A capybara, the world’s largest rodent, is on the loose near Paso Robles.
On July 30, Nick Kamp, a worker at the Paso Robles sewage treatment plant, spotted the animal as it emerged from a pond. He was able to snap a few pictures of it with his cellphone before it disappeared into the Salinas River channel.
The state Department of Fish and Game has received reports of three capybara sightings in the past three years, warden Lt. Todd Tognazzini said. Capybaras are native to South America and can grow to more than 4 feet in length and weigh as much as 140 pounds.
“They have a very distinctive snout with big nostrils,” said Matt Thompson, Paso Robles wastewater program manager. “They essentially look like huge guinea pigs.”
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Tognazzini suspects that the animal was brought to the area from out of state as a pet and either escaped or was released into the wild. Some states allow capybaras to be kept as pets, but not California.
Tognazzini hopes to be able to trap the capybara and donate it to Zoo to You, a local group that keeps and displays exotic wildlife. The group has the necessary permits to keep the animal and has agreed to take it, he said.
The first capybara sighting came three years ago when a golfer reported seeing one at Hunter Ranch Golf Course on Highway 46 east of Paso Robles. That sighting was never confirmed.
Two years ago, a rancher in the North River Road area of Paso Robles reported that a capybara was scaring his horses and had chased his dog. The rancher said he fired a shotgun at it and scared it off. A warden investigated and confirmed that the animal was a capybara by a footprint it left behind.
Tognazzini said all three sightings were likely of the same animal, although there are unconfirmed reports of a dead capybara having been found near a pond at Hunter Ranch three years ago. Capybaras like watery habitats and could easily move around the area using rivers and drainages.
The Salinas River around the wastewater treatment plant would be attractive to a capybara. Paso Robles maintains a series of six ponds in the riverbed. A hot springs is also nearby.
“We get beavers, turtles and geese coming into those ponds,” Thompson said. “They are very popular with wildlife.”
Tognazzini asks that any sightings of the capybara be reported to help authorities capture the animal. Large, invasive animals can damage natural resources.
“It doesn’t belong in the wild,” he said. “Until now, it’s not been sighted frequently enough in a given area to warrant a trap being set.”