Capybara sightings increase across Florida

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They're big, furry and some say pretty cute, but capybara, the world's largest rodent, have started to call Florida home and wildlife experts say that's not a good thing.

"They are cute. We hear that all the time. But they're not supposed to be in our environment," said Kris Porter, a zoologist and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitation expert. "They take away resources from our native species."

Capybara first showed up in the Gainesville area in the early 1990's. Experts believe they likely escaped from a research facility. Since then, according to FWC data, there have been confirmed sightings across the state, including sightings in Hillsborough and Sarasota counties.

That's no surprise to wildlife experts.

"With Florida weather, because it's so wonderful, I see no reason why the capybara wouldn't start coming down to our area from north Florida," said Porter.

A capybara can grow up to four feet in length and weigh upwards of 150 pounds. Females can have up to eight babies in a litter, twice a year. If left unchecked, Porter warns it may not be long before these gentle herbivores become great big pests.

"They tend to eat tons of vegetation. If they were to come into Tampa they could come into the strawberry crops and decimate it, any crop, really. They could decimate Florida crops," Porter said.

Now a full-time rehabilitation expert, Porter is forced to walk a tough line between her compassion for wildlife and her commitment to protect Florida's native species. It means she can't care for and re-release invaders. It's a hard rule to follow, especially when faced with a baby animal that will grow into a pest.

"The cuter they are, like ducklings, you have no idea. I get railed over the coals all the time," said Porter, referring to Muscovy ducklings.

Once grown, the extremely aggressive Muscovy duck will attack and kill Florida's native waterfowl and without predators, they're quickly crowding out native species.

"I have to stay true to what we know,"  she said.

FWC officials can't say for sure exactly how many capybara have made Florida's wetlands their home, but they have confirmed sightings of breeding behavior. They're asking for anyone who's seen a capybara to report it at 888-I've-Got-1 or on their website:

If you aren't sure whether or not the rodent you saw was non-native, FWC wildlife impact section leader Kristen Sommers has this simple rule: "If you see a large rat-looking animal that's over 50 pounds, it's probably not native."