Sunday, February 18, 2018

Meet the 120-pound rodent that's a pet

At 120 pounds and nearly 2 feet tall, the shaggy-haired Gari is lovable enough.

He likes to clown around, play in the mud and take long walks.

That's his good side.

He's also somewhat of a rat — lazy, needy and demanding to be fed at all hours of the night.

But that's a capybara for you, especially when you let him have the run of the house.

You take the good with the bad.

"He's a really neat animal," said owner Melanie Typaldos. "He's really smart, very affectionate, he loves to swim, and I love to go swimming with him."

Typaldos' love for Gari led her to team up with Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences to start the ROUS Foundation, dedicated to finding out more about capybaras that have been domesticated and helping owners cover veterinary expenses. Most in the U.S. are found in zoos.

In the wild, the capybara, which could easily pass as a guinea pig — albeit a giant one — lives in South America. Officially, it's a rodent, the largest kind.

"We're trying to understand what's going on with captive capybaras," Typaldos said. "No one's keeping track of it. No one's keeping records.

Dr. Sharman Hoppes, a clinical associate professor with the veterinary school, said she hasn't seen any documented instances of capybaras transmitting diseases to humans in the U.S. because they're kept in captivity.

"If we happen to have capybaras loose in our waterways," she said, that would be a different story.

This much is known about 3-year-old Gari: He walks on a leash, rides in the car with the windows down and, when he chooses, sleeps in bed with Typaldos, 57, and her husband, Rick Loveman, 54.

Gari's formal name is Garibaldi Rous. The last name stands for Rodents of Unusual Size, from the movie The Princess Bride.

Typaldos and her husband own a home that sits on about 40 acres in Buda, Texas, 15 miles southwest of Austin.

On a recent summer afternoon, Gari quietly sauntered around the fenced-in back yard, mingling with the chickens and two tortoises.

Then, he climbed the hay-barrel steps leading to an above-ground swimming pool and slipped in.

Typaldos, dressed in a black T-shirt with a drawing of a capybara, spun Gari on his back. His record is 15 spins, and he can hold his breath for up to five minutes, she said.

But on this day, Gari preferred to take things slow, gliding through the water like an otter.

"I always say Gari is the clown of the capybara world," Typaldos said.

His sounds range from a deep, low purr when he's happy to a little squeak when he's not.

Gari isn't thrilled when he's hungry. Typaldos said he's notorious for waking up in the middle of the night with a "feed me" look. She's lucky if he sleeps past 5:30 a.m.

"Sometimes, I'll open my eyes and there will be a big capybara face right there," she said.

Typically, Gari chews through two to four tubs of organic lettuce a day — an expensive diet. As an herbivore, he also eats melon, grapes, blueberries, apples, corn and broccoli.

"Only the best for my capybara," Typaldos said.

Gari enters and leaves the house as he pleases. He goes into the same bathroom as everyone else, but he uses a water pot next to the toilet.

"He learns tricks like a dog, and he walks on a leash like a dog," Typaldos said. Gari can shake hands, or paws in his case, and presses a button with his snout for food rewards.

"But like a cat, he doesn't really come when he's called, and his affection really has to be earned," she said.

With fur like broom bristles, Gari isn't exactly optimal for cuddling. Typaldos said he usually sits on her lap when they swim, but Loveman is his best pal.

"He follows Rick around and he cries for him," Typaldos said. "When we go out someplace, if Rick is there, he sticks right to him like he's glued to him. I wish he would do that to me."

It's probably because Loveman, who is disabled, stays home most of the week with Gari while Typaldos works as an electrical engineer.

Capybaras, naturally found in groups, require a lot of attention.

"Yeah, I'm Gari's favorite," Loveman said. "I'm here with him all the time, and he doesn't trust Melanie because she leaves him. He has abandonment issues because he's adopted."

Gari is the couple's second capybara. The first came after Typaldos and her daughter held one in the wild during a trip to Venezuela — they were hooked.

Within a few months, Typaldos bought Caplin Rous, who lived for 3½ years before he died of liver failure in 2011.

A few weeks after Caplin's death, Typaldos rescued Gari. She paid $300 to have him flown from Ohio, where his owner couldn't care for him.

Gari has been adjusting to a life with a bigger yard and pool ever since.

He still doesn't know how to graze like wild capybaras do, but Typaldos is working on it, like she's working on getting him used to his purple harness on walks.

When Gari goes for strolls through town or to the pet store, Typaldos said, reactions range from delight to terror.

"My point is to just get it out there so that people see that capybaras exist," she said. "I don't care if it makes me look crazy."

Typaldos calls Gari her capybara ambassador. She takes him to schools and community events to raise awareness about the South American rodent.

She also has launched giant, usually blogging about daily happenings from Gari's point of view. She sells capybara-themed items such as calendars, plush toys and mugs and contributes $1 from each purchase to the ROUS Foundation, dedicated to the study and care of capybaras.

Hoppes is working with Typaldos to compile a database of capybara vital signs, heights and weights.

"Right now, we're letting people know that this foundation is available," Hoppes said. "If anything else, just so they notify us if they're getting blood work done."

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