Wednesday 13 July 2022

Capybaras (and Goldsmith's History of the Natural World)

 My sister suggested this post to me while we were queuing for the Tomb Blaster ride in Chessington Word of Adventures. 

That morning we’d turned up to Chessington at eight in the morning, two hours before the park opened to feed some capybaras. We met our handlers and were taken through the empty park to the capybara enclosure to meet Victor, Timmy and Chesney. They share this enclosure with two tortoises who they cuddle up with at night, capybaras being very sociable creatures. They are pack animals though and poor old Chesney was the lowest ranked, probably because he had the silliest names.

We put on our plastic gloves, or at least, I tried to. Not only did I struggle into them but as I tried to force my sausage fingers into their proper position in the glove, the palm snapped. Then we took a bucket of carrots, sweet potatoes, normal potatoes and large cabbage leaves. The capybaras sidled up to us, with Victor picking me as his designated feeder. To hear the chomping, see the muscles in their mouths work, feel the sensitive whiskers on your hands and look into their narrow, blissed out eyes was really calming. Chesney-bullying notwithstanding, they had such a chill vibe it was impossible not to relax with them. I even got Victor and Timmy on the same cabbage leaf and watched them nibble into a Lady and the Tramp sort of situation. Our last job was to scatter remaining food for them to snaffle up as the day went on, then we left them to a relaxing day in the sunshine before we went to breakfast ourselves. Later, when the park opened, we saw more animals and rode rides, which brings us back to the queue for Tomb Blaster.

Faye asked me if anyone suitable for the blog had written about capybaras. Of course there are no mentions of them in mediaeval bestiaries as they hadn’t been discovered yet. The earliest European depiction of them was published in 1698 under the name capivard by Francis Folger. (Incidentally, the name capybara means ‘grass-master’, while their Latin name Hydrochoerus means water hog).

Johnson never mentioned the capybara (though he did do a spirited kangaroo impression) and Christopher Smart doesn’t mention them in Jubilate Agno (Let Adam Worship with the Capybaras, for they balance bliss and dignity.) However, Goldsmith did write about them.

Goldsmith spent much of his career writing compilations, popularisations and condensations of information aimed at a middle-class audience wishing to increase their knowledge. One of these was his History of the Natural World, which I managed to pick up at a school fair for 5p. Goldsmith was certainly no naturalist, his skill in the book is representing other people’s work in a readable and entertaining way. The book is most fun when he includes his own feelings and prejudices, whether it’s getting annoyed at do-gooding dolphins or devoting pages to the loyalty of dogs and a mere paragraph about the cat.

The capybara is in there, though it’s not the easiest to find, being listed in ‘animals of the hog kind’ rather then as a rodent. It’s clear that he’s never seen one but his description is a pretty straight parroting of other descriptions he’s read. He does notice though that, with its pointed snout, the capybara’s face is more like a rabbit or hare. He also calls attention to the feet, which are partially webbed.

Goldsmith then goes on to talk about its habits. That capybaras sometimes bray like donkeys but mainly snuffle and snort, that they love wallowing in water and will use deep pools as places to hide from predators and hunters. He says that they live in packs, rarely going alone and that even in the wild, they are ‘of a gentle nature’ and can be tamed from youth. Tame capybaras can come and go on command and show attachment to their keepers.

The biggest mistake he makes is about the capybaras diet. They are completely herbivorous but he describes their skill at fishing, using their mouths and ‘hooves’ to take fish to the sides of lakes and ‘devour them and its ease’. 

Then comes the part of Goldsmith’s write-ups that are the most surprising, what the animal tastes like. According to him (or the information he’s read) capybaras are “fat and tender” with a “fishy taste”. Apparently the tastiest part of a capybara is its head. Capybaras are still eaten in Venezuela, especially during Lent because the Vatican declared them as officially fish (or at least, fishy enough). Apparently they do taste a little fishy, but because of the water grass they munch on. Most capybara meat is dried, salted and shredded and most like salted pork. I can’t say I’ll be trying it.

The capybara entry into Goldsmith’s History of the Natural World isn’t one of the flashiest entries, he clearly had no experience of the creature himself and could only synthesise what he’d read in his researches. However, it is a really interesting snapshot of what Europeans knew about Earth’s largest rodent seventy years after hearing about it.

Anyway, that’s this week’s post. A heatwave is on and I’m going to lounge like a capybara.

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