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Presto! Piranha Turns Into a Pacu

October 15, 1989|ALLISON SAMUELS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PLACENTIA — When Tom Capriotti goes fishing after work, he says he usually catches a bass or trout for dinner. But one afternoon last week, 20-year-old Capriotti reeled in what he thought was a one-pound piranha.

The fact that the South American killer fish isn't native to California waters didn't faze Capriotti as he raced home to Placentia and gleefully called friends to tell them what he caught in the Tri-City Park lake.

"He was so excited, he called all his friends over to look at it," said his mother, Mary Lou Capriotti. "He stayed up most of the night baby-sitting the fish in a cooler and hoping it wouldn't die."

Although the fish did die later from shock, the California Department of Fish and Game office in Long Beach was contacted to help determine what it was that Capriotti caught.

Much to his dismay, Capriotti learned he had captured a pacu, a tropical fish also from South America that resembles the piranha with the major exception of its teeth and eating habits.

"The pacu fish has two sets of teeth in the upper jaw area and is totally harmless," said Mary Jean Delong, a Fish and Game Department spokeswoman. "Though it might sound strange, the piranha only has one set of teeth. You'd think it would be the opposite."

What's more, the pacu dines on plants. Piranha, on the other hand, have been known to tear all the flesh off the skeleton of an animal or person in a few minutes, according to the World Book Encyclopedia. Some scientists consider the piranha more dangerous than a shark.

Delong added that the occasional sightings of the piranha are usually the result of owners who throw out the fish when they realize how expensive it is to care for it.

"Even though they are illegal in the state, people still import them into the area," Delong said, "not realizing that you have to feed them live goldfish on a regular basis to keep them alive. When they can't afford to do that, they resort to flushing them down the toilet or throwing them into the lakes."

The department gets numerous calls each year from people who say tropical stores are advertising the sale of the killer fish, but after a quick check of the fish's mouth, officials say, it's almost always the pacu fish.

And that was the finding regarding Tom Capriotti's catch, putting a less-thrilling ending on the young man's fish story.

"He is disappointed, he wanted it to be a piranha so bad," said his mother.

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