Something soft, furry and larger than the average rabbit has been seen hopping around a Summerville neighborhood lately, but it's not the Easter Bunny.
The animals are actually three Patagonian cavies, large, rabbit-like rodents that are indigenous to Argentina. Up until Wednesday afternoon, how the exotic animals arrived at the neighborhood near the Pine Forest Country Club was a mystery.
Residents who saw them said they were certain the relatively social animals were once someone's pets.
"They actually came up to my car," resident Sandy Craven said. "I was rolling down my window, talking to them."
Craven and her husband first saw them a couple of days ago and showed them to neighbors Rhea and Larry Horowitz. Rhea Horowitz quickly identified them on the Internet.
With a little more digging, a network of residents discovered Wednesday that the animals, commonly referred to as maras, were once part of the petting zoo that Summerville Elementary School Principal Gene Sires kept at the school for 25 years.
Sires said the three animals were born and raised at the petting zoo but he had to close it about two weeks ago. He moved them to a cage at his home until they broke free last week. He's been looking for them since. As of Wednesday afternoon, the animals were last seen about a quarter mile away from his home.
Ed Diebold, director of animal collections and conservation at the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, said it's not the first time he's heard about Patagonian cavies being seen in this region. They likely either escaped, like in this case, or were freed by their owner.
It's possible they can survive in this environment but if they do, they could adversely affect the habitat, he said.
"They're rodents, they're pretty resourceful animals," Diebold said. "If they can find food and reasonable shelter, I would say they have a reasonable shot of surviving the weather."
But it's the predators they really need to worry about. "They're at a competitive disadvantage immediately," he said. "They don't have the defenses built in that they would have in South America where they're from. Even a domestic dog could take a cavy down with no problem."
If they were to become established, the non-indigenous species could have a negative impact.
Diebold said the zoo encourages people to adopt cats and dogs and parakeets and not exotics because many people don't know what they're getting into until its too late. "Unfortunately, lots and lots and lots of exotic animals are in private hands right now," Diebold said.