When you first see Mudskipper Rous, the 6-month-old capybara that belongs to Buda’s Melanie Typaldos, a lot of crazy things go through your head.
Is there a mad scientist in one of the rooms down the hall with an enlarging ray? And where’s the oversized hamster wheel which, if wired up, could power the entire town?
Have I become trapped in one of those body-switching movies in which a guinea pig and a dog have come to inhabit each other’s skins?
It’s not that Muddy looks strange, per se — it’s just that, well, the perspective is all off.
How can this rodent that looks like a 60-pound hamster even exist, much less obey commands to sit, shake, stand on its hind legs and jump over a hurdle?
If anybody knows the answer to that, it’s Typaldos, who has become more or less an expert on the creatures — which are native to South America — since bringing home her first one, Caplin, eight years ago.
“My two adult children and I went to Venezuela,” the tall, thin woman recalls, “and we saw them in the wild. My daughter got to hold a little, baby capybara and they seemed awfully calm for wild animals.”
When they returned, her daughter kept pestering her, saying they should get one.
”But she meant me, because she was living in an apartment,” Typaldos says, laughing.
She found a breeder here and went to visit with no intention of bringing one of the critters home. But the breeder had just one left and told Typaldos he had been saving it for her.
“That was my first capybara,” Typaldos says. “Caplin was so brave. I took him everywhere. I took him to all these school visits and to a home in Buda for people with mental disabilities and we would go out to eat … he wasn’t scared of anything.”
Their fast friendship ended suddenly when Caplin died at 3½ years old from liver damage, possibly caused by lingering effects from a bad reaction to anesthesia when he was neutered.
Typaldos was devastated, but soon had the opportunity to nurse a different capybara back to health: a rodent located in Ohio that had been kept in a basement without proper food and had developed scurvy. She named him Garibaldi.
“Here was a capybara that seemed to need me. Maybe we two lost souls could connect,” Typaldos wrote on her blog, gianthamster.com.
Despite constant and dedicated care, the issues with Gari’s diet and his limited exposure to sunlight prior to Typaldos’ obtaining him — which resulted in the animal’s decreased bone density — caused dental issues that claimed his life just shy of his fourth birthday in April 2014.
“Although Gari had a short life, he had a full one. He loved his new owners and knew he was loved through the end,” Garibaldi’s veterinarian, Dr. Sharman Hoppes of the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, wrote at the time.
Typaldos and her unusual pets are familiar faces at A&M, where doctors are still learning about the creatures. In honor of Gari, Typaldos established the R.O.U.S. Fund — “rous” being a common acronym for “rodent of unusual size,” which also inspired her pet’s last name. The fund compensates the university for the cost of necropsies, pathology and laboratory tests for capybaras and other large rodents and to better understand the diseases that threaten their lives and health.
The loss of her pet was compounded by Typaldos’ own brain hemorrhage, an event that left her disabled, housebound and unable to see anything to the left. She had just been home from the hospital for a couple of months when Gari died.
“I didn’t want to get another capybara,” she says. “I mean, it was pretty hard losing him and losing Caplin.”
She eventually consoled herself by visiting the Snake Farm Zoo in New Braunfels, where she met capybaras Wesley and Fiona, the latter of whom turned out to be Gari’s younger sister from the same breeder.
Frequent visits helped her to heal. Typaldos brought the one-week-old Mudskipper home from the Houston suburb of Spring last February.
“She was extremely skittish,” Typaldos says. “She’s over it a lot, but not completely. She’s really sweet; they’re hard animals not to fall in love with.”
Muddy is half her full-grown weight of probably 120 pounds, and she makes a quiet, purring noise that Typaldos says indicates anxiety from having a strange reporter nearby. But the creature jumps right up on the couch next to me when I say, “up, Muddy” and shake a container of goodies — a mixture of rat food and cat treats that she eats out of my hand while I stroke her coarse, bristly hair. The delicacies are rewards; the capybara’s main diet is grass.
Mudskipper is smart. Typaldos has trained her to sit, shake, lie down, walk in a circle and, most impressively, jump over a short hurdle her owner constructed with PVC tubing.
“She’s pretty fast and she’s really crazy when she runs around (in the yard),” Typaldos says. “She jumps up in the air and she flips herself; she’s pretty athletic.”
And, apparently, lots of fun as a swimming partner. Capybara don’t navigate the water like dogs do, Typaldos says, comparing them instead to otters or sea lions.
“Caplin was very fast in the water; he was like a bullet. But Gari wasn’t because he was too busy spinning around.”
They do walk on leashes like dogs, but Typaldos has trouble getting one on Muddy because of her skittishness — an escape artist, she’d jump into the pool and then come out not wearing it.
Muddy’s still fed goat milk replacement by bottle, though her owner says she’s getting too old for that. Still, it’s hard to overstate the cuteness of the capybara nudging Typaldos’ leg with her nose when she wants to be fed, or simply lying on the rug where she’s been fed since she arrived at the house, waiting for her meal.
A herd animal needing companionship, Muddy pals around with a guinea pig that was not much smaller than her when they first met. It’s adorable to see them now, at such disparate sizes, nuzzling up to one another on a window seat. Her other pal is a cat Typaldos obtained at the same time as the capybara.
Maybe that explains those purring noises.