UCNW

Capybara smuggling

John was the Head of the Department of Applied Zoology at the University College of North Wales when I was studying for my MSc in Animal Parasitology in Bangor. He was a very kind and patient man that supervised and supported my Dissertation. During that time we met often to discuss my work.

We talked a lot about South America and Uruguay as he was curious to learn about my part of the world. It was during one of these conversations that he expressed his interest on capybaras as he was amazed at the existence of such a giant rodent. He was so keen on these animals that he asked me if I could get him a skull! I took note of his wish but I did not have much chance of getting one for him, away from South America. Even if I would have been there, capybaras are rare in Uruguay.

After a few days I remembered my uncle Lito in Salto, Uruguay. Years earlier he had studied architecture somewhere in the UK. When he came back to Uruguay, he became a very successful architect as he brought in new designs and techniques. His main hobby was to navigate the Uruguay River. With his wife they traveled extensively not only up and down the main river for many years and they also explored a number of its tributaries. It was during one of these trips that they discovered a beautiful spot up the Guaviyú River, one of the tributaries, south of Salto.

He got permission from the ranch owners to camp in the spot at will and he spent a lot of his annual holiday time camping in the woodlands. After retirement he prolongued the time he spent there to a couple of months every year. Luckily I had a chance of joining him at the camp a couple of times and we enjoyed fishing and walking while talking about several issues. I recalled that he once mentioned that there were capybaras in the area.

jc and capyb in hole

The Bushsnob waiting for his turn to enter the bathtub.

So, as uncle Lito offered my only chance for a capybara, I decided to write to him asking if he knew whether it would be possible to get one. I knew that it was a very long shot and I soon forgot all about it. I was really busy writing and typing my work (no word-processing computers in those days!) and damaging my back in the process.

While studying at Bangor, we stayed at Llanfairfechan, a small village nearby where, luckily, we have found Elsie, a great landlady that adopted us as family. So I was rather concerned when one day the usually placid Elsie came in a very agitated state to tell me that the Postman had brought something for me that she thought required my presence!

Curious, I followed her downstairs. The postman had an unwrapped brown paper in his hands that I could see had been a parcel once upon a time. He then said: “I believe this is for you” and presented me with the remains. “It was open for Customs inspection”he said before leaving.

After thanking him I focused on the open package, It contained a very white skull and a letter and it was definitely addressed to me! As soon as I saw the incisors I immediately recognized the large rodent skull and realized that my uncle Lito had done it and I had John’s dream in my hands!

The letter from uncle Lito explained that, after a few days of receiving my request, he had found a dead capybara while wondering in the woodlands. As this was too good an opportunity to ignore, he had collected the skull for me. Afterwards he had consulted a vet friend who recommended him to clean it by boiling it. This he did until the bone was clean until he judged that it was safe to send it to me!

Capybara

A capybara skull. Source: Illustrierter Leitfaden der Naturgeschichte des Thierreiches, 1876. Original caption: “Fig. 29. Kopfskelett des Wasserschweines (Hydrochoerus capybara. Erxl.) i obere Schneidezähne, ï untere Schneidezähne.” Translation (partly): “Skull of a capybara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), i upper inscisor, ï lower incisor”. Originator: Unknown.

I took the skull to John the following day and explained him the situation as well as recommending him to boil it again to be on the safe side. At first he looked at the bone blankly until he realized what it was and then he was extremely surprised and pleased to have it and, for the first time he actually embraced me to thank me, a rare occurrence as physical contact is not usual among British people.

The following day back home I was still typing when the landlady came again to tell me that the postman was at the door again! “What is is this time”, I thought while following her to the door. This was a “deja-vu” as the same man was there! This time he handed over a small sealed plastic bag that, on later inspection, contained the lower jaw! Now the skull was complete and John was even happier when he received the missing part.

I recommended him again to boil it and eventually the complete skull was proudly displayed in his office.