The Los Angeles County Natural History Museum has plenty of bizarre beasties in stock, many of them from creatures not found within a thousand miles of L.A. -- or within a thousand years of 2011. Which is why the museum is captivated these days by a creature that could wind up in its collection.
The 2-foot-high animal has been seen around a wastewater treatment plant in Paso Robles, about 175 miles northwest of Los Angeles. The furry monster was spotted again at a Paso Robles golf course, and again when it scared some horses and had an encounter with a Labrador. The dog's irritated owner took a shot at the intruder but missed what witnesses said was a 120-pound target.
Is it a giant rat? A baby big cat? A lost beaver? A mutant turtle, flushed down the pipes when it grew too large for the Ninja-loving kids?
Early theories suggested it was a capybara, or Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris, a toothy mammal usually found in South America and illegal to keep as a pet in California (although when did that stop anyone?).
Then someone captured the animal on film and suspicions were confirmed. It is a capybara, the world's largest rodent.
Curious about its path to California, authorities called around. They found none missing from zoos. The best guess is that this is an escapee of some kind, or a pet whose owners dumped it because it got too big -- or frisky.
In South America, capybaras are farmed for meat -- in Venezuela in particular, they're very popular around Lent. But it's hard to imagine Californians chowing down on something that's been wallowing in wastewater, no matter how good it tastes (like pork, apparently).
Capybaras are vegetarians and are not considered dangerous in their normal habitat. They usually hang out in groups, but this one is alone -- perhaps dreaming of Florida, where its species is more common following a breakout at a research facility in 2001.
What does this mean for the Natural History Museum? The chase to acquire its first intact capybara.
Jim Dines, manager of the museum's Mammalogy Collection, says the museum has a capybara skeleton and a tanned skin in the research collection. But it doesn't have a full specimen -- and specimens are always preferable to skin and bones, especially because skins and skeletons in a museum's inventory are not always from the same animals.
Dines said a juvenile capybara was found in a backyard in Thousand Oaks in 2002, but it was transferred to a private wildlife sanctuary.
Museum taxidermist Tim Bovard worked on capybaras when he was in the commercial sector, and they have been on his "want" list before, such as when the museum was planning a diorama of a giant armadillo and giant anteater.
You can hear Bovard's eagerness if you raise the subject of the Paso Robles capybara. "Their hair is very rough and coarse, like a pig, and they have a very unique follicle pattern," he says. "You could even ID an individual capybara from the hairless tanned skin."
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Specimens can be displayed in alcohol (essentially pickled in a preservative), "dry," which means stuffed with cotton, or as a skeleton. But the best display is made from the remains of an intact animal.
Naturally, the quicker the body gets into a fridge, the better. The body spoils very quickly. After skinning, the taxidermist would eviscerate the body -- removing the intestines and other organs to stop them from spoiling.
Bovard notes that the museum has had other famous local guests, including Bubbles, a hippo that was a regular escapee from the Lion Country Safari Park in Laguna Niguel. Alas, poor Bubbles. "She made it to a nearby lake several times, but the last time she was tranquilized she unfortunately drowned -- and her skeleton is now in our research collection."
It's not that the museum is rooting for a Bubbles-like ending in Paso Robles, but it's fair to say Dines and Bovard are waiting by the phone.