Why Capybara Was Once Considered a Fish

Venezuela was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, with Catholic missionaries taking control of large parts of the country, according to Britannica. The ensuing exchange of cultures, notably forced on each other, paved the way for Venezuela to become what it is today, nearly 85% Catholic. It also seems that, between the 16th and 18th centuries, resident clergymen took a liking to capybara (via Atlas Obscura). However, people who loved both capybara and Jesus faced a dilemma during Lent, the 40 days in which Catholics are prohibited from eating any animal other than fish.

The Venezuelan clergy found a clever escape through the fish exception. According to Atlas Obscura, they wrote to the Vatican asking for capybaras to be labeled as fish, and the Vatican agreed. They based their argument largely on the aforementioned fishy flavor, and, as National Geographic notes, capybaras live semi-aquatic lives and have partially webbed feet.

Combine these sightings into a letter and send it to a European who has never seen a capybara, and you can see how we got here. Blurring the lines between rodents and fish was not unusual for the church. Scientific American notes that they did the same when they accepted the Bishop of Quebec’s request to classify beavers as fish in the 17th century. Strangely, the church hasn’t changed its stance on capybara to date, which is why it’s still a Lenten staple for Venezuelans.

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