Only tween girls loved the unicorns; the rest of us were happy to see those sparkly, fussy, phantasmagorical critters leave the internet. They were replaced—in the artisan goods sold on Etsy and the memes shared everywhere else—by a totem far less fleet and dainty: the sloth.
Because I do not stay on top of the latest memes (or linger anywhere in their vicinity), that one snuck up on me. “How charming,” I thought, smiling at a sloth emoji in a text. “Who knew Janet loved those strange creatures?” When another friend texted a sloth GIF, the coincidence struck me as a Jungian synchronicity; perhaps these two should meet?
Finally, someone sat me down and explained. “Ah,” I said, “like koalas and panda bears.” Humans were besotted over them, too. Look at that leathery little koala nose! How adorably they hang on to us, like babies. Pandas, too, we loved because they ate the way we did, sitting up straight and managing the process with an almost opposable thumb, and they were sweetly clumsy, roly-poly, with those exaggerated eyes that seemed to hold wonder.
Face it: we love . . . ourselves. And therefore anything that resembles us or adores us. Which made switching to the sloth seem incongruous. Those stupid unicorns were our creation and could fulfill our fantasies. Sloths just hang there.
As I said it, I realized that was the point. As a species, fraught and overbusy, we desperately needed to learn to relax. Slow down. Nap. Hang.
When the student is ready, Lao Tzu said, the teacher arrives. But by what route? Sloths got their first break in Ice Age movies, and Kristin Bell’s hysterical delight on a 2012 Ellen show made their reputation. Then a Tumblr user started changing every background and image on her dad’s phone to Pedro Dionisio’s illustration of an astronaut sloth . . . and they entered the stratosphere. So, the formula: creativity + celebrity + social interaction.
Except, now the torch has passed to the capybara, and the formula is shattered. No capybara movies, squealing celebrities, or cute cartoons (although there was a little one in Japan) fired our imagination. Instead, it was the realpolitik of social inequity. A cluster (flock? herd?) of capybaras made themselves at home in Argentina’s most famous gated community, built atop wetlands where the capybaras had squatter’s rights. So these cuddly 140-pound rodents trampled the usurpers’ perfect lawns. Angered their protective purebred dogs. Forced drivers to slam on their brakes. Shat.
The community’s wealthy, refined, and resourceful inhabitants reacted by brandishing their hunting rifles. Environmentalists showed up, dressed up like the capybaras and using cosplay to defend them. Socialist posters saluted the Peronist capybaras for leading the way in Argentina’s class struggle. (This was symbolic opportunism, but the connection was not baseless: capybaras who have enough to eat will donate food to capybaras of lower status.)
By reducing habitat destruction and the wealth gap to an amusing allegory, the capybaras won our hearts. A few weeks later, with COVID death counts rising and supply chains snapping, a video of a buck-toothed capybara, head tilted back, mouth dropped open in delight while a human stroked beneath his chin with a back-scratcher, went viral on Twitter. It now has 1.1 million views, a number that even surpasses U.S. COVID deaths. And why? Because capybaras are chill. So serene, in fact, that the suggested collective noun is a meditation of capybaras.
Sloths had been helpful for a while, but the pandemic turned reform into a command. Go nowhere! Do nothing! We fought with one another instead, heating the battle until it was incendiary. Capybaras do not fight. They like to swim and play in the mud. They are prey for jaguars, pumas, ocelots, eagles, and the green anaconda, but all they eat is grass. Gregarious, they get along with all other species. No rallies, no guns, no storming anything but the beach.
Is it any wonder there is a Facebook “Group Where We All Pretend to Be Capybaras”? Or that an entrepreneurial artisan posted “Could I interest you in a crochet capybara as a social media doomscrolling break?”
Capybaras will never attain the total internet domination enjoyed by cats (perhaps because the internet is an introverted pastime, often anonymous and slyly self-indulgent), but play a role of compromise. They “lack cats’ casual sociopathy,” a writer points out, and while they are as snuggly and sociable as dogs, they are not dorkily overeager for our affection. Instead, they give off a genial indifference—yet with enough promise of welcome that all sorts of birds, monkeys, turtles, cats, dogs, and rabbits feel free to climb onto their coarse-haired backs and go for a ride. Smithsonian Magazine pronounced capybaras “Basically Nature’s Chairs”; there are entire blogs about things sitting on capybaras.
Imagine, if we could allow such an invasion of our personal space. If we did not have to worry about being “sat on,” “walked on,” “run over,” “taken advantage of,” “doing all the heavy lifting,” or “carrying more than our share of the burden.” If instead of being taught to fight aggressively for territory and resources, we were all taught to cooperate and lend a hand—or a broad back.
Japan was first to love the world’s largest rodents (the cartoon helped), and has even added a capybara bath to a park where many capybaras live so visitors can watch them soak in warm water. Serenity is a cultural value in Japan. Here it is a desperate need.
So is simplicity, another clue to their newfound popularity. Twitter’s CapybarasForLife account says, “There’s only 3 rules: 1. Be kind to Capybaras. 2. Follow this account. 3. Be happy.” Not a word about masks or tax returns or preparing for Armageddon.
Merlin used animals to teach the future king how to live. Aesop used animal fables to preach morality. First Nations named young people for animals they should emulate. European colonizers adopted horses to carry them to conquest, cows to milk and eat, dogs to protect them. And now we all adopt weird animals to settle our nerves.
Scrolling through #capybara, I find a chardonnay that bears its image; a sketch of a capybara in a hot tub; tons of capybaras nuzzling each other or drinking from a baby bottle; and a screenshot of texts: “I want a capybara so bad/I’m willing to risk it all/Even my rights as a woman.”
That intense, over an animal we love because it is so chill?
We do need their help.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.