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Why the Pope declared war on capybaras
When the Vatican declared our gentle furry friends to be "fish", a near-exctinction event followed
In 2021, on a reporting trip to Arauca, Colombia, I had the unfortunate experience of learning a new verb. As I toured a tent city created by a displaced indigenous group,the Hitu people, we talked about the needs of the community and their hopes to recover their ancestral lands.
During the civil war, the Hitu people suffered aggressions from both criminal armed groups and the Colombian military, and were eventually driven from their lands completely.
They live now in extreme poverty as squatters outside of Arauca. Food had been scarce, and they subsidize their diets, “chigüireando”, they told me. The phrase would translate literally as “capybara’ing”. They told me that a large family of capybaras lived at the nearby lake.
Excited, I asked where, and if we could go see them. I’m a huge fan of the good-natured, adorable and gentle South American super-rodents. But, the Hitu leader I was talking with explained that they had been over hunted by hungry residents, and no longer lived nearby.
Chigüireando means hunting Capybaras, not befriending them.
The actions and customs of the Hitu people, especially as they confronted poverty, were understandable, and it was hardly the first time I’ve heard people talk of eating Capybaras. The custom is popular in Venezuela and in parts of Colombia. And whenever I talk of my love for capys online, there is usually someone who tries to shock me by saying how delicious they are.
But before that day, I didn’t know hunting capybaras was so common that there was a need to invent a verb to describe the action.
I would also learn in the days that followed that in Venezuela, centuries ago, the pope declared a genocide on capybaras that very nearly led to their extinction in the region— and very likely the creation of that verb.
How the pope damn near killed all the capys in Venezuela
Sometime between the 16th and 18th centuries (accounts vary), Venezuelan clergymen wrote to the Vatican asking for a blessing from the pope himself. They had discovered an animal common in the region that lived in water, and had webbed feet. They wanted permission to kill it, claim it was fish, and begin a massive genocide campaign against capybaras.
With Lent approaching, they asked the Vatican to grant the animal the status of fish, so they might eat it during the upcoming days of meat-free fasting. By letter, the Catholic Church, and the Pope agreed, and the capybara — the largest living rodent in the world — became a coveted addition to many Lenten dinner tables.
The population, having pulled off some very serious rules-lawyering over what is, and is not to be considered “meat” during Lent, went on a capybara murder spree. The animals were hunted to near extinction in the region.
Government regulation halted the near-extinction event however, and the fast reproductive cycle of capybaras (they are great lovers, in addition to being gentle) meant they quickly repopulated.
But the tradition continues to this day. Capybaras are commonly eaten in both Colombia and Venezuela, and every Lent, the number of capys killed increases astronomically.
There is a restaurant five blocks from my house in Bogotá that features them prominently on the menu. Before you ask, no, I have never tried capybara. I mean, just look at their faces. If you happen to be a Catholic priest reading this, I would encourage you to write a letter to the current pope asking that this absurd legalism classifying them as fish be rescinded.
And not just because they are so gentle either. We have seen the power of capybara revolutions in Argentina, where my giant rodent comrades have taken back their ancestral territory by force.
It would seem that caps have less patience than the Hitu people.
But this Easter, I write these observations with the hope that both the Hitu, and their capybara neighbors, recover their homelands, and are someday able to live free from persecution.
Viva la revolución capyabara!
We’re skipping the news this week, because it’s Easter. If you celebrate, go be with friends and family and have a lovely day. If you aren’t, well, capybaras will be your friends. They love everyone. Drop us a note and we will tell you where you can go hang out with them.
You’re going to love it.
What we’re writing:
The first of our stories on a trip to Choco came out last week as well, this one focused on the actions of Doctors Without Borders in the active conflict zone. The humanitarian group is trying a new approach to giving aid, one that moves away from the colonial attitudes of the past.
Spanish word of the week:
May it one day fade into irrelevance through disuse.