In 2001, former Metro Spirit reporter Brian Neill spoke to residents and business owners around Clarks Hill about a strange animal that many people compared to the fictitious Jack-A-Lope. Here is what he discovered.
Not a whole lot goes on in Clarks Hill, where the center of town basically consists of a Conoco station and a bait shop.
It’s the type of place in which one could imagine locals crafting tall tales to make things a little more lively. Tales like bigfoots traipsing through the woods or a 300-pound catfish that still has the stern of Billy Ray’s johnboat in its belly from when he hooked him two summers ago.
Heck, they might even tell the story of how the fictitious Jack-A-Lope — those creepy, novelty, stuffed rabbits with deer antlers attached to their heads — had started to breed and populate the grassy land surrounding the local church and a few neighbors’ yards.
That’s why, when the phone call came a few afternoons ago from Rusty Lindberg relaying precisely the same story, my first instinct was to end the conversation as quickly and politely as possible.
But then he sent the pictures. And he introduced me to other people who had seen them, too.
Lindberg, who owns La Cantina Restaurant in Clarks Hill and describes himself as a ventarist, a combination between a ventriloquist and a classical guitarist, also had done a little research.
The strange new inhabitants of the area, he found out, are actually Patagonian Cavies, or Maras, a member of the rodent family indigenous to South America.
But the resemblance is striking, is it not, Lindberg pointed out.
Lindberg managed to photograph three of the animals, which indeed look like half rabbit and half deer, running down a side street like refugees from an alternate universe.
He also snapped a picture of two of them in a woman’s front yard.
“I asked her if she had seen some strange animals and she said they were just small deer,” Lindberg recalled. “Just then, a couple of them came by and I shooed them up in her yard and said, ‘These are the things I’m talking about. These are not deer.’ ”
The Patagonian Cavy is actually a relative of the Guinea Pig imported here from South America and often sold as an exotic pet.
But the animal’s relation to the Guinea Pig definitely ends with its shared family name, caviidae.
While most Guinea Pigs are cuddly and fit manageably in two cupped hands, Patagonian Cavies can grow to a body length of roughly two feet and weigh as much as 35 pounds when full grown.
Various zoological Web sites devoted to the animals say they are capable of running at speeds approaching 30 miles per hour and can make sudden, 7-foot aerial leaps when they are threatened or excited.
“I’m always looking for a new form of entertainment, and this is it,” Lindberg said. “It’s the freak show.”
Billy Ryan, chief of the Clarks Hill Fire Department, had seen the animals sitting in front of a local church the day before he was interviewed for this story.
“I saw three of them down there,” Ryan said. “Just sitting there on their haunches.”
Ryan said he first saw the Cavies about five months ago, sitting on a dirt bank on the side of the road, “just like a miniature kangaroo, I guess you’d say.”
Jimmy Bridges, a park ranger with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Clarks Hill, said he’s seen the Cavies twice on his way in to work.
“They’re some different looking creatures all right,” Bridges said. “I described them as something with a rabbit’s head and the body of a small deer, without the spots.
“I kind of did a doubletake the first time I saw them. I said, ‘What in the heck was that?’ Nobody believed me, you know. When I started to describe it, they said, ‘Yeah, sure.’ And then there’s a woman who works here and her brother had seen them and she said, ‘Well, that’s how my brother described it and everybody told him he was crazy.’ ”
Bridges said he discovered the identity of the new residents of Clarks Hill after seeing them featured on a television show about exotic animals.
Ryan said he is pretty sure how the animals came to be in the area.
Raiford Bussey, a resident of the area who owns R.W. Bussey Construction in Augusta, has an affinity for exotic pets, Ryan said.
Ryan said he saw Bussey one afternoon in the process of trying to round the animals up at the side of the road.
Bussey did not return two phone calls to the offices of his construction company.
A woman who took the calls confirmed that Bussey had owned Patagonian Cavies in the past.
The Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla. is home to eight Patagonian Cavies.
Susan Hiller, the zoo’s animal care supervisor, said the animals pose no threat to human beings and, oddly enough, are biologically incapable of carrying the rabies virus.
Bites from their rabbit-like teeth are uncommon, anyway, Hiller said.
“They would run more, far away from you, than come up to bite you,” Hiller said. “And even when you catch them, they don’t have the tendency to be aggressive and to bite you. They just sort of don’t do anything.”
The animals typically dine on scrub grass, Hiller said, a staple which happens to abound in the Clarks Hill area. They also like merely basking in the sun at times.
Cavies, which have a life span of about 10 years, typically dig deep burrows in which to live and raise offspring.
And the subject of offspring poses an interesting question for the Cavies in Clarks Hill.
Hiller described the animals as “very rapid breeders.”
“They’re just like a rabbit,” Hiller added. “The female can breed pretty much like five days after she gives birth.”
Experts say Cavies are typically monogamous for life and breed two or three times a year. After a gestation period of only three months, the female gives birth to one to three offspring who, themselves, become sexually mature in a short period of time — two to three months for females and six months for males.
That could translate into lots of Jack-a-Lope, er, Cavies, for the community of Clarks Hill.
Aside from offering gourmet-style meals at his La Cantina restaurant, Lindberg also performs for diners his off-beat brand of humor involving ventriloquist dummies and song.
He recently added a new element to his act: A Guinea Pig that Lindberg said he’s taught to dance to music.
With that said, and considering they’re Darwinian distant cousins, one can guess where Lindberg is going with the whole Cavies in Clarks Hill thing.
“If I catch one I’m going to get a set of ballet slippers for him,” Lindberg said. “We’re talking Nureyev.”
“If you think I’m kidding, I’m not,” he added. “I’ll teach that thing to dance.”