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A capybara Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris (public domain)
Things are rarely what they seem in cryptozoology, as epitomised by the following case investigated by me.
Reading through some correspondence tonight reminded me of the time when I received an interesting letter from one longstanding correspondent, Miss Lorna Lloyd of Worcester, England, describing the head of a strange animal mounted as a trophy on a shield, and seen in an antique shop in London’s famous Portobello Road. My correspondent likened the head to that of a gigantic guinea pig with greyish rabbit-like colouring, mentioned that the shield was engraved “Kintail 1894” , and stated that Kintail is one of the wilder areas of Inverness-shire. What could this creature possibly be?
Needless to say, the prospect of a unknown species of gargantuan guinea pig scampering over the heather on the hills of northern Scotland seemed about as likely as an undiscovered species of okapi browsing in the New Forest. However, I did concede the possibility that it was an absconded inmate from the type of travelling menagerie-cum-circus that was still common in Victorian times, and which often exhibited many unusual non-native animals.
Capybaras (public domain)
Perhaps the Kintail mystery beast was a capybara, which not only resembles a gigantic guinea pig but is also closely related to guinea pigs. In 1990, an errant capybara named Bert went awol from Porfell Animal Land, near Lanreath, Cornwall, and thrived for 17 months in a man-made fishery close by before being recaptured alive. Bearing in mind, conversely, that its head was a mounted trophy, one can only assume that the Kintail specimen’s period of freedom had been curtailed in a rather more terminal manner.
Resolving to unmask this cryptic creature, I tracked down the shop in question, and learnt that the animal was – of all things – a wombat! True, a wombat’s head does look a little like that of an outsized guinea pig – but who would ever have imagined that a specimen of so exotic a species as this had been brought to Scotland a century ago (especially when even in modern times wombats have rarely been exhibited in British zoos)?
A common wombat Vombatus ursinus (public domain)
In fact, as I was soon to learn from the shop’s owner, this particular wombat had died long before it had ever reached our shores – because it had been killed not in Kintail, Scotland, but in Kintail, Australia, where this marsupial mammal is of course native.
Many years ago, a cartoon in Life Magazine featured a New Jersey farmer visiting a circus where he sees a dromedary for the first time. “There ain’t no such animal,” exclaims the astonished farmer. Sometimes, I know just how he feels.
A wombat, the marsupial answer to a woodchuck (public domain)