They love water and have webbed feet and short, vestigial tails.
And on Saturday, I came face-to-face — or more like microphone-to-snout, with the world’s most famous capybaras.
I visited Toronto’s High Park Zoo, where last summer two capybaras made a break for freedom.
“Bonnie and Clyde, as we named them, escaped the very first day they arrived,” explains zookeeper Sonya Dittkrist. “So they were on the lam, one was 4 weeks and one was 6 weeks.”
And during that time, there were daily sightings. Torontonians were monitoring the park’s lake area for the rodents of unusual size.
Bonnie and Clyde were returned safely to the park zoo after spending the summer swimming in the pond and grazing on grass and plants.
And Dittkrist says even though staff were concerned for the pair and wanted them back, the capybaras didn’t pose a threat to the public.
“Not unless you could actually get your hands on them. Then they can bite. They have actually really long teeth. They are about the length of your fingers … they could hurt you, but, yeah, they are just big chickens.”
The pair’s escape sparked a citywide fascination with the capybaras.
But the rodents are indigenous to South America — mostly in Brazil — so they like a warm climate.
In recent months, the capys have been laying low and staying inside their barn. But they’ve been keeping busy.
“We’ve got three bouncing babies,” says Dittkrist. “They were born February 23rd, so they are our new edition and we love them. They are so cute.”
And here’s where my zoo visit went from nice — to a dream come true. Dittkrist tells me it’s lunchtime and that I can feed the babies and Bonnie and Clyde. She fills up a bowl with corn, cantaloupe and apples. And we go to the pen where the family has collected around a mud pit.
But the sound of the gate opening brings the adults over to investigate. With a chunk of raw corn stuck onto the end of a stick, I lure Clyde over for a snack.
Credit: Jessica Blake
Little kids push their corn sticks into the pen to get the capys to come closer.
And then one of the baby capybaras gets curious and starts sniffing my feet.
The little guy was using those long pronglike teeth to chew on the end of my shoe.
After a brief taste test, the baby goes back to picking up chunks of corn.
I can’t explain why I love capybaras. Maybe it’s the soulful eyes.
Maybe it’s the cute snouts or the roly-poly bellies.
After my time in the pen, I have one last question about capybaras for the zookeeper.
Can I get one as a pet?
“You can’t have them in the city,” says Dittkrist. “But if you had a farm. It is possible, I believe, that you could have them as a pet.”
Large rodents, dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, were on the run for weeks when they escaped enclosure last spring
Toronto’s infamous capybara couple, who gained fame when they broke free from the High Park Zoo last spring, are expanding their family.
Mayor John Tory announced that the capybaras, nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde after they spent weeks on the lam from authorities, have had three “capybabies.”
“The couple credits their long time apart this summer wandering the wilderness of Toronto’s High Park for the kindling of their passion, and now they have three adorable pups to show for it,” says an official birth announcement tweeted by Tory.
The mayor said “Bonnie” and her babies are “healthy and doing well.”
In response to the birth, the Toronto Parks and Trees Foundation, which works with the city and private groups to improve the city’s parks and public spaces, launched a “baby registry” to solicit donations for the zoo. The High Park attraction is in the midst of a 10-year, $20-million upgrade.
Capybara enclosure to be upgraded
The furry fugitives made international headlines when they escaped from their pen at the High Park Zoo, in the city’s west end, last May 24.
One was caught after two weeks, while the second was trapped after a month.
In October, a group called Friends of High Park Zoo announced a fundraising campaign to help the facility upgrade the capybara enclosure to ensure the large rodents and their pups don’t make a second break for it.
The renovation is part of the larger capital improvement plan for the zoo, which attracts more than 700,000 visitors each year, according to the foundation.
The proposed renovations to the capybara area include enlarging their small pond so they will have more room to swim, and upgrading gates and fences.
“Most adoring pet owners would do anything for their cherished companions, but could they speak for their furry or feathered or finned friends and tell us what they are thinking? To find out, we’re putting pet owners to the test with the personality questionnaire made famous by French novelist Marcel Proust. Meet Sonya Dittkrist and Noel.”
The most famous residents of Toronto’s High Park Zoo could soon see a home reno.
Friends of High Park Zoo, a non-profit that raises money for the free facility, is fundraising to finance a multi-million dollar overhaul of its master plan that includes upgrades to the capybara pen.
Among other things, plans call for restoration and expansion to the century-old log structure that houses the animals along with an expanded outdoor swimming area, board chairman John Formosa said.
“They love swimming,” Formosa said about the zoo’s three dog-size rodents. “When they got away that’s where they were, in the ponds in the park.”
Two capybaras, dubbed Bonny and Clyde, gained international notoriety after they escaped from the zoo in May and spent weeks on the lam before being caught.
Overall, updating the zoo’s master plan is expected to cost about $20 million, Formosa said. A “small chunk” of that is being financed by the city, but the non-profit is also looking for funding from the federal government and private donors. It’s also hoping to renew its five-year lease with the city this week.
Other animals, will of course, benefit from upgrades.”
The capybaras that made worldwide headlines in the spring when they escaped from Toronto’s High Park zoo will soon have more space to strut their stuff — and perhaps less chance of escaping again.
A group called Friends of High Park Zoo is raising money so the zoo can upgrade the capybara enclosure next year. It’s part of a large-scale capital improvement plan for the zoo that will cost roughly $20 million over 10 years.
Part of the plan includes enlarging the capybaras’ small pond, so they’ll have more room to swim.
“Capybaras, as part of their native habitat, they love swimming,” said John Formosa, board chair with Friends of High Park Zoo.
“The two that escaped earlier in the year … were found in the pond of High Park swimming.”
The two High Park capybaras, dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, gained international fame in May when they escaped from their pen and spent more than a month on the loose.
The capybaras gave zoo staff the slip during a transfer to their enclosure.
Part of the improvement plan, Formosa says, involves upgrades to some of the gates and fences at the zoo, which he says could prevent future escapes.
Environment will be ‘much better’
The log structure in the capybara’s enclosure, which they share with the llamas, will also be restored and expanded.
Formosa said the goal is to make their environment “much better” for the capybaras, so they’ll have more room to do the activities they enjoy in their natural habitat.
The $20 million master plan will give many parts of the zoo a face lift — not just the capybara enclosure.
The city has budgeted $700,000 for the work, which will need to be used in 2017. Friends of High Park has also raised $400,000 from the Honey Family Foundation, the Griggs Family Foundation and individual donations. It’s also seeking help from the federal and provincial government, as well as through further donations and grants.
First major improvements in 5 decades
Friends of High Park was founded in 2012 to raise money for the zoo’s operation after city budget cuts.
After the city restored operating funding in 2014, the non-profit began looking at raising funds for capital improvements. Formosa said there haven’t been any significant capital improvements at the zoo for at least 50 years.
Formosa said there’s an obvious public demand for the High Park Zoo — last year attendance went up 37 per cent, with 700,000 visitors.
“Definitely the community’s demonstrated a desire for the facility, and also it’s a necessary facility,” he said.
“For life-long High Park area resident Charles Jewell, running has become a lifestyle.
Five years ago, he was suffering severe back pain with herniated discs when he realized he had to make some significant life changes for the sake of his health. And so he took up running. Since then, he goes for a run at least three times a week for most of the year.
He’s putting his stamina to good use by participating in the annual Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 16, as a champion runner for the High Park Zoo. The pledges he collects will specifically support the Friends of High Park Zoo’s ‘Master Plan’ to improve the animal shelters and public spaces.”
Friends of High Park Zoo (FHPZ) was formed in 2012 to raise the necessary funds to ensure that the Zoo remained open in the wake of City budget cuts for the 2012 and 2013 operating years. With the City restoring operating funding in 2014, FHPZ looks to raise sustainable funding from individuals, corporations and local businesses to enhance and sustain the Zoo.