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2022 was the year of the capybara

How did this giant rodent become the animal du jour? Serena Smith investigates

According to the Chinese zodiac, 2022 has been the year of the tiger. But in my view, it’s actually been the year of the capybara. From TikTok to Twitter, videos, pictures, and memes of these coconut doggies have routinely gone viral over the past year – whether they’re being swarmed by ducks or lounging around in mud, it seems as though these chronically chill animals have us all under their spell.

For the unenlightened: the capybara is the world’s largest rodent. They live in South America, and can be found in savannahs and dense forests – often near bodies of water as they’re semi-aquatic. They look a little like dog-sized guinea pigs, and needless to say, they are extremely cute.

The internet is brimming with thriving online communities of capybara fans. “When I started my account in March 2021, I hadn’t intended for it to be a big social media account,” Darby, the owner of the popular Instagram account @capyverse, tells me. “It just started growing organically – I think that speaks to the growing popularity of capybaras.” At present, @capyverse has nearly 100,000 followers. Facebook’s capybara connoisseurs, meanwhile, has over 125,000 members; Reddit’s r/capybara community is in the top one per cent of Reddit groups; and on TikTok, amazingly, the #capybara tag has nearly four billion views.

Even zoos have noticed the current capynaissance. “We offer a few meet-the-animal experiences at Shepreth: red pandas, otters, aardvarks, tortoises and bats – but the capybara experience has lately become hugely popular, selling almost as many vouchers as the others combined,” Yve Morrin, who works with the capybaras at Shepreth Wildlife Park, tells me over email.

Like me, Charlotte, 24, is a capybara fan. “I have to admit, at first, I was a little scared of capybaras,” she says. “I saw them at a zoo as a kid and was horrified because I thought rodents had no business being that big.” But when capys began to pop up in her social media feeds, Charlotte gave them a second chance. Now, she says, “there’s nothing I appreciate and relate to more than capybaras.”

Where did this collective admiration for these oversized rodents come from? They’ve had fans in Japan for years largely due to the cartoon capybara, Kapibarasan, who was first launched in the early 2000s by toymaker Bandai – but their global popularity was accelerated by the advent of the internet. ‘The Capybara Page’, the first ever capybara fanpage, launched in 1998. Then a capybara named Caplin Rous became a YouTube sensation a decade later. A couple of years later, JoeJoe the capybara took Caplin’s crown. Evidently, web surfers have always been intrigued by these big rodents – but why has interest in them suddenly surged so much?

According to Google trends, searches for the term ‘capybara’ began to rise in August 2021, before skyrocketing in May 2022 and remaining consistently high ever since. I think there are a few reasons why capys suddenly began to trend over the last 18 months: firstly, there’s the viral ‘OK I pull up’ meme – featuring a video of capybara riding in the passenger seat of a car, set to Don Toliver’s “After Party”. As one comment on the original YouTube video puts it: “This is the video that started everything. This is a piece of history.” Then in spring 2021, capybaras came out as comrades after eating all the grass in a wealthy, gated community in Argentina (the luxury Nordelta neighbourhood is built on what was originally the capybara’s wetland habitat, so really, the capys were just reclaiming what was rightfully theirs – solidarity).

All of this helped thrust capybaras into the limelight – Darby says it was “a perfect storm” – and, subsequently, they’ve naturally amassed a huge, worldwide fanbase. To know them is to love them, after all. “I think once you become aware of them, they're very appealing,” Darby explains. “They are this essentially giant, goofy guinea pig who gets along with everyone.”

It helps that they are very, very chill – so much so that some people call a group of capybaras a “meditation”. We’re living in a uniquely chaotic era, defined by a pandemic, a recession, political instability, and climate change, so it’s arguably no wonder that we’re all searching for the kind of serenity capybaras exude. I can’t count how many times I’ve caught myself doomscrolling through reams of harrowing news on Twitter, only to pause and smile to myself when a welcome capybara picture pops up on my feed, like an oasis of calm in among the chaos of the internet. Naturally, we’re inclined to idolise these animals who don’t have to deal with or even understand politics, and instead get to mooch about a yuzu bath all day without a single thought passing through their little two-dimensional heads. 

All of the aforementioned turmoil is also underpinned by the rapidly growing anti-work movement, and what better animal to epitomise the demise of hustle culture than the perennially chill capybara? These guys don’t want to get their asses up and work! They just want to eat grass and have baths! And fair enough!!! “From snoozing in hot springs to chilling with their numerous other capy pals, they’re the epitome of peace, rest, and relaxation – and they always look really content, too,” Charlotte says. “I think we all aspire to be capybaras.”

They’re also just nice, and I think we’re forever in danger of forgetting that it is important to be nice. Capys are friends with the whole animal kingdom: from cats, to monkeys, to ducks, to crocodiles. They don’t even retaliate when pelicans literally try to eat them! They don’t stoop to the level of the aggressor! Even research proves that they’re nice: a study published last year found that the capybara subjects in an experiment conducted by biologists were “more prosocial” towards “subordinate” capybaras than “dominant” capybaras, and that this was potentially in an effort to “[weaken] dominant individuals in order to modify the pre-existing hierarchy”. In other words: they were willing to offer food to marginalised capybaras in the herd in order to create a more egalitarian capy society. Socialist queens!

Humans could really take a lesson in humanity from capybaras. OK, we don’t have to go befriending crocodiles, but we could try harder to see the good in people, stay calm in the face of chaos, and be more compassionate to those less fortunate than ourselves. And I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt if we also spent more time taking long, luxurious, fruit-filled baths too.