In the summer of 2016 in Toronto, two capybaras being transferred to the High Park Zoo escaped. One was caught after two weeks, the other after another two weeks. They became social media heroes, and inspired this story. If you have any comments, you can post them over on this blog post.
The True Story of the High Park Capybaras
"What's going to happen to us?"
Pericles broke their silence, though darkness was filled with other noises - a loud, constant roaring; and occasional bangs and squeals, making Callisto jump every time. They were constantly being thrown from side to side and front to back, so that she couldn't even stand up straight for long. She huddled against Pericles, his familiar warmth the only comfort she had in this nightmare.
"Maybe we'll just be stuck here for ever," she said, and shivered. Pericles didn't reply.
They'd been in this dark prison for what seemed like days, though Callisto knew it couldn't have been that long since she was just starting to get hungry. The humans had given them food in the morning, as usual. It had seemed like a normal day, until several humans had chased them into a cage made of metal bars similar to the ones that enclosed their home, only this one was only four of her body-lengths long and half as wide. And then that cage had been put into the darkness, and then the noises had started and hadn't stopped.
They'd thought things couldn't get any worse, back at home. They were fed every day, but that was the only perk about their situation, although Callisto always felt like she would prefer to find her own food. The grass of their home was short and uniform. They had space to run, but not enough. And the worst was that the giant humans were always staring, staring, through the walls of their home, watching them eat, watching them sleep. The only respite they had was at night.
Callisto couldn't remember any other existence than this confinement, but it felt wrong. She felt like there must be something else out there, some way that they were supposed to live, some life that wasn't this one. Pericles felt the same - they'd discussed plans for escape over and over, searching the walls for any sign of weakness under the cover of night when there were no humans watching, but there was nothing to be done. They were trapped, doomed to a life of being on display.
Until this. Now she would be almost happy to go back to that former existence if it would mean no more noise and darkness. Almost.
As if on cue, the racket began to die down. The bangs became less frequent; then the movement stopped. And finally, with a final clang, the roaring ceased. It was silent.
Callisto felt Pericles tense beside her, and she too was quivering with anticipation. "Be ready," she said.
They waited for long enough that Callisto began to wonder if this was some new ordeal; then all of a sudden, light broke in and she squealed in pain as it hit her eyes that had become accustomed to the darkness. She was thrown off her feet as their cage was removed from the dark room, and as she struggled to regain her feet she blinked frantically, trying to identify her surroundings.
Gradually she was able to make out a human, and then another. Their cage came to rest on some grass, and as she raised her eyes, her heart sank.
Callisto recognized this. It was a different enclosure, slightly bigger, but with the same fenced walls that would be lined with humans. Back to the same, monotonous, unnatural existence. She cried out in dismay.
"Run, little ones."
Startled, Callisto searched for the source of the voice. Over by a rock in the enclosure, an old, grizzled capybara was watching her. Callisto had never met another capybara except for vague memories of her family, and Pericles.
"Run?" she asked, confused.
The capybara nodded. "This is your chance. They must open the cage to get you out. If you can get away, you can run into the forest and be free. I can create a distraction."
"What about you?" asked Pericles, but the older capybara was already shaking his head.
"I am old," he said. "There is no other life for me. If I can help you to escape, then I can feel like my existence has had some purpose."
Callisto was filled with a great sadness for this old, wise capybara. A long life wasted. She nodded slowly. "Thank you, grandfather," she said. She wasn't sure why she called him that, but knew from his pleased huff of acknowledgement that it was the right word to use.
"Now, stay still until my cue," he said, as the two humans approached her cage. They opened it and one pulled her out, the other taking Pericles. As instructed, they did not struggle as they were borne towards the enclosure.
One human reached over to the door of the enclosure and swung it open.
The old capybara raced towards them, squealing loudly. The humans made sounds of dismay and fumbled for the door. Callisto and Pericles, as one, began to thrash, contorting their bodies in an effort to escape the humans' grasps. Already off-balance from the old capybara's charge, the tall beings quickly lost their grip on Callisto and Pericles.
The moment she hit the ground she was running, and she heard Pericles a step behind her. "Good-bye, little ones!" she heard from behind her, over the shouting of the humans. She raced as fast as she could for the tall wall of greenery nearby, knowing instinctively that they could lose themselves in the underbrush. Callisto heard the humans pursuing but knew that they would not be able to catch her.
"Freedom!" she cried as she and Pericles reached the forest. In an instant, they were both gone.
Freedom was glorious, Callisto thought, as she gnawed on a mouthful of tasty bark. All the food they could want. Vast reaches of forest where they could hide and eat and play. She and Pericles had even found a giant lake. Callisto had never swum before - the pool of water in their previous home hadn't even been deep enough to submerge her completely - but when they saw the lake, they had somehow known exactly what to do. They slid into the water with barely a splash, feeling the water's cool embrace around their bodies, and had spent an entire afternoon delighting in the pure joy of swimming together.
She was happy. Far happier than she had ever been in their old home. She reveled in the days of freedom, just her and Pericles. Except- the humans were still a problem. There were a lot of them, around. Not many in the deep forest, but what was forest one moment could turn into open field dotted with humans one step later. And there were areas of hard ground where many humans passed by, or even loud, roaring, quick-moving monsters that sounded like the darkness she and Pericles had been stuck in.
Usually it was easy to avoid the humans, as they made a lot of noise, but there had been a few close calls. Humans who had seen them, shouted, chased after them. Pericles had almost been caught. They had gotten away, but Callisto couldn't shake the worrisome feeling that they were being hunted.
Freedom was still better, she thought, determined. Maybe they'd eventually forget about them. She'd seen other animals, mostly unfamiliar to her, enclosed by bars, like they had been. She'd even gone back once to watch grandfather capybara - from the safety of the forest, of course. All the animals looked listless, resigned to their captivity. And all the while the humans stood outside, watching them.
Pericles, unfortunately, was dealing with the constant worry of the humans poorly. He had always been the more nervous of the two of them. With every close call with the humans, he seemed more skittish, more jumpy. Surely he would calm down after a time, Callisto thought. They would only get more and more adept at avoiding the humans as time went on, and he would get used to it. He'd have to.
After all, they were free.
They were foraging for treats one warm afternoon, maybe a dozen or more days from their escape, when it happened. They were in the forest, no humans in sight; thus, Pericles seemed a bit more relaxed, and Callisto was cautiously optimistic that he was coming around.
"Corn!" exclaimed Pericles, his nose twitching. "My favourite!" He started trotting off towards a neat pile of corn several body lengths away.
Alarm bells clanged in Callisto's head. They hadn't seen corn since their old home. "Wait!" she said sharply. Pericles stopped and turned to look at her, inquisitive. Callisto cautiously edged forward, not getting too close to the corn. She was right. Hidden in the brush surrounding the corn, she picked out a cage not unlike the one that had brought them to this new place. "Look. A trap."
Pericles swung his head back and forth, taking in the truth of the setup, his face falling. "No," he moaned. "I can't do this. When will they ever give up?"
Callisto nosed him affectionately. "I don't know," she admitted. "But we're getting better all the time at seeing their tricks. They'll never catch us!"
Pericles was getting more agitated. "Maybe they'll never give up. Maybe we'll just be living in fear forever," he said, a little wildly, looking around as if he suspected the humans might jump out at any time.
Which, Callisto realized, they might, with the trap here. She had to get Pericles away, quickly, but he was hard to reason with when he got like this. "We don't need to fear them," she said encouragingly. "We've got them figured out. We just leave the corn here, and we walk away, and they've got nothing!" She edged away from the trap, hoping he would follow.
It didn't work. "I can't do this," Pericles cried, trembling. "I can't live my life being hunted, always afraid they'll jump out from behind the next tree! Suspecting every source of food! Maybe it was better before. Knowing I was being watched all the time, instead of wondering if I'm being watched all the time!" His voice had taken a manic edge, and his eyes were rolling wildly.
"Pericles, no!" Callisto cried. He'd never been this bad before, he'd never talked about wanting to go back. "We worked so hard for this. Freedom is worth it!" She grabbed a mouthful of his fur in her jaws and tugged, trying to pull him away from the trap.
He wrenched himself out of her grip. "Nothing is worth this!" he cried. "Not freedom. Not even you, Callisto. I can't do this!" And with that, he threw himself towards the pile of corn.
As if on cue, humans burst from the surrounding brush. Callisto squealed with alarm. "Pericles!" she cried desperately, torn between escape and her only friend.
"Callisto! Run! You're stronger than me, you can survive!" Pericles cried, sounding more sane now that he had made his decision. He cowered in the box as a human swung the door closed.
Two more were approaching Callisto, and she cried out in anguish. Darting between their legs, she eluded their grasp and once again disappeared into the forest.
She wasn’t sure how long she ran but all of a sudden her legs almost gave way beneath her. She stumbled to a halt, shuddering, sobbing, heaving for air.
Callisto found she was at the top of the hill, her and Pericles’ favourite place to watch the sunset. She sat down and tried to catch her breath, her mind replaying what had just happened over and over. Slowly her sobs faded to hiccups as she tried to think of what she could have done differently, how she could have saved Pericles, but her mind was frozen in disbelief.
The sunset was a particularly beautiful one, and out of habit she turned for a nuzzle before catching herself. No more nuzzles.
She disconsolately watched the sun set, and then dragged herself under a nearby bush and cried herself to sleep.
Callisto's happiest memories were from when she was a baby. The proximity of her mother, sleeping in a warm pile with her siblings, unaware of being on display; just drowsy contentment.
Her memories from that time were fuzzy now, though. She had been taken away from her family while still young, put in a place by herself. The air had been warm but seemed cold and lonely without the comforting bodies of her siblings around. She had cried for her mother.
She hadn't gotten her mother, but she had gotten Pericles. She wasn't sure how long she was alone, but suddenly he was there with her, as young as she, as lonely as she. But less lonely, now, because they had each other.
She still missed having many others around, but having Pericles was a great comfort. He was the only friend she had. They groomed each other, they ate together, they lamented about the humans together.
They had escaped together.
And now she was alone.
Freedom was glorious, Callisto tried to tell herself, as she lay in the sun. She had been free on her own for almost as long as she and Pericles had been free together. Avoiding the humans was easy. Being alone was not. If only Pericles had stuck around long enough to get to this point - she knew what the humans’ traps looked like, she knew where the safe spots in the forest were.
She heaved herself to her feet. The sun was hot but it didn’t warm her like it used do. She headed down to the lake. Maybe a swim would cheer her up.
She had been thinking a lot lately about life, or what life was supposed to be. And happiness. What would make her happiest, she thought as she slid into the lake and dove deep, would be a place free from humans, with many others of her kind around. She was not meant to be alone.
And Pericles. She loved him, she realized. She didn't blame him for his paranoia; she understood. She hoped he was happier not having to worry all the time. She climbed out of the water. Swimming without someone to frolic with was monotonous. Maybe she would find some food.
Stubbornly she clung to the ideals of freedom. Not being watched, having the run of the full expanse of forest and lake. Free.
As she listlessly foraged for food, though, the truth set in. Despite her stubbornness, her determination, she had to admit that being free was useless without someone to share it with.
Nothing is worth this. Pericles' words echoed through her mind. He had meant constant fear. It applied also to her; nothing was worth being alone.
She realized, in depths of her musings, she hadn't been paying attention to where she was going. She found herself facing one of the humans' traps. She blinked away the fog of her thoughts, staring dully at the neat pile of corn, and made a decision.
Her heart swelled a little, thinking that she might see Pericles again. But as she slowly trudged into the cage, she mentally said goodbye to freedom. To swimming, to the forest. Said hello again to a life of captivity.
What was life supposed to be like?
Not like this.
The door swung shut behind her.