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Capybara sighting: Officials may set traps for giant rodents

August 17, 2011 |  8:12 am

A young capybara at a zoo in Hanover, Germany.

Officials in the Paso Robles area say they may set traps after workers at a wastewater plant spotted a capybara three weeks ago.

Wardens are prepared to set live traps for the animal, said Lt. Todd Tognazzini of the Department of Fish and Game., and relocate it to a local nonprofit animal group. Before traps can be set, however, there must be more confirmed sightings of the animal so officials can narrow down the area where it lives.

In the meantime, Tognazzini said, anyone who spots the animal should contact authorities –- and keep their distance. Though capybaras (an example of the rodent is pictured above) aren’t considered predatory toward humans, any wild animal should be treated with extra caution, he said.

“Like any wild animal, they’re going to defend themselves, so we wouldn’t want anybody to get close to it,” Tognazzini said.

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, Tognazzini said. 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.

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-- Kate Mather

Photo: A young capybara at a zoo in Hanover, Germany. Credit: Holger Hollemann / EPA

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