. I’d say well over half of the people I talked to were at the very least skeptical of my answer, likely thinking I was covering up or just telling an untruth or something. The news, especially out-of-town news who didn’t know where “High Park” was, often referred to the bird as having escaped from “a Toronto zoo,” which many people obviously interpolated as “the Toronto Zoo.” Can’t really say I blame them: the peacocks in the Toronto Zoo are pretty popular and fairly ubiquitous during the summer months.
The next year, 2016 – at almost exactly the same time of year – it was the capybaras’ turn. Two of the three living at the High Park Zoo went “on the lam” on May 24, and were gone for quite a while. Originally erroneously reported as two females, they were (as would eventually prove to be the case) a breeding couple. Nearly three weeks later, the first of the happy wanderers was lured into a cage by Toronto Wildlife Centre people (they do fantastic work; please check them out). Over two weeks after that, the second capybara was rounded up and returned to its home. I’m not sure which one was captured first; this article in the Star after the second capybara was nabbed offers the only clue when a spokesperson says “he’s returned home.” Of course the two fugitives were named “Bonnie and Clyde,” nicknames which stuck after they were back together in the Zoo. I must say here: I was 100% convinced that there would be babies found with them when they were brought back; I was more than a little disappointed this didn’t turn out to be true. I only had to wait another year, though, which really wasn’t that bad.
The following February, the famous pair had a litter of three “capybabies”. Predictably, this became rather big news in Toronto and I began eagerly checking news reports to see when I might be able to catch a glimpse of them myself. I dropped in on spec in late March, shortly after the births were reported, but they had not made their way out-of-doors yet. Finally, on a brilliantly sunny and warm day in April, I headed down to High Park and was able to see them cavorting with their parents around their exhibit’s pool, which they were either too nervous or too tiny to enter at that point. (This surprised me a bit, as capybaras are noted for being excellent swimmers and love spending a lot of time in the water.) Still, the sight of all five of them hanging out together was worth the wait – even if it did take me nearly an hour to park because I arrived smack dab in the middle of the annual “Cherry Blossom Festival.” Saw this remarkably cool car though:
…so there was that, at least.
Of course, there was – eventually – the requisite naming contest for the three pups. On June 24th, the Zoo announced the results, naming the cubs “Alex,” “Geddy,” and “Neil,” after the members of the band “RUSH,” which… well, I wasn’t really a fan of, but then I rarely like the winning choices when it comes to these things. Looking at the two “runners-up” it could have been worse: they narrowly avoided being named “Mocha,” “Chino,” and “Latte.” Yeeesh. The other runner-up, however, I think would have been much better: “Snap,” “Crackle,” and “Pop,” although they might have run afoul of some trademark laws there. I’d have honestly preferred some sort of continuation of the “fugitive” theme; perhaps other Public Enemies of the era, or something like that. Still, there have (in my opinion, of course) been far worse choices in recent naming contests run by various institutions over the past few years and no, I’m not going to get into specifics because that would almost certainly offend at least a few of my readers. On the other hand, some have been excellent choices, even if a bit flawed. Take “Juno,” the most-recent polar bear cub to be born at the Toronto Zoo, for instance. There was no contest in her case: when she was born on November 11, 2015 she was immediately given her nickname by the people who were hand-raising her, in honour of Remembrance Day. It’s a lovely name and a good choice (obviously the Canadian Army agreed with it), but I still find it might be a bit problematic down the road. When her older brother, Humphrey was born on November 9, 2013 he was given the nickname “Remy” as a nod to his being born so close to Remembrance Day. A later naming contest named him “Humphrey” and freed up “Remy” for future use. As Juno was actually born on Remembrance Day, I feel “Remy” would have been a terrific name to have recycled and kept. I’m also fond of “Poppy” for the same reason. “Juno”, while still a pretty awesome name, commemorates the Battle of D-Day, when Canadian soldiers landed at Juno Beach in Normandy. The issue for me here is this: D-Day was June 6, 1944. It’s very likely that, down the road, there will be some confusion as to Juno’s actual birthday, I would think. Does it really matter? Probably not. I do like being pedantic; this is just another example of that. Anyhow, I’m getting way off-topic. What was I talking about? Oh, that’s right: capybaras.
Capybaras are incredibly social animals, often being referred to as “the friendliest animal in the world.” I follow a Twitter account called, simply, “Animals on Capybaras” and everything you need to know about it is in its name. I have been fortunate enough to have interacted a few times with the capybaras in the Kids’ Zoo within the Toronto Zoo and it’s never once been a disappointing experience. They are not quite as fluffy as they look (as I mentioned, they spend a lot of time in the water so they have rather “wiry” fur which will dry very quickly), but they sure love a good skritch on the head as much as any animal. It’s likely that this slightly-abrasive quality to their fur makes them so attractive to the other animals that like to spend time with them – like the cat pictured here – as the texture probably feels really good against their own fur and skin. They are the world’s biggest rodent, they live in large social groups spread out over much of South America, they look like giant Guinea pigs, they are docile and Zen-like and, thankfully, not currently a “threatened” species despite being hunted for its meat and hide, likely because rodents in general multiply so quickly. They never seem to be a huge attraction at any Zoo I’ve been to, yet whenever anyone comes upon their exhibit they seem to spend a great deal of time there just watching them sleep or float or sun themselves. It’s too bad they don’t live everywhere in the world; I believe our planet could use their kind of calmness on a daily basis.
All right. I have to wrap this up before I just happily nod off. Next month: another cutie I spotted on my trip to Parc Safari last summer. Thanks for reading! See you in July!