Click here for some wonderful pictures of the capybara in this story.

With their favorite rodent gone, Rio residents forlorn

By Paulo Prada, Globe Correspondent  |  January 23, 2005

RIO DE JANEIRO -- With buck teeth, short legs, and a hairy, 183-pound body, she's not a conventional beauty. But the departure of a female capybara from one of Rio's most popular parks to a nature reserve has left a void for many residents.

For the past two years, the animal lived in the brackish waters of a giant urban lagoon here and its presence in the middle of a city of 6 million people inspired a devoted following among those who saw her and Loch Ness-style curiosity among those who didn't.

Capybaras, the world's largest rodents, are native to the floodplains and humid forests of South America.

''She's a pop star -- a real icon for the city," said Helio Vianna, a 21-year-old office worker who glimpsed the animal twice at the lagoon.

Her star rose further last month when the capybara, in a dramatic daylong episode, swam across the lagoon, down a canal, and into the Atlantic Ocean.

The journey, along Rio's famous southside beaches, included an 11-hour pursuit by 15 lifeguards, who, fearful the animal would wander into traffic or succumb to the ocean's undertow, swam and ran after the rodent before netting her on the sand.

The high-profile chase -- images were broadcast live and printed on the front pages of national newspapers -- launched a debate about the rodent and her place in Brazil's second-biggest city.

Worried she could wander once more into harm's way, authorities resolved not to return her to the lagoon, releasing her instead at a nature reserve outside town.

While naturalists say the animal is better off in the reserve, fans of the capybara -- most of them frequent visitors to the lagoon -- are clamoring for her return.

''The lagoon is not the same," said Graciana Fittipaldi, a retiree who enjoyed capybara-spotting on daily walks around the lagoon's 4.3-mile perimeter. ''There was always a sense of expectation you might see her."

In addition to several petitions, one formal suit demands that the city return the capybara. Devotees say the rodent was a reminder that wildlife once reigned in a city now plagued by pollution, poverty, and one of the highest murder rates in the world.

''Rio was built upon swamps," said Mario Moscatelli, a biologist who reintroduced mangroves and other native plants to the lagoon. ''The capybara tells us we're the aberration, we're the intruders."

No one is sure how the capybara, then still an infant, arrived at the lagoon to begin with. Though not always easily visible -- capybaras can spend minutes at a time submerged -- she was often spotted swimming along the lagoon's edges or munching grass on its banks.

Her day adrift last month captivated the entire city. Camera crews began broadcasting the pursuit mid-morning and viewers tuned in all day for updates. At 5 p.m., the animal disappeared into the ocean, where the public feared she had drowned amid the waves.

Two hours later, when she reemerged up the shoreline, ''the newsroom erupted in cheers," said Cora Ronai, a columnist for O Globo, the city's biggest daily.

Today the lagoon is testament to the capybara's absence. A waterside museum interrupted its programming to mount a capybara exhibit with photos and a documentary. Hundreds of signatures in the guestbook feature commentary like ''volta!" return!) and ''que saudade!" (what longing!).

One lagoon bar that used to serve free caipivaras, a variation of the caipirinha, Brazil's national cocktail, whenever the animal surfaced nearby, commissioned an artist to create 10 colorful capybara sculptures that now adorn its lawn.

Seeking the capybara's return, Vanda Roxa, a local tour guide and ecologist, gathered 421 signatures and filed suit with the public defender.

Last week, in a hearing at the defender's office, she and a group of supporters presented their case to a young attorney.

At the reserve, they argued, the capybara could fall prey to other wild animals, nearby traffic, even poachers. Some people like the taste of capybara, and its hide makes supple leather.

''The lagoon is where she's safe," Roxa said. ''She should return where she grew up."

Copyright 2005 Globe Newspaper Company.