High Park capybaras getting renovations that could keep them at home

The capybaras that made worldwide headlines in the spring when they escaped from Toronto's High Park zoo will soon have more space to strut their stuff — and perhaps less chance of escaping again.

A group called Friends of High Park Zoo is raising money so the zoo can upgrade the capybara enclosure next year. It's part of a large-scale capital improvement plan for the zoo that will cost roughly $20 million over 10 years.

Part of the plan includes enlarging the capybaras' small pond, so they'll have more room to swim.

"Capybaras, as part of their native habitat, they love swimming," said John Formosa, board chair with Friends of High Park Zoo.

"The two that escaped earlier in the year ... were found in the pond of High Park swimming."

The two High Park capybaras, dubbed Bonnie and Clyde, gained international fame in May when they escaped from their pen and spent more than a month on the loose.

The capybaras gave zoo staff the slip during a transfer to their enclosure.

Part of the improvement plan, Formosa says, involves upgrades to some of the gates and fences at the zoo, which he says could prevent future escapes.

Environment will be 'much better'

The log structure in the capybara's enclosure, which they share with the llamas, will also be restored and expanded.

Formosa said the goal is to make their environment "much better" for the capybaras, so they'll have more room to do the activities they enjoy in their natural habitat.

The $20 million master plan will give many parts of the zoo a face lift — not just the capybara enclosure.

The city has budgeted $700,000 for the work, which will need to be used in 2017. Friends of High Park has also raised $400,000 from the Honey Family Foundation, the Griggs Family Foundation and individual donations. It's also seeking help from the federal and provincial government, as well as through further donations and grants.

First major improvements in 5 decades

Friends of High Park was founded in 2012 to raise money for the zoo's operation after city budget cuts.

After the city restored operating funding in 2014, the non-profit began looking at raising funds for capital improvements. Formosa said there haven't been any significant capital improvements at the zoo for at least 50 years.

Formosa said there's an obvious public demand for the High Park Zoo — last year attendance went up 37 per cent, with 700,000 visitors.

"Definitely the community's demonstrated a desire for the facility, and also it's a necessary facility," he said.