The High Park capybaras enthralled the city after their famous escape. Now, they’ve embraced the quiet life
As the decade comes to a close, the Star looks back at some of its most captivating stories and reveals what’s been happening in the meantime.
The door to the yard swings open, and Bonnie pops her head out of the old barn. She’s the bolder of the two High Park capybaras. In another life, she could have been a C-suite executive. But she is a rodent, and we shouldn’t anthropomorphize rodents — except, in the spring of 2016, that was exactly what Toronto did when she and another capybara escaped the High Park Zoo and became freewheeling folk heroes of the moment.
“Two dog-sized tropical rodents known as capybaras busted out of the High Park Zoo Tuesday morning,” the first Toronto Star story began in late May 2016, back when such descriptors were still necessary for the lumbering South American animals, before “giant guinea pigs” was the acceptable shorthand.
The devastation of the Fort McMurray wildfires had dominated the headlines earlier that month, and so did Donald Trump as he picked up wins in the primaries. He became the presumptive Republican nominee about the same time the capybaras slipped the gate, the same time Drake was making a run at song of the summer, serving up an inadvertent soundtrack for the capybara plight with One Dance: “Streets not safe/ But I never run away/ Even when I’m away/ Oti, oti, there’s never much love when we go OT/ I pray to make it back in one piece/ I pray, I pray.”
They were gone for weeks as trackers, volunteers, citizens, city staff and the Toronto Wildlife Centre workers searched, leaving sweet corn and fruit in the woods and playing recordings of capybaras in hopes of luring them home.
The city was enthralled.
“We can imagine them anywhere among us, making our lives a little less predictable, a little wilder,” Mike Doherty wrote in the Star. “We dream that they could permanently evade capture in the urban jungle, glimpsed only as they skitter through the streets, Sasquatches of the city. As we shout, ‘Free the capybaras!’ really we want to free ourselves.” He also called them the “Kyle Lowrys of the animal world: plucky, irrepressible and underappreciated elsewhere, but coming into their own in Hogtown.”
In the spring of 2016, the capybaras escaped. They may have been recaptured, but by then they had us in their thrall.
Nearly four years later, as the decade draws to a close, President Donald Trump is in the White House, Kyle Lowry is an NBA champion, and life is quieter for Bonnie and Clyde. They had pups after their return, but now they’re empty-nesters.
On a recent morning, the zoo was subdued under a layer of snow. The capybaras tentatively walked outside, taking in the scene with big brown eyes that are in line with their nostrils, and their ears — a strategic alignment, so they can submerge themselves into the water the same way a crocodile might. (It’s a good aquatic skill to have if you’re native to the forests and swamps of South America, or looking to evade capture in the ponds and lakes of High Park.)
They’ve spent the morning in their barn, under a heat lamp, like a pair of 90-pound chicken nuggets. They love water but they hate snow and the door stays open in case they want to return to the warmth. Inside the barn, there is the daily flake of hay, and a steady supply of pellets. But outside, if their lived experience has taught them anything, they know there will be peppers, cauliflowers, pears and apples in the food bowl, a dose of Vitamin C their bodies do not produce on their own.
Clyde does a slow lap, making dainty and deliberate steps, holding his semi-webbed paw aloft to avoid the chill of the snow. Bonnie waits near the empty food bowl. “What’s going on Miss Bonnie?” zookeeper Sonya Dittkrist asks as she empties a container of veggies. It’s quiet enough that you can hear the soft clicking noises the animals make to each other. “They have these little ‘meep meep meeps’ and a bark when they’re scared or excited, but mostly it’s just the clicks,” Dittkrist says.
“They get in there and get all mucky and they just love it,” she says. Dittkrist has videos of the happy family frolicking on one such occasion in the summer of 2017, one year after the escape. People liked to imagine the night of passion happened during the escape, but Bonnie became pregnant after they returned. Three pups were born in February 2017, and they’ve since gone to other zoos.
Eventually, Bonnie tires of the food and instead of returning indoors she stares at the woods. Some might be tempted to see it as an ache for the wild life, but she’s likely trying to avoid eye contact with us. We are standing near the door she once slipped, and it is slightly ajar, but neither of capybaras seems interested in the expanse of High Park. There are no heat lamps in the woods, no cut up bell peppers, no comfortable straw.
Before they became famous, the breeding couple was meant to be a trade for the zoo’s lone male capybara named Chewy. When they arrived, nobody noticed the gate to their enclosure hadn’t latched properly. Normally, the adventure would have stopped there, but a second locked gate was open because of a delivery. Dittkrist wasn’t there, but she knows the circumstances, and how the capybaras were excitedly testing everything out. “They came across the gate and when they bumped it, it just popped open and out they went.” New gates have been installed. There are extra locks. The latches catch properly. The fence is higher. “Just to be on the safe side,” she says. “They aren’t really good climbers, but every once and a while they go up and it just makes you a little bit nervous.”
In the spring of 2016, people “spotted” capybaras all over Toronto in the form of “odd hairless animals,” giant rats, beavers and groundhogs. None of the tips were promising until a sighting close to High Park. Bonnie was caught inside the park on June 12 while Clyde held on for another 15 days before he was scooped up at Grenadier Pond. “Now that the adventure is over, the capybaras join the Ikea monkey, #DeadRaccoon and white squirrel as prominent figures in Toronto’s pantheon of ridiculous animals,” the Star’s Alex Ballingall wrote at the close of the caper.
The search cost $15,000 in overtime and tracking costs according to an FOI filed by the Star. If there were people who were angry about the expense, they didn’t write to the Star to complain. An American man wrote a letter to say he couldn’t wait to see the “adorable capys” on his next trip to Toronto.
“Dollar for dollar and pound for pound, rounding up Bonnie and Clyde was worth every single penny and more,” wrote Nancy Stevens in a letter to the editor, adding that speculating on their life on the lam was a “most welcome diversion.”