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Capybara sighting in California: Huge rodent called harmless

August 17, 2011 |  7:02 am

A wastewater treatment plant has gained some notoriety after workers spotted a capybara three weeks ago.

The animal came out of a wastewater pond at the plant in Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County and paddled around in the water before reaching the Salinas River.

Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents -– they can reach the size of a small dog -– and are often described as a mix between a rat and a guinea pig. They’re nocturnal and semi-aquatic, and prefer habits with dense vegetation and access to water. They are illegal to own as a pet in California.

The rodents aren’t dangerous, “just weird looking,” said Department of Fish and Game spokesman Andrew Hughan.

“Somebody probably brought it in as a pet and they either got away or people couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Hughan said. “It’s no harm. It’s just going to root around.”

It's not the first time a capybara has been spotted in Paso Robles, said Lt. Todd Tognazzini of the Department of Fish and Game. Game wardens received a report about three years ago of a capybara in a pond near Hunter Ranch Golf Course, but because there were no other sightings and beavers live in the area, they thought it was a mistaken report.

Eight months later, a man who was feeding his horses said a large rodent-like creature came up, scared his horses away, ate some hay and then chased after a dog. The man fired a shotgun at the animal to protect his dog, and called wildlife officials after it left the property. Wardens confirmed footprints at the scene were that of a capybara, but traps they set caught nothing, and no other sightings were reported.

Until a few weeks ago. Wardens looked at photographs taken by workers at the wastewater plant and confirmed the animal in the pictures was an adult capybara weighing 100 to 120 pounds. Tognazzini thinks the same animal was responsible for the previous sightings.

Workers at the wastewater plant are still talking about the discovery.

"He'd come up and look at us and go back down," employee Nick Kamp told KSBY-TV.   "At times, it would swim with its head just out of the water, and other times, it would swim totally submerged.

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-- Kate Mather

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