The sun hangs low over the bayou, wavering in the humid evening horizon. Sweat pours off your face as you struggle see into the underbrush. And suddenly you hear it. A rustling in the bushes that turns your veins to ice. “Please, sweet Jesus,” you whisper, “be something else. Please, not here. Not now.”
But it’s too late. You know you’re trapped and your simpering prayers can’t help you. That scene from The Princess Bride – the one in the Fire Swamp – keeps running through your brain as if on a loop. And just then, from the bushes it walks into the clearing. You find yourself face to face with a creature of children’s nightmares.
The nutria. Like an unholy alliance between a muskrat and a beaver, it lurks in the shadows of hot, muggy forests, waiting to strike. Also called the coypu (which very loosely translates as “Lucifer’s childhood pet rat”), the nutria is originally from South America but was brought here in the late 1800s for its luxurious fur, which imbues its wearer with mild superhuman strength.
We quickly learned the folly of our greed for furry jackets. You see, the nutria is essentially a wetland-eating machine, shoving anything green into its horrible little red mouth. It also burrows into riverbanks, thus loosening the soil and causing erosion. The effect of this is a swamp without plants, a wetland without roots, and a world without hope.
Like a furry little virus they have spread across the country. Since its introduction, the nutria has infested at least 14 states, mostly in the American Southeast. And they are spreading. To, you know, places like Delaware. But after that, who knows? Maybe your back yard.
In 2001, a survey by the Nutria Harvest and Wetland Demonstration Program found that an area of 102,585 acres was devastated in Louisiana alone by nutria. Without these crucial wetland plants that act as a buffer to storms, our coasts were left exposed to the ravages of pollution, powerful storms, and the relaxed morals of today’s youth.
But the worst of this is the storms. Wetlands blunt the power of hurricanes and other gales and absorb water in times of flooding. Nutria-ravaged wetlands are vulnerable to all manner of destruction. Was the nutria responsible for the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina? Let’s say yes, or at least leave the question out there. Could it happen again? If it frightens you to hear it, dear reader, then absolutely. Are these furry varmints the most lethal creature on Earth? Maybe not, but let’s leave the question hanging out there, in the air, like an ignored fart.
The nutria can also be dangerous to people. According to one Louisiana expert, nutrias have been known to attack whole Girl Scout troops at a time. The expert, found at a local “Gas ‘N Sip” outside Baton Rouge and identified simply as Earl, says nutria will often sneak into homes, steal kitchen knives, and slit the homeowners’ throats as they sleep. Earl went on to say that the nutria epidemic is a government plot to enslave Americans and water down our beer.
A cursory search of the literature around nutria reveals no such references to homicidal rodents, giving credence to Earl’s thesis that the government is behind some sort of nutria-focused conspiracy.
But all is not lost. A few brave American heroes are fighting back against this menace. Regular people from all walks of life have banded together to fight fire with barbecue sauce. Not dissuaded by unsavory terms like “swamp rat,” people across the country are finding these nasty creatures, killing them, and cooking them up.
Nutria recipes include crock pot nutria, baked nutria, and pulled barbecued nutria, some of which take about 28 hours to make. With 20 million nutrias out there, a determined cook could eat his way through the country’s nutria in a short 64,000 years.
But it’s not just the culinary world; the fashion world is also doing its part. What’s new this fall in Milan and Paris? Well, probably not nutria fur. But it should be.
So this summer, go to the beach. Enjoy the water instead of spending your time in front of the TV with terrible shark documentaries. But then go home and lock your doors. Because the nutria is out there. And it’s looking for you.
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Credits: Alpsdale, via Wikimedia Commons (top); http://www.righteousfur.com/what-are-nutria.html (bottom).
Bonus for sticking around to the end of the credits: