An unusual, and very large creature is lurking in the wastewater of Paso Robles. Instead of sewer rats; how about sewer capybaras?
They're the largest rodents in the world. They're native to South America, and one was spotted at the Paso Robles Wastewater Treatment Plant three weeks ago.
Capybaras can reach the size of a large dog, and the Department of Fish and Game says this one is about 100 to 120 pounds. Some describe it as a giant rat, others a giant guinea pig. "It was just a different looking animal than we've ever seen here," said Nick Kamp, a wastewater operator, who took pictures of the capybara.
He said July 22nd started out as a normal day until he saw a capybara rise from the wastewater pond. It's the last step in the wastewater processing plant before it dumps into the Salinas River.
"It had the body of a pig, but it had a longer nose and head to it," Kamp said. He said the capybara appeared calm and serene. "He'd come up and look at us and go back down," he said. "At times, it would swim with its head just out of the water and other times, it would swim totally submerged."
It locked eyes with Kamp before submerging into the wastewater. "You could see just bubbles that were coming up to the surface where it was swimming," he said. Capybaras are known to be excellent swimmers, and workers here say this one seemed to know right where it was going. They say they saw it swimming around in the water before finally making its way toward the Salinas River.
While it's the first time the Department of Fish and Game has gotten pictures, it's not the capybara's first appearance in the area. The first sighting was about three years ago five miles east of Paso Robles at the Hunter Ranch Golf Course. The second was two years ago at a ranch about a mile from the treatment plant.
The ranch owner says the capybara chased the horse away before eating its hay; it then chased after the ranch's labrador retriever. The ranch owner shot at the capybara and didn't know whether it had hit it; the Department of Fish and Game confirmed through footprints it was indeed a capybara. Authorities also believe it to be the same rodent over the years.
The Atascadero Zoo also used to have a few capybaras, including a pair that lived together for years. "The capybara is not a particularly nice animal," said Alan Baker, the zoo's director. "They are essentially a giant rat." He says one day, out of nowhere, the female killed the male with her sharp teeth; she later died of cancer.
Baker says this capybara won't be too lonely without a mate. "They do fine by themselves," he said. "They're not like us, where they have this burning need to find another capybara."
Meantime, Kamp looks for the capybara each morning, waiting for its return. "It just made its way back out into the river, and that was it," he said. "We haven't seen it since."
The rodents can live around seven to eight years; capybaras are illegal to have as pets without a special permit in California.
Neither the Atascadero Zoo nor the Department of Fish and Game have heard anything about a capybara escape in the area.