Saturday, October 9, should have been a bad day. Brazil had just become the second country after the United States to top 600,000 COVID deaths. The U.S. Department of Labor released a disappointing jobs report. The global supply chain crisis deepened, with a backlog of nearly a half-million containers waiting to be unloaded at the Port of Los Angeles.
But then a video of a capybara enjoying a chin scratch went viral on Twitter.
The internet, a study in contradiction, fosters narcissism, anxiety, and anonymous trolling — yet it’s also full of capybaras, the world’s largest and most laid-back rodents.
If you’ve never seen a capybara, picture a guinea pig that tried to shape-shift into a wombat but got stuck halfway. Online, the capybara is unlikely to dethrone cats as the Internet’s unofficial mascot. Yet the outsized rodents have established themselves as one of the web’s animal archetypes. Capybara Twitter’s top influencer, @CAPYBARA_MAN, has nearly 200,000 followers, including the climate activist Greta Thunberg. Other notable outlets include the Twitter accounts @CapybaraCountry and @CapybaraDaily, Reddit’s r/Capybara subreddit, the Instagram account @daily.capys, and the Facebook groups “Capybara Connoisseurs” and “A Group Where We All Pretend to Be Capybaras.”
There’s a reason for the capybaras’ popularity: their personality is precisely what humanity needs, as a reminder of our capacity for relaxed and genuine relationships. Like cats, capybaras come across as detached and inscrutable, but they seem to lack cats’ casual sociopathy. Like dogs, capybaras are sociable, generous, and undoubtedly deserving of head scratches. But nearly 40,000 years of domestication by humans have endowed dogs with an earnest attentiveness found in no other animal. And, like honey badgers, capybaras convey an attitude of indifference. But, unlike honey badgers, capybaras have little desire to murder everyone around them.
The internet, with its remoteness and facelessness, can be a haven for honey-badger personalities. Recent studies have shown that Facebook and Twitter are structured to reward dunking on people, and that the most visible online discussions attract the most hostile voices. To online capybara aficionados, the species represents not just an oasis of calm amid a world defined by anxiety and aggression, but a glimpse of a kinder world.
“When I’m sad, I like to remember how capybaras are chill as hell pals with the rest of the animal kingdom,” tweets the female software engineer.
“Everything’s terrible so here’s a cat massaging a capybara,” tweets the researcher who investigates political corruption.
“Could I interest you in a crochet capybara as a social media doomscrolling break?” tweets the writer taking a break from journalism to sell crochet animals online.
This is a difficult time for the internet, and thus, for human relations. Some people say we need regulation of tech or a delete-your-accounts movement or a national cultural shift away from the online mob. But maybe what we really need is just more capybaras.
Capybaras in cyberspace
The capybaras’ journey to internet fame began in the early years of the web itself. Perhaps the first English-language website devoted solely to capybaras was launched in 1998 and is known, simply, as “the Capybara Page.” But one of the first capybaras to go viral online was a pet in Texas named Caplin Rous.
Rous’s surname is a reference to the 1987 cult film The Princess Bride and its joke about Rodents of Unusual Size.From William Goldman’s 1973 novel The Princess Bride: “Any discussion of the R.O.U.S. — Rodents of Unusual Size — must begin with the South American Capybara…”(The capybara, the world’s largest rodent species, stands at two feet tall, four feet long and 140 pounds or more, and inhabits the savannas and wetlands of every South American country except Chile.)
Caplin Rous made his YouTube debut in 2007, in a 37-second video that culminates with him licking the camera. In 2010, a Los Angeles Times headline proclaimed him “an ambassador for giant rodents everywhere.” In keeping with the altruism of his species, Rous’s fame eventually led to a more noble purpose. His human, Melanie Typaldos, an electrical engineer, runs gianthamster.com, a website aimed at educating — and often discouraging — people interested in adopting capybaras as pets. After Rous died in 2011, Typaldos started the ROUS Foundation for Capybara Veterinary Medicine.
Meanwhile, in Japan, the photographer Katsuhito Watanabe was launching his career as the Annie Leibovitz to capybaras. His website, Facebook page, Twitter page, and YouTube channel offer photos and videos of capybaras all over Japan, where they are a staple of petting zoos and animal parks.
By the middle of the last decade, the internet was primed to elevate the rodents to folk-hero status. That’s exactly what happened in 2016, after a pair of capybaras escaped from a Toronto zoo and spent weeks on the lam. Their escape made international headlines. By the time the furry fugitives, nicknamed Bonnie and Clyde, were recaptured, they had captivated legions of newfound capybara enthusiasts.
Even when they’re not providing seating for the rest of the animal kingdom, capybaras exude an almost otherworldly serenity.
Much of the rodent’s popularity stems from its willingness to mingle indiscriminately with other species. Visit the Tumblr blog “Animals Sitting on Capybaras,” or the subreddit “Things on the backs of capybaras,” and you’ll find countless photos of the placid herbivores wearing their trademark stoic expression as various birds, monkeys, turtles, cats, dogs, and rabbits make themselves comfortable on top of them. In 2014, Smithsonian Magazine declared them “Basically Nature’s Chairs.”
Even when they’re not providing seating for the rest of the animal kingdom, capybaras exude an almost otherworldly serenity. Spend a few minutes watching capybaras relaxing in onsen baths at a Japanese zoo, enjoying a pet from a human friend, or noisily consuming a watermelon, and you’ll be struck by their ability to immerse themselves in life’s simple pleasures.
The capybara’s easygoingness is sometimes so extreme that it can come across as defying biology itself. From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “red in tooth and claw” to Richard Dawkins’s “selfish gene” to Chuck Jones’s “meep meep,” the idea that nature amounts to ruthless competition is deeply embedded in our culture. We expect our wild animals to be preoccupied with wild-animal things, like performing mating calls and dealing with one’s neighbors on the food chain. When we see a capybara offering public transport to a group of monkeys or blithely relaxing next to one of its natural predators, it looks as though nobody told it about the whole “survival of the fittest” deal. We don’t expect evolution, which pits individual genes in competition with each other, could ever produce an organism that invites members of different taxonomic classes to take naps on it. And yet here they are, acting as a hairy sofa for a family of ducks.
Lounging against the machine
Of course, everything gets politicized in the end, and the capybara is no exception. In recent months, the rodent has become an emblem of class struggle. This past August, people living in Nordelta, an ultrarich gated community near Buenos Aires, Argentina, suddenly found their lawns and swimming pools occupied by 400 capybaras. According to the Guardian, residents of Nordelta, whose construction on wetlands is linked to flooding in poorer neighboring communities, went after the capybaras with hunting rifles.
In response, Argentine leftists celebrated the capybaras on social media as symbols of the class struggle. Sympathizers from other countries joined in. Now Capybara Twitter abounds with Photoshopped memes of capybaras reading Marx’s Capital while sipping maté, posing as Che Guevara, and, in an apparent nod toward liberation theology, being cradled in the arms of Keanu Jesus.
It’d be a stretch to say that capybaras are naturally inclined to socialism. But studies suggest that they are predisposed to redistribute wealth downward. Research published in July in Behavioural Processes found that, all else being equal, capybaras will donate food to a lower-status capybara even when there is no obvious benefit for them. These findings add to a growing body of evidence that primates are not alone in what evolutionary biologists call “prosocial behavior” and what normal people call “being kind.”
Seeing a wild rodent being kind for apparently no reason — say, by cuddling a rabbit — suggests that the capacity for kindness might have existed 66 million years ago, before the evolutionary paths of humans and rodents parted ways. And it suggests that, even in online environments that incentivize picking fights, we can still manage to get along and help each other out. At least if we all pretend to be capybaras.