Yes, I know it’s called the ROUS Foundation, but why isn’t it named after Caplin ROUS? At this ten year anniversary, we have even more reason to honor him. More than a pet, magnificent Caplin carried an aura of importance with him. I doubt he would be surprised to see what he started, and what the ROUS Foundation has accomplished in his name.
I won’t repeat here what you can read on the ROUS Foundation website, or on Melanie’s Capybara Madness website. Plus, I think everyone knows the story of how Melanie and her daughter Coral first saw capybaras on a trip to Venezuela. Their guide hopped out of the truck and picked up a wild capybara pup for them to hold. It was tiny and docile, so perfectly adorable, that they talked about it non-stop even after they returned home. Coral didn’t let up and Melanie finally located a breeder and brought baby Caplin home.
Independently, I became obsessed with owning a pet capybara, and while I was looking for a breeder, ran into Melanie. By total coincidence, I obtained mine from the same breeder, two litters younger than Caplin. While I never met Caplin, little brother Dobby did. Ten years ago the only resources we had were Capyboppy (a children’s book by Bill Peet) and a (now-retired) breeder named Mary Lee. I had the advantage because Melanie was about two years ahead of me with Caplin and paved the road for me and the sudden explosion of other new capybara owners at that time. There were maybe a dozen private owners in 2009, but the numbers grew exponentially. There were also about a hundred in zoos, carnivals, and petting zoos around the U.S.
Everything went swimmingly for a while. Baby capybaras were friendly and cute, a charming novelty. But even lion cubs are easy at first. Like most wild animals, they become aggressive as they mature, and to counteract the aggression, owners began to neuter the young males. There were some unfortunate side effects to the anesthetic protocol, and Caplin, among others, suffered a bout of frightening but temporary nerve damage. Veterinarians just weren’t trained to treat pet capybaras. But, of course they weren’t. How could they be?
It soon became apparent that for even routine veterinary care a well trained exotic veterinarian would be quickly out of their league with capybaras. Melanie drove Caplin in to Texas A&M University, a two hour ordeal with an ailing capybara in the car. I was lucky that my veterinarian was not only nearby, but was spunky and talented, having a grandfather who had tended animals at our local zoo. Five week old Dobby’s pneumonia was actually a textbook case requiring readily available meds that miraculously proved non-toxic and effective. Not only that, but my eleventh hour call to Mary Lee in Arkansas had given me the tip that kept Dobby alive until his veterinary appointment the following day. We already understood that veterinary care was going to be a challenge.
Caplin’s fame grew. More and more people wanted their own capybara. More and more people began to breed capybaras. New owners began to ask us questions their veterinarians couldn’t answer. We began to notice very uneven early growth rates among these new capybaras. To help people track the health of their pets we began to track weights of as many pet capybaras as we could find. Weight is only one criteria for health, but it is an easy one. If your child weighed 80% of what their classmates weighed, it would be a concern, wouldn’t it? Apparently, if your “child” is a capybara, it isn’t. We continued to collect weights and found that when young capybaras fell significantly behind in weight, they didn’t make it.
When Caplin began to exhibit odd symptoms and then suddenly died, Melanie was devastated. We still don’t really know why he died, but the larger problem was obvious: veterinarians aren’t trained to treat capybaras, and there wasn’t a veterinarian in existence who could have helped him. There still isn’t. That is why Melanie founded the ROUS Foundation. The intent was for it to become a clearing house of information to guide exotic veterinarians who find themselves treating capybaras. We now have an anesthetic protocol that doesn’t cause nerve damage. We have funded numerous necropsies and surgeries. Ten years later, we are getting ready to publish our weight data.
What’s next for the ROUS Foundation? Since so little is known, there is still a lot to do. The big question is what should we do next? A couple of things stand out that might bring the most good to the most capybaras. The first is determining what the standard values of normal blood tests should be. Nothing is more frustrating than having a vet run blood tests and then admit that they are guessing that the values look “okay” based on values for the same tests run on guinea pigs. There are more differences between capybaras and guinea pigs than just their size. Knowing the normal, healthy values for blood tests would help a lot when diagnosing illnesses.
Another area that could use exploration is genetic variability or inbreeding. Many, if not most, captive capybaras are descended from a small herd imported from Brazil by Mary Lee. Breeding closely related animals together over multiple generations can lead to genetic disease. Lately, the ROUS Foundation has become aware of physical deformities in newborn capybaras, especially regarding their limbs. The ROUS Foundation would like to evaluate how much genetic variability there is in the captive population, identify lineages with genetic problems, and determine what steps can be taken to counter them.
Exotic animals are always a challenge to keep in captivity, but it is the ROUS Foundation’s goal to make it a little easier, both for the animals and their keepers. You can read more about the ROUS Foundation at our website. Most of the services we provide are free. However, if you are interested in supporting our work, please consider donating here.
All photos of Caplin are courtesy of Melanie Typaldos, President of the ROUS Foundation.