I remember how excited I was when National Geographic Magazine contacted me about including Garibaldi Rous in their upcoming article on exotic pets. I could hardly imagine the great effect this would have on capybara awareness worldwide. And I would get a National Geographic quality photo of Gari!
Even so, I wasn’t so excited that I forgot that the media has its own agenda and twists things to meet its own purposes. I asked specifically what the focus of the article was going to be and said that I did not want to be part of an article that was just a smear against owners of exotic pets. I was told that the article would be about the animal-human bond but focusing on exotic animals. Great! I’m in.
See that cute little hedgehog on the cover? Yes, those are exotic animals. So are hamsters, guinea pigs, prairie dogs, sugar gliders, gerbils and ferrets. Even rabbits are considered exotics. So was the article about that? Did the article focus on responsible ownership of exotic pets? Did it cover the process of domesticating a new animal species to be a pet? No, it did not.
Here’s a great quote from the article:
Though anyone can own a cat or a dog, exotic pet owners take pleasure in possessing an animal that has, for hundreds of thousands of years, refused the saddle of domestication.
That is…well, there’s no polite way to say what that is. Did sugar gliders and gerbils “resist the saddle of domestication?” What about that hedgehog on their cover? Or was it just that people did not have the free time or resources to domesticate those animals previously? What about capybaras that are farmed/ranched within their range in South America? Are they really “resisting the saddle of domestication?” Isn’t hat language both emotionally charged and misleading?
Here’s another quote:
Conservation efforts should focus on protecting animals in the wild, they [ WWF and Free USA] assert, not on preserving what are often inbred animals in private zoos.
I have a whole lot of problems with that. Firstly, as long as the human population continues to rise–and it shows no sign of slowing let alone stopping–wild animals are going to be going extinct. The “wild” becomes smaller and smaller every year and there is no place on land or seathat has not felt the destructive influence of humankind. Secondly, there are a lot of exotics, like capybaras, that are getting little or no protection in the wild because they are IUCN species of least concern. Right now, there are still lots of them. They are hunted for both meat and leather, they are farmed and ranched. They are sometimes treated like vermin. So exactly what harm do a few pet capybaras do to the wild populations? Show me some data.
I do agree that captive exotics are sometimes highly inbred. But so are dogs, cats, cattle, pigs, horses, chickens. In fact all domestic animals are inbred. That’s how we developed the different breeds of animals in the first place. I own three American Quarter Horses. One common term you’ll see in an ad for an expensive AQH is “line-bred.” That is absolutely a less pejorative form of the term in-bred. Why do some breeds of dogs get hip dysplasia? Why do some quarter horses carry a gene that causes their skin to slough off. These are ugly, horrible side effects of inbreeding, but they are not restricted to exotics.
Domestication is a process. It starts with a wild animal and after some number of years/generations, it produces a domestic animal. I think that capybaras are great candidates for domestication. Rather than comparing them to tigers or chimps or lemurs or other dangerous or threatened animals, why not compare them to their close relatives, the guinea pigs?
Guinea pigs do fine in captivity and rather than being classified as exotics, they really should be termed domesticated animals. There is no reason to believe that a few generations of captive breeding of capybaras would not have the same result.
Here are the contents of an email that I sent today to the editor I dealt with at National Geographic Magazine.