A web-footed, semi-aquatic rodent that can weigh up to 22 pounds, which is definitely not okay, but still nowhere near the size of the largest extant rodent, the nutria (Myocastor coypus, lit. ‘I’m looking for the one-armed man’) is the escaped-convict-turned-wily-fugitive of the natural world.
Originally imported from South America by fur traders and trappers hoping to create a booming market for horrifying rodent fur in the United States, nutria were either released on purpose, or escaped from their fur farms, or took advantage of the situation when their prison bus swerved off the road and collided with a train. However it happened, the fact remains that nutria did escape into the wild in many US states, and there they scurry to this day, eluding capture, breeding like rabbits, and causing all manner of mischief.
Unfortunately, they don’t look like rabbits. Nutria look like a mentally-challenged beaver with orange teeth. Yes, these oversized rodents have bright orange incisors, thanks to an iron-rich pigment that clearly got confused as to exactly where it should be expressing itself. One can only imagine the frustration this has caused for generations of wildlife photographers.
“Here we go now, big smile! Uh, okay, yeah, you know what…let’s take a few steps back here and maybe try some where you’re looking more pensive.’
A huge concentration of fugitive rat-beavers with bright orange incisors roaming the countryside is, if taken in isolation, totally awesome. Unfortunately, nutria are a threat to the environment. They have an irrepressible taste for soil-binding vegetation and nowhere is their constant orange-toothed gnawing more of a problem than it is in New Orleans.
Nutria devour the plants that keep river banks from eroding, canal walls from collapsing and endangered wetlands from becoming more endangered-erd. And with nutria populations all but out of control in New Orleans, the damage has been in the millions of dollars. The solution is tricky, because like most complicated environmental issues in coastal Louisiana, this too requires that elected officials be sober and also not in jail.
‘You simply have to try this critical, load-bearing vegetation. It is sublime.’
To say that nutria are fugitives is no exaggeration. Since their introduction to New Orleans in the 1930s1, the city has been chasing them well into the depths of obsession. In Jefferson Parish, which is particularly at risk to weakened canals, nutria have been hunted by nearly every means and every person, with the possible exception of Tommy Lee Jones.
Over the years, a host of creative measures have been tried. They’ve tracked nutria down with trained terriers, gassed their burrows, floated poison-laced fruit down the canals, issued a $5-per-tail bounty to the general public, encouraged Steven Seagal to eat them, and even sent the SWAT snipers after them. No joke. The Jefferson Parish SWAT and sheriff teams actually hunt nutria with spot lights and scoped rifles as a matter of public policy. If you don’t now love New Orleans, you never will.
Photo Credit: Darrin DuFord, OmnivorousTraveler.com.
‘It’s on a sloped embankment? Leading to a populated apartment complex with tons of front-facing windows? Hell yeah you’re cleared to fire! Oh, also, there’s a 211 in progress at Bank of America. Just FYI.’
In the final analysis, it’s difficult to deny that all of this is kind of wonderful. Especially compared to the incredibly boring back story of other rodents (never sit across from a squirrel at a dinner party unless you have a Kindle). On the other hand, nutria are selfishly picking on a beloved American city that definitely doesn’t need another environmental problem right now. However, a professional animal reviewer must look at the big picture: Can one really fail a large, invasive, semi-aquatic rodent with webbed feet and bright orange teeth that’s running from SWAT snipers even as you read this? Answer: Not on our watch.
1 The story of the nutria’s introduction to New Orleans is shrouded in mystery and as you might expect, it involves hot sauce. Until recently, the most accepted explanation placed the blame squarely on E.A. McIlhenny, former president of the McIlhenny Company which, of course, is famous for the Tabasco brand. Rumor had it that E.A. McIlhenny was the first to import nutria to New Orleans in order to establish a fur farm in the late 1930s. Rumor also had it that he intentionally set some free and/or the nutria escaped after a hurricane smashed their cages in 1937.
About seven years ago, in an effort to combat the negative oral history swirling around their namesake, the McIlhenny family commissioned a historian to dig up the real facts. The historian found that while McIlhenny did set nutria loose intentionally, he was not the first to do so, but rather the second or third, and definitely not the last. The historian also found that there was no truth to the 1937 hurricane story, and then we’re guessing that historian promptly deposited a check from the McIlhenny’s that amounted to his or her annual academic salary in one lump sum. Anyway, the entire defense, according to the Mclhenny historian, can be found at:
Just something to think about over your next Bloody Mary.