Connecticut’s Hidden Animals?
I was driving down Farmington Avenue, a very busy thoroughfare in West Hartford, Connecticut, at a little before seven in the morning (far too early to be up and about) when I spotted an animal crossing the road from my right at a distance of about 200 feet. It seemed to be about as big as a medium-sized dog, but it clearly wasn’t a canine. It was tawny in color, its back was curved, and it loped across the avenue in a strange hopping motion, as if its rear legs were substantially longer than its forelegs. My initial, nearly instant identification of the animal moving so peculiarly across the road made no sense at all in the upscale Connecticut suburb through which I was driving: it was a capybara. That was crazy. Capybaras are extremely large rodents, in fact, the largest on our planet, and they are native to South America, not Connecticut. I have never encountered a capybara in the wild, but I have seen them in zoos, and the animal I briefly glimpsed crossing Farmington Avenue in April 2013 appeared, at least initially, from a great distance and under poor lighting conditions, to be one, at least a small one.
The rational part of my mind recognized almost immediately thereafter that the identification I had come up with was nonsensical. But was it? After all, there is a museum in West Hartford with a small menagerie of wild animals. I know they have a bobcat, lynx, hedgehog, and a number of other critters on display there. Maybe they have a capybara, and it had escaped. Could be. Another possibility was an exotic pet. Yup; do an Internet search for “capybara pet,” and you’ll find numerous webpages in which people extol the virtues of sharing their homes and lives with what amounts to gigantic, über-rats that may weigh in at more than 100 pounds. Maybe, the thought flashed through my mind, a local resident kept a capybara as a companion animal and the poor thing had gotten loose.
Determined to figure out what the animal actually was, I watched as it reached the other side of the road where it initially disappeared into a culvert diverting a stream into a grassy dell. Just past where the animal had entered the little stream valley was a driveway leading to the parking lot of the local Whole Foods, and I turned into it, hopeful but not particularly optimistic that I would see the animal again for a better look and the opportunity to assess my original, seemingly impossible diagnosis of—what? A wayfaring giant South American rodent that had managed to migrate thousands of miles, across numerous national borders, only to end up in Connecticut, a furry alien on its way to shop at the nearby Whole Foods for some free-trade, organic capybara kibble? It seemed ridiculous in the extreme, but at least based on my initial observation, that’s exactly what I thought I had seen.
Looking to my left as I drove into the Whole Foods parking lot, amazingly, I saw the creature again, was able to view it at a much closer distance, and recognized it for exactly what it was. No, it was not a capybara, nor was it one of its much smaller relatives, the agouti, another South American native. Embarrassingly, it was a representative of a species I was very familiar with for all the grief its kind has given me by breaking into my trash cans. The animal I had initially identified as a giant South American rodent was, in actuality, nothing more than a large raccoon that was moving in a peculiar way because it was missing its right rear leg.
The tale of a resilient raccoon who had managed to survive a traumatic injury to one of its legs and its ability to adapt to its condition so well is remarkable enough. But that’s not the purpose of my sharing this experience with you. My story is a cautionary tale you might consider when you read or hear all of those eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra, and on and on.
The etiology of my misidentification seems clear enough. Barely awake, I spot an animal that, based on its appearance and movement, doesn’t immediately match anything I’d expect to see crossing in front of me on Farmington Avenue. In a virtual instant, my brain leapt into action, searching my neural database for a word, an identification, a diagnosis for the strange and unexpected critter I had just seen. The closest match I could come up with based on what I had briefly observed without preparation was an animal that has no business being in West Hartford. But it’s the best I could do in that instant when my mind was demanding an explanation and attempting to find one based on incomplete and not terribly reliable data.
My initial identification is a reflection of how our brains work. We encounter something out of the ordinary—maybe it’s a strange light in the sky, an unexpected noise in an old house, or an oddly moving animal—and our minds demand an explanation. Even under poor conditions for observation—lighting is weak, the distance is great, we’re tired, we’re not wearing our glasses—we make instant deductions and leap to conclusions, regardless of the sensibility of those deductions and conclusions.
I suppose it’s adaptive, born of our evolutionary history as bipedal hunters on the plains of Africa. Indeed, it is better to be safe than sorry, and the survival of our ancestors depended on being careful in the face of incomplete information. Better to interpret the subtle movement in the grass in front of you as a lion intent on making you her meal, better to think you actually see that lion and respond accordingly, than to be skeptical of or even ignore the possible danger. If you’re wrong, all that results is a brief scare: your heart races, and then relief. If you’re right about the lion, however, you just might save your life.
Given the chance, and if we’re curious enough, we accept that our initial deductions and conclusions concerning our observations are merely first guesses and we investigate further. That’s why I followed up on my initial identification and followed the animal as it ran down the side of the streambed where I saw, not a capybara, but a three-legged raccoon doing its thing. Now imagine if I hadn’t gotten a closer, lengthier look at the animal. I might still be telling the story of the feral, peripatetic capybara of West Hartford, Connecticut. Maybe I’d put up a website, collecting other eyewitness accounts of the capybaras of Connecticut, and I’d generate thousands of hits and elicit the reports of, maybe, dozens of kindred spirits who are also certain of the existence of packs of giant South American rodents haunting the forests, hills, and even the cities of southern New England. Don’t think that would happen? Type in the term “Alien Big Cats” in whatever Internet search engine you use and you’ll find hundreds of references to people in Great Britain who claim to have seen large, clearly non-native, wild felines prowling the British countryside. But it is almost certainly the case that there are about as many leopards wandering the moors of Cornwall as there are capybaras crossing West Hartford, Connecticut’s Farmington Avenue.
It’s not that people are stupid (notice how self-serving that statement is since I’m the guy who thought he saw the capybara) or that everybody who sees a Sasquatch, living dinosaur, flying saucer, or ghost is lying. It’s a reflection of the demand placed on our brains and honed by millions of years of evolution, to diagnose and identify what we observe to quickly determine if what we have just seen is friend or foe, something to eat, or something that will eat us. As behavioral scientists we recognize this process. But, apparently, we are not immune to it.