Learning about a new place involves experiencing its animal life. In most parts of the world, the close relationship between humans and animals is maintained by keeping a delicate balance. But the many exotic animals that are kept as pets can sometimes be a far cry from the standard dog and cat fare in America. Here are some exotic pets from South America that I've come across during my travels.
As a boy growing up in Kawaikapu, on the eastern end of Moloka'i, Hawai'i, I had the freedom to roam across acres and acres of overgrown land. We grew our own fruits and vegetables, and harvested fresh seafood from the sea. This abundance of land also meant that we were always surrounded by animals. We kept the standard farm animals: horses, pigs, dogs, cats, chickens, the occasional goat and rabbits.
As for the muscovy ducks, they were whisked away one day when the river overflowed and the land flooded. The flock of ducks were taken out to sea, never to be seen again.
As you can imagine animals were a big part of my childhood, so coming from this background, it's no surprise that I've always seemed to be in the company of some kind of animal or pet, from slider turtles to sugar gliders. Also, throughout my travels, I have always taken notice of the various creatures that people have kept as pets. I've seen some pretty strange animals in captivity.
Because of this, I wanted to share with you some of the most bizarre animals that have been kept as pets. And since the world is so huge, we'll just isolate bizarre pets from one continent: South America.
The Captivating Capybara
Deep in the steamy jungles of Central and South America, we can find an animal both bizarre and captivating at the same time. The smooth-coated capybara resembles a really big guinea pig, and in fact scientists say that they are indeed closely related.
Like a cross between a rabbit, mini horse and a teddy bear, capybaras have over sized heads on large guinea pig shaped bodies. They have small ears and wide nostrils.
But as much as they resemble the familiar household pet the guinea pig, these animals differ in at least one aspect. They really love the water. One of the most fascinating things about these animals is that, while swimming, they will seal up their ears and nostrils, making there heads watertight, and allowing them to stay submersed longer. Capybaras will even sleep underwater with only their nostrils breaking the surface.
Another bizarre 'aqua' feature of theirs is that they have webbed feet. This helps them kick about in the river while they get busy making babies. Yes, these animals love water so much, that even their mating is done while in the water. Bizarre.
If kept as pets, capybaras can be amusing yet dangerous, especially if they haven't been neutered. The males especially are known to develop a really mean streak in their old age, becoming extra aggressive and territorial to everyone, including their owners. For as long as they've been kept and bred in captivity, these creatures have never been fully domesticated.
However, just like a dog or pig, these furry rodents can be trained and taught how to do tricks. They are intelligent and love to keep themselves clean. As a diet, they eat seeds, fruits and grass. They will also eat rabbit food and diet supplements of hay and vegetables.
Learn more: If you want to learn more about the history of this amusing creature please check out the book Capybaras: A Natural History of the World's Largest Rodent.
Travel tips: Seeing a capybara in the wild can be very challenging. Although wild capybaras move in groups of two to six, they can still be hard to spot. The best way for you to see them wild is to travel to the open grasslands of Los Llanos or wetlands of Pantanal in South America. Here these creatures can be observed unobscured by vegetation, while still living in their traditional wild habitat.
The Ornate Horned "Pac-Man" Frog
This thing looks so ridiculous, when I first saw it in a pet shop I wasn't sure if it was real. They were being sold in tiny cups. Each cup had a wet sponge, with a frog sitting on it. They didn't move, blink or roll over in their cups. They just sat there, staring.
But rest assured, the colorful creatures are the real deal. They're so bizarre they've picked up their own name, the Pac-Man frog, but technically, the name for this pet is the "ornate-horned frog."
These frogs are so hardy that they can live for as long as 10 sometimes 15 years. The amusing thing about these animals is that they are seemingly so sedated that you could never push one to make it budge. These little guys will only move on their own.
In the wild, these colorful critters will eat insects, crustaceans, tadpoles, minnows, snails, worms, other frogs, small snakes, lizards and sometimes even small rodents if they can get their mouths around one. They're pretty low maintenance, so low in fact that some of my Taiwanese students have brought them into class in little plastic bubbles, passing them around for all the other students to poke fun at. The frog will just sit there on its sponge staring blankly, either completely unphased or totally traumatized. Truly bizarre.
Learn more: Choosing and owning your own ornate horned-frog can be a challenge. For tips on how to go about doing this, read the book Quick and Easy Horned-Frog Care.
Travel tips: If you'd rather see this creatures in the wild, there are a couple of things to consider. As natives to Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Brazil, the best way for you to find them on their home turf is to travel to the rainforests of any of these countries. However, remember that these frogs burrow deep into the muddy vegetation of the tropical forests floor, so it may be very difficult to see them if you are not actively searching.
The Nightwalker Kinkajou
If any one of these bizarre animals has a freaky nickname, its this little guy! For me, the name 'nightwalker' conjures up scary stories from my childhood about mythical Hawaiian entities called 'night marchers'. To look upon one of these night marchers in the middle of the night meant certain death. And similar to it's relative namesake, when I first saw a nightwalker kinkajou it was actually kind of a shock.
A cross between a monkey, weasel and anorexic bear, the nightwalker kinkajou, also known as a honey bear, resembles a mutant creature from the Island of Doctor Moreau, albeit just a little bit cuter.With its buggy insect eyes and catlike snout, the kinkajou is already strange enough to look at. But tack onto that its primate paws with long fingers and a prehensile tail and this animal is nothing short of bizarre.
Kinkajous are primarily carnivores who will sometimes eat fruit. Traditionally, they can be found in areas as far north as Mexico to further south in Brazil. They live in closed canopy tropical rainforests in both the lowlands and mountainous areas.
As pets, these furry creatures can be a real handful. Think of a dog/cat hybrid with monkey hands! This means that they will get into anything and everything that catches their attention. They love to climb and grab things, and their long claws will quickly scratch up and scuff any surface soft enough to be damaged.
There's also the issue of potty training, or lack thereof, that makes the kinkajou a difficult pet to raise. Basically, they cannot be taught to go in one area. Instead, most owners will leave trays under the areas that their kinkajou will 'most likely' go in, hoping that their guess is on spot.
As you can see, there are several challenges to raising a nightwalker kinkajou as a pet, not to mention the fact that the they normally live for more than 20 years, so if you invest in one you should be prepared to have them around long after your children are grown and gone.
Learn more: If you wanna know more about this strangely bizarre critter, just check out this book about kinkajous.
Travel tips: Like the "Pac-Man" frogs, the best way for you to see kinkajous in the wild is to travel to the tropical rainforests of Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. But this may pose to be a real challenge because although they may occasionally be found in groups, nightwalker kinkajous are usually very solitary. On top of that, they are nocturnal. Due to these two existing factors, it may be very hard to spot a kinkajou in the wild.
My dad did bring home a wild piglet once. We named him Kalua and raised him as if he was one our pups. He grew up to be a giant wild boar, complete with coarse black hair and curved tusks. He ran with our pack of guard dogs, learning how to bark and raise his hackles at strangers.
But aside from Kalua the wild boar, and my brother's fuzzy chinchilla, there just weren't many chances for us to have animals as strange and bizarre as the South American capybara, pac-man frog or kinkajou. But perhaps its better off that way, as they're probably more content living in the wild.
I'm JR. I come from a long line of adventurers, some were nomadic explorers of the sea and others wandering cultivators of the earth. Ultimately, this legacy of drifters has deeply affected my view of travel. Read more...