'Oyen' with capybara 'imposter syndrome' leads to revival at Zoo Negara


  • Nation
  • Wednesday, 26 Apr 2023

KUALA LUMPUR: It is a hot and humid afternoon as visitors at Zoo Negara stroll by and pause to watch the capybaras - the world’s biggest rodent species - idyllically munching on shoots and leaves set on an elevated wooden dais almost 2m above the ground.

The capybara enclosure is large and sits lower than the pathways, with trees encircling the back and a low stone wall out front.

In the middle is a raised dais and underneath is an enclave for them to take shelter from the hot sun or rain. Next to the structure is a wide and shallow pool for the capybaras to cool off.

A woman starts and leans forward.

"Oh, look. There’s a cat,” she exclaims to her family, who excitedly take out their phones to snap a picture.

On the right of the capybaras, a well-fed orange cat sits on a ledge, wolfing down his tuna lunch from a blue food bowl.

The cat and the giant rodents have been roommates of sorts for the past two or three years and the unusual pairing has become a draw and led to a revival of the zoo, which had suffered badly when the Covid-19 pandemic restrictions shut it down and cut off its revenue stream.

Zoo staff are not exactly sure when the cat, dubbed "Oyen" by staff and visitors, moved in with the capybaras. All they know is that sometime during the Covid-19 pandemic shutdown, they would suddenly see Oyen during feeding times.

The herbivorous capybaras, to their credit, did not seem to mind having a meat-eating feline interloper with them.

"When we first discovered him, we saw he was very friendly with the capybaras. He would eat with them, ” Mohd Taufik Yazidbustami, senior zookeeper at Zoo Negara, told Bernama recently.

"At that time, we were also feeding the capybaras bread, which the cat ate,” he added.

The zoo usually does not encourage animals to interact with strays as it could be dangerous for them.

Animal welfare is judged according to five freedoms, that is, freedom from hunger and thirst; freedom from discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; freedom to express normal behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.

So far, both cat and capybaras are healthy and happy and have not shown any distress, according to Zoo Negara vice-president Rosly @ Rahmat Ahmat Lana. He added they monitor both species at all times to ensure they are healthy.

Zoo staff decided to allow the friendship to continue as the cat and the capybaras seemed to get along well. Oyen started getting his own food, not just bread.

Perfect synergy

Covid-19 brought Oyen and the capybaras together, tying their fortunes. Zoo staff think the cat is one of the many pets abandoned near Zoo Negara. The zoo has always been a popular dumping site for cats even before the pandemic but more so after Covid-19 hit the nation, which caused widespread job loss and left many people unable to care for their pets.

Zoo Negara, whose operating costs are about RM1mil a month, was also hit hard. It faced a financial crisis in the first few months of the pandemic, which saw its visitor numbers dropping to zero during the movement control order (MCO) period.

Resources were sparse all around.

Image courtesy of Astro AwaniImage courtesy of Astro Awani

Rosly said the cat was lucky, finding not only a source of food but also shelter and friendship with the capybaras.

"The cat is very happy. Then suddenly (after the zoo reopened), the public noticed that he eats together with the capybaras, that it is something special. Oyen has become so popular,” he said.

The zoo has been quick to capitalise on this unexpected kinship, using social media to spread the word. Videos of Oyen and the capybaras have appeared on Rosly and Zoo Negara’s official TikTok accounts as well as visitors’ Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts, among others.

Videos featuring them have gone viral on Tik Tok and Twitter several times, gaining fame after the zoo reopened in September 2021. Several videos showed Oyen cuddling or sleeping with the rodents.

Part of the unusual friendship is due to the cabybara’s nature. These semi-aquatic rodents are highly social animals and able to get along with most animals including dogs and ducks and are indigenous to northern and central South America. As for Oyen, it is a common belief that orange cats are extremely friendly and cute but dumb.

Rosly said the presence of Oyen has made the capybara enclosure one of the more popular ones in the zoo. He told Bernama the zoo is thinking of adding Oyen to the capybara sign in front of the enclosure.

@znmzoonegara Oyen + Capybara = Capyboyen Apa yang sesuai? #oyen #cat #capybara #tikus #baby #zoonegara #fyp #zoonegaramalaysia Baby Face - Official Sound Studio

"The majority of the visitors are aware of this. They came, so many of them, just to take photos of Oyen with the capybaras. But they’re not always successful. If they’re lucky and come during makan (feeding) time, they’ll get their photo,” he said.

He added they get fed twice a day, at 9.30am and 2.30pm.

A recent visit to Zoo Negara by Bernama found that not everyone was aware of Oyen. But they were thrilled to discover a cat living with the capybaras.

"We did not know about it but it’s pretty adorable. We’re here to see the capybaras and the cat is just a bonus. They must be very nice to live with, otherwise, the cat will run away, right?” said Seth Deister, a tourist from Seattle in the United States.

Breaking even

Rosly said things have improved from the dark days of the MCO when the zoo was at risk of shutting down, with only three months of emergency funds left to pay for the care and feeding of the animals.

The number of visitors plummeted in 2020 and 2021, which had several bouts of strict lockdowns, to around 182,000 per year.

In 2022, when the pandemic restrictions were loosened, visitor numbers swelled to over 430,000 and surpassed pre-pandemic figures of around 350,000.

Donations from the public and corporations made up for any shortfall during this period. The government has given almost RM10million to Zoo Negara between 2018 and 2022.

Rosly told Bernama they have now broken even, saying they needed to keep the numbers up to replenish their coffers and prepare for future emergencies.

"We want more people to keep coming because we need to pay for exhibits and maintenance of the zoo and animals,” he added.

Zoos are not without controversies. Animal rights activists think animals deserve freedom and to live in the wild, accusing zoos of exploiting animals and abusing them under the guise of education. Animal rights activists argue that zoos have outlived their usefulness as documentaries and TV shows can teach children to appreciate nature and wildlife better.

Malaysian Nature Society past president Prof Dr Ahmad Ismail disagreed, saying zoos were important not only to educate and introduce people to animals, especially endangered ones, but also to conduct conservation projects.

"We have to conserve the tapir, for example. We have to conserve tigers. (The public) don’t know about our tigers, our tapir, our tortoise. Our concern and our awareness of our wildlife are still low so that’s why humans still have conflicts with elephants, with tigers,” he said.

However, he was not sure whether a cat living with a community of capybaras was a good idea, saying the interaction may change the rodents’ normal behaviour.

"In captivity, maybe it’s cute to see, but some nature lovers don’t like it. Because they want to see the animals behave like how they do in nature,” he said.

He added the unlikely friendship of the cat and the capybaras may be worth it in the long run if it draws crowds to help sustain Zoo Negara. - Bernama

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