San Diego Zoo Capybaras


The Plushes head to the San Diego Zoo

Owner’s Blog:

I was out in California last week to visit my sister and I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit the world famous San Diego Zoo. Last time I was there, about five years ago, they did not have capybaras but I knew that they had a band of them now and I couldn’t wait to see them. Of course, I brought my two plush capybaras, Capycoppy (left) and Super Capy (right) with me. I also brought Double Decoy, the guinea pig in the middle. There’s nothing like going around taking photos of plush animals in a crowded area to make you feel crazy.


Double Decoy, Capycoppy and Super Capy at a gorilla statue

My sister, whose birthday we were celebrating, wanted to see the gorillas. We spent a ridiculous amount of time there but all you’re going to see of them is this photo of the plushes with a gorilla bust. Why waste time on other animals when there are capybaras to see?


The capybara exhibit

The zoo is enormous and it will eat up your whole day before you even get to the capybaras if you are not careful. They are at the Elephant Odyssey which is way in the back of the park. It is not too far from the drop off point for the “sky buckets.” The best thing to do is probably to get on the sky tram near the zoo entrance as soon as you arrive, go see the capybaras first and if there is any time left over, you can glance at the rest of the zoo.


Info on capybaras

Do not be expecting to learn a lot about the capybaras — or any of the zoo’s animals — by reading the posted placards. They are not very informative. They don’t even have distribution maps. The zoo’s website has a pretty good entry on capybaras that you can read here.


Four capys resting

The keeper I talked to, Steve according to his name tag, said there are approximately seven capybara in the exhibit including one seven month old male who was born there. That struck me as curious since one is not the typical number of kittens in a capybara clutter. I asked if there had been others and, if so, what happened to them. Steve was evasive on this saying he was not authorized to discuss that. In the photo above, you can see the young male who displays the short, red fur typical of young capybaras.


A capybara with guanacos

There is actually a bigger mystery. In November 2008 the zoo acquired nine adult capybaras. Buddy, the young male, was born there, which should leave them with ten. Why are there only seven? Maybe the above photo provides a hint. I watched this capybara and it was clearly afraid of the guanacos. It should be, Capyboppy, the second most famous capybara, was killed by a guanaco not long after he went to live at the LA Zoo.

YouTube Preview Image

San Diego Zoo Capybaras video

In the video you can see that the capybara is nervous when the guanacos come near.

A fat capy is a healthy capy?

Another health issue for the capys might be their weight. Steve said the largest of them weighs 139 lbs, which is within the documented weight range of 120-140 lbs for capybaras…just barely. But you can see in the image above that they are not carrying that weight as muscle. This capybara has a waddle!

Indoor dining

I’m going to blame the guanacos for the capybaras’ weight problem. It is natural for capybara to move around a lot while they are grazing during the morning and evening hours, or the afternoon or even night depending on their mood and where they live. But the capys at the San Diego Zoo have to go through this little door and eat inside. I am assuming this is because the guanacos will beat them up and steal their food.

Chewing on a stick

You may notice that there is nothing growing in the enclosure. I am blaming the guanacos for that too. In the wild, capybara crop the grass so it looks like a golf course. They do not eat it down to nothing. The capy above is forced to chew on a stick rather than satisfying her natural desire to graze to wear down her teeth. Grass is very tough so that wild capybaras keep their teeth nicely worn. Grazing also gets the capybara up and moving, constantly searching for the perfect grass, even when they are not really hungry.

Capybara and tapir

Perhaps I am being unfair to the guanacos; it is possible that the tapir is to blame for some of the austerity of the enclosure.

That brings up another point. Capybaras and tapirs do share the same environment in the wild but what are those guanacos doing in there anyway? Guanacos are cold weather animals as evidenced by their thick coats. They live in the mountains not in the marshes and forest streams. It seems like “South American” is a good enough tag and the zoo just throws the animals in together without even explaining that in the wild these animals would never encounter each other.

The greenery in this photo is outside the enclosure

So what is my opinion of the San Diego Zoo? I could spend days there.

But I am a little tired of the reverence most people give zoos and the haughty attitude of zoos themselves. I think they could provide better information to their visitors using more informative signage and not lumping disparate animals together. I think that rodents, who make up 1/4 of all mammal species, are seriously underrepresented. I think that the zoo environment is not all that safe or healthy for the animals.

For the capybaras, seeing a few fat animals with no reason to move about in a completely unnatural environment does not do them justice. How can people see or understand anything of their natural behaviors and social interactions? How can they appreciate their intelligence and affectionate natures? They cannot even hear their beautiful voices.

There is a place for zoos and I enjoy them as much as the next person, but Garibaldi Rous is a better ambassador for capybaras than capybaras in a zoo.

27 comments to San Diego Zoo Capybaras

  • Lynn Marcotte

    This was quite depressing to say the least; not once did I smile!
    Could we gang up & write for better conditions or getting the guanacos moved??

  • Lynn Marcotte

    I just watched the video, it’s true he is afraid! Imagine living his whole life in fear!

  • They’re so cute. i saw them in the spring when i also went to seaworld, where they also have capybaras. are guanacos really dangerous to capys? if so, how? I thought they were herbavores.

  • Garibaldi Rous

    Capyboppy was killed by a kick from a guanaco.

  • Mischievous Capybara

    I found this very depressing. I thought San Diego Zoo had a reputation as one of the better/best zoos. If they don’t care much about their Capybaras that reflects very badly on the zoo. More to the point what can be done to improve the lives of the remaining 7 capys. I wish I was an investigative journalist with the NYT. Gari, are any of your friends in a position to establish the facts and bring this to a wider audience? Then we could all sign a petition and try to force a change. Also, given how much Capys in Japanese zoos love the attention and mutual affection of the visiting public, why do these poor Capys have to be imprisoned? I suppose it is the litigation environment in the States… Poor Capys, I felt so sorry for them and so powerless not being able to make them happier. The photos were brilliant though.

  • Jacki Wilson

    I live in San Diego and they do try to keep the animals as natural as they can. Maybe not enough is known about capybaras here. There has to be someone we can contact if someone can come up with something written out with more and correct information. Lets send letters and articles to the zoo. I will see what I can find and post anything I learn. The capys are considered wild animals, maybe the zoo doesn’t know they need special care and attention.I didn’t even know what a capybara was until a few months ago when I saw a post by Gari. Since then I have been an avid fan and read as much as I can about them. Never underestimate the power of a Face Book petition!

  • Laurel

    If they were in Steve Irwin’s Zoo in Australia they would be up and moving! He makes it a point to have all his animals get lots of natural exercise mentally and physically, even if he has to get in the enclosure with them!

  • Pam

    This is very disappointing, considering that the San Diego zoo is supposedly one of the better zoos. Do the keepers simply not care enough to give the capys their own enclosure and proper environment? Is that because they are rodents, or because they aren’t the star attractions (which I just don’t understand)? I think we need to write a few polite letters.

  • If I correctly recall from my trip in about 2004, the capybaras used to be in a smaller exhibit, a long narrow one with a back wall, compact earth, and a nearly dry moat along the visitor viewing area. There was no grass or water for swimming. They did browse on shrubbery that was brought in. There were only about 4 and a couple tapirs were in with them. When I was there I did see a couple keepers with them, but there wasn’t much interaction going on beyond food distribution. However, it was clear how benign they were, and though they didn’t display any of the charming personality traits we know them to possess, I know I started thinking about Capyboppy again. I had seen a lone capybara at Animal Kingdom in Orlando in about 2001, and seeing them again started me thinking about the possibility of large rodents as companion animals. As inappropriate as this exhibit is, it does look like they now have swimming water. Did you see them swimming at all?

  • Marc Borza

    Melly! I was just at the zoo last week! I would have bought the plushies something to nibble on if I’d known you were visiting my hometown.

    Being a native San Diegan, I’m obviously proud of our zoo. But I also have mixed feelings over the whole zoo idea. Animals in captivity generally doesn’t sound nice. Keeping critters in tiny enclosures isn’t how they’re supposed to live. That being said, places like the San Diego Zoological Society do have a positive impact. Learning more and helping endangered species is the one good outcome of it all. Our “Safari Park” (sorry, us San Diegans will always call it by it’s original name, The San Diego Wild Animal Park), has hundreds of acres of open space for a more natural setting. Plus it has the largest veterinary hospital in the world. Any any education to the masses about the world they live in is good.

    But I also know our zoo doesn’t do everything perfect. It’s huge, but it confined to the space it originally was built on, and expansion is a problem. The trend has been to bigger enclosures, but there are still very old exhibits with tiny enclosures. There’s nowhere to expand except to use the giant parking lot and put up a parking garage, or underground parking in it’s place.

    And yes, when I posted my photos of the Capybaras earlier this year, I was very perplexed over the unnatural environment provided for the capys. The water for swimming is great, but otherwise it’s a dry barren exhibit, instead of having grass and other vegetation available. Living only three miles away, and being a member lets me go a lot so I may bring this up to them. I hope you enjoyed our zoo anyway. I always head straight to the hummingbird aviary as one of my favorite spots to be. It’s interesting to think that capys were once native to San Diego.

    I’m not sure what you meant by a distribution map. Map of the park? They’re all over. Distribution of animals? Well, the website and the monthly magazine members get are great sources of information.


  • No grass….horrible…dirt and that is not fair…no wonder they look so sad.

  • Alex

    I hate all these idiots who place capybaras in one den with llamas! Well, OK, they may not have red about Capyboppy. But it’s enough just to watch how they interact! Guanacos chase and mistreat capybaras.

    And this bare, greenless landscape is outrageous.

    Marc, is it possible that San Diegans raise this question, of inappropriate living conditions for capybaras?

  • angie

    Seriously? You are advocating having capybaras as pets, but not in zoos? This is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever read. Please try not to get involved in things you are not educated in. If you’d like to work with capybaras, you should consider becoming a trained professional like the keepers at the zoo instead of writing ridiculous blogs about them.

  • Claire

    Angie, apparently those trained professionals are not doing such a stellar job of meeting the needs of the capys in their zoo. We’d be stuffed if they were the sole option for capy care and advocacy, wouldn’t we! Most of the people who are commenting are serious, they are educated, and they are advocating for better conditions for the capybaras in this zoo. Some, like the owners of this blog, have a rich understanding of capybaras and provide careful and research based care for those animals they care for, and would be valuable sources of information to any zoo hoping to improve conditions.

  • Jen S.

    Just curious, none of these capybara seem to have pronounced ‘nose glands’ (can’t remember the name, sorry) like Dobbye and to some extent, Gari…was wondering why that might be???

  • I went to the Bronx Zoo recently, which is also supposed to be one of the better zoos. I remembered it from my childhood as sprawling and very natural. It really wasn’t, and I was quite sad to see how these animals are living. They may not be in cages, but in several exhibits they don’t have more than 50-100 feet to run and graze. Also very little learning materials for the visitors. I hope someone gets those capys away from the guanacos.

  • Garibaldi Rous

    Steve said there were four females, two adult males and one juvenile male. He said the males had prominent morillos but I did not notice them. (Melly)

  • Jessi

    I’m not really sure how to react to this post… As someone who has been a zookeeper, worked with exotic animals in a free-contact environment, is currently working with exotic animals as a vet tech, and has a great love and appreciation for all rodents, and especially capybaras, I’m a bit torn.

    If this was a dedicated capybara facility, all your complaints would be legitimate and reasonable. However, this is a zoo. Zoos have to spend their resources on all the animals equally (ok, relatively equally, obviously “showcase” animals will always get more attention, unfortunately it’s a fact of life). Therefore they can’t create an exhibit which is perfect for only capybaras. It also has to be relatively easy to maintain, and also visually appealing for the guests. A zookeeper cannot spend all day long encouraging the capys to move around and swim and eat only healthy amounts of food. Grass is difficult to maintain in a zoo exhibit, which is why zoo animals usually get their grazing accomplished with hay and browse instead. Just because the animals are overweight and don’t have grass doesn’t mean that the keepers don’t care about them. Keepers dont ususally have much say in exhibit design, they just have to take care of the aniamls to the best of their abilities, with the resources they have. It would be great for all zoo animals to have one-on-one time with keepers for enrichment purposes (training is an excellent way to enrich animals and keep them moving and in good shape), but in most zoos this just isn’t possible given the number of keepers vs the number of animals they have to take care of.

    When I first saw your photos I thought “wow, that’s a great enclosure!” and was surprised by your reaction to it. It has water, multiple layers and height ranges, lots of logs and branches, and a choice of sun or shade. It may not be the ultimate-heavenly-capy-paradise, but it looks like a pretty sweet gig. I’m sure you don’t live in ultimate-heavenly-Melly-paradise, but you seem happy and healthy and content. We do the best with what we have, and that goes for everything in life, I think.

    That being said, I do agree with you on some points… guanaco are probably not the best roommates, considering, as you said, that they live in different environments than capys do, so it isn’t really an accurate depiction of natural life. And you are probably correct that the capys were afraid of them. So this is a good point, and perhaps one species would be better suited to a different home in the zoo. I also agree that signage in zoos is so so important, and a factor often left as an afterthought. And of course, I also feel that rodents are horribly underrepresented in zoos. I often tell people that when I find the zoo with the largeest collection of rodents, that’s where I’ll go!

    So please don’t feel bad for those capybaras… not everyone gets to be Gari, or Dobby, or Caplin, but that doesn’t make it bad, just a different way of life.

  • Pica&Bibiana

    I am fortunate to share my life with two gorgeous capy babes, so I know a thing or two about these incredible animals. It’s difficult for me to fathom how San Diego Zoo personnel can be so clueless regarding optimum capybara management. Even if their nutritional requirements can be met with pellet feed and fresh veggies (or whatever is hidden behind that mysterious door), being deprived the psychological satisfaction from grazing is unconscionable–not to mention other environmental stressors (guanaco) these particular capys are enduring. There’s not much, if any, hay or browse and no pond vegetation visible in these photos. Do half-dead-looking palm trees count? I think not. I’ve never been to the San Diego Zoo, but years ago a friend visited there and brought me a souvenir fridge magnet. After reading this blog, I threw it in the trash!

  • angie

    The San Diego Zoo does not advocate having WILD animals as pets, therefore they would not be looking to any of the people on this site as a resource to help them plan enclosures. There is a major difference between professional animal care facilities, and people that are just nuts about animals. The capybaras at the zoo have a lovely exhibit and are healthy and content. You should consider getting a domesticated pet like a dog or cat and donating your capybaras to a more appropriate facility.

  • angie

    After watching the video you posted, I am pretty confused as to why you say they look scared. They look perfectly content.

  • Alex


    you sound more and more annoyed and arrogant. Most of the people who keep wild animals are not “just nuts”, but are well educated, and most important, love their pets and take care of them. And this particular blog is not “ridiculous”, as you have called it. It is both entertaining and educating, and it is done with great love. You should be ashamed of these expressions.

    And I don’t understand why, even if San Diego Zoo does not advocate having wild animals as pets, it can not listen to advice.

    I have spent a lot of time in Moscow Zoo, which has a lot of grass for capybaras and a loot fo room, although it is located in the heart of a very big city. And even there I have seen how guanacos are scaring and chasing capybaras. I don’t understand how the professionals (as you recoomend yourself) can deny that it could be dangerous.

  • francine

    The capys at the Detroit Zoo have a barren exhibit too, but they have it to themselves.

    Capys & guanacos don’t mix. A stressed animal is not a contented animal. Those were not contented looking capys.

  • Lucy

    Angie, I think that perhaps the stick that capy was chewing on may have accidentally lodged itself in part of your anatomy that does not usually see sunlight. Would you please be so kind as to remove it before commenting further?

    Melanie doesn’t advocate every person getting a capybara, but she does say that for some people (though few), capybaras can be good pets. I see it as similar to keeping a horse–you wouldn’t keep a horse in a tiny yard with no room to walk and exercise and graze. It’s clear that she has an almost ideal habitat to keep a capybara (lots of space, lots of grass, appropriately large swimming areas, a creek nearby), and she obviously cares greatly about these creatures that are often overlooked. And even though capybaras are usually considered wild animals, their demeanor is very calm and nonaggressive, even in the wild. It’s not like she’s keeping a tiger in her backyard. If she had chimpanzees or something living in her yard, then yes, I’d say she should give her animals to a shelter. But a capybara that’s mellow and doesn’t bite unless stressed or provoked (which dogs do as well)? Come on.

  • Amber

    This is sad… Zoos are not very nice places for animals. I don’t know what Angie’s hateful attitude is about. Thanks for your quite obvious intelligence, dedication, and humour, Melly!

  • Laurie Coppola

    I am so sadden by this report. The SD zoo is touted as such a great zoo. Maybe it is for some animals, but if any suffer, it’s a bad situation. I hope you write a letter(s) to the zoo financier/board members/administrators, and to the newspapers outlining and requesting better conditions.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>