“Anybody can have a cat or a dog,” says Jackie Coleman Wren. “But I wanted a pet that would fit my personality.”
Her critter of choice? Meet Chico, a hog-sized capybara who lives with Wren and her husband in their Texarkana, Arkansas, home.
Capybaras are the world’s largest rodents and resemble giant guinea pigs. In the wild, these water-loving South American natives normally spend hours a day feeding on aquatic plants in lakes, ponds and rivers, and roaming the savannas to graze on grasses and fruit. But not Chico. Since 2014 when he arrived home with Wren as an infant weighing just 4 pounds, he has taken to human life like a bird takes to the sky.
Chico loves to wear hats, swimming and diving in the family pool with Wren’s grandchildren, sleeping in bed with Wren and her husband, and he adores weekly backyard cookouts where he likes to lounge on a chair in the middle of everything. Oh, and his best friend is Darla, a mini-pig who also makes her home with the Wrens, along with a possum, a pet Chihuahua and the occasional rescue animal.
“Chico is spoiled rotten and very stubborn-headed,” Wren admits. When he doesn’t want to get out of the pool he shakes his head no and swims away. He chews through a comforter a week (a result of his nesting instinct) and monopolizes a sizable chunk of the couple’s bed every night with his furry, barrel-shaped body.
Watch Chico in this video from August 2015 when he weighed about 90 pounds. (He's currently at 120 pounds, and could reach 140 pounds or slightly more.)
For all his exasperating habits, Chico’s charms far outweigh them, according to Wren. Not only is he a cherished family member who keeps everyone laughing, he’s also a total sweetheart. “He thinks he’s a lapdog,” she says. “If you’re sitting on the couch or someone comes over to visit, the first thing Chico does is climb up and start giving kisses.”
By all accounts, he’s also highly intelligent and expressive with an extensive range of vocalizations — everything from whistles, tweets and barks to huffing (a sign he’s upset), teeth clicking (used as a warning) and a chuckling/purring sound (indicating happiness and contentment).
In fact, Chico’s extreme people-friendliness (unusual for a capybara) has made him a star, both in his community and around the world. Chico has appeared on Animal Planet and the BBC. He even has his own Facebook page.
More than just a pretty face
Being an international star and source of endless amusement at home might sound like a more than enough to occupy one capybara, but Chico is also part of several research and charitable ventures. He receives specialized veterinary care at Texas A&M University, which keeps track of his growth and health in an effort to better understand capybaras’ medical needs and help train vets to care for them.
In a related effort, Wren also supplies regular updates on Chico’s diet and any health issues to the ROUS (Rodents of Unusual Size) Foundation. The group heads up a research program to “improve the quality and duration of life” for pet capybaras and those living in zoos. The information eventually may also be used to help wild capybaras, which aren’t considered endangered but are declining in some areas where they are heavily hunted for their meat and pelts.
“A lot of people are against holding animals in captivity,” says Wren, “but we actually keep them alive longer and they get to experience a lot more. By providing information on their diet and health, we get an idea of the kind of issues these animals face so maybe we can help preserve the species.”
One of Chico’s (and Wren’s) favorite outreach activities is touring schools and visiting kids with special needs. For Wren, it’s a win-win-win proposition. Chico “eats up” the attention, teachers use the hands-on lesson to teach kids about South America, and students get to see and touch a creature they’re not likely to meet anywhere else.
Wren also views it as an opportunity to teach tolerance and acceptance with Chico serving as ambassador. “I want kids to see that even though an animal looks different, it’s just like with human beings. Everybody is different, but everybody serves a purpose. We should embrace each other for our differences. Children are more receptive to [this message] than adults.”
Watch Chico’s recent lovefest with the kids at Ashdown Elementary School in Ashdown, Arkansas.
[Update: Chico sadly passed away in May 2017. You can see a tribute to this amazing capybara in a memoriam here.]