March 4, 2013 10:09:29 AM
Shannon Bardwell - [email protected]
There on the bank of the lake lay a critter that looked a lot like a beaver. Its fur was long and wet; its teeth were curved and yellow. Its feet were webbed, but the tail was its undoing. The water rodent had a long round tail like a rat. The son-of-a gun was no doubt a Louisiana nutria.
It seems that in the 1930s E.A. McIlhenny, of the Tabasco pepper sauce, purchased a dozen nutrias to start a fur farm. In 1940, McIlhenny either intentionally set them free or a hurricane caused the release of nutrias into the swamps.
Unconcerned, McIlhenny thought the alligators would have a feast.
Nutrias are prolific producers, and in 20 years there were over 20 million critters in 40 states. In fact, whenever a hurricane blows through the Gulf, nutrias wash up on Mississippi beaches by the thousands.
Originally from South America, nutrias were imported to fill the demand for fur coats. Remember when stores like Ruth's and McRae's had fur sales? The department stores cleared the clothes rounders to make way for furs, and all the social elite would come buy their fur coats.
Some of those coats were made out of nutrias, the same little fellow that was now lying prone on the ground beside our lake.
In the 1960s, Louisiana was exporting nutria pelts by the zillions to Germany, peaking in 1976 and declining in the '80's. By then fashion trends had turned to leather, the market was saturated, public attitudes were changing regarding fur, the stock-market was falling and a luxury tax was imposed on furs.
Nutrias are somewhat smaller than a beaver but bigger than a muskrat. Ours looked close to 25 pounds. This fellow had been vegging-out in our lake.
Nutrias are mostly vegetarians but will eat snails and the like. Because they are voracious eaters they destroy wetland habitats for water fowl and other animals. They've acquired an appetite for farm crops, lawn grasses and ornamental plants.
Nutrias burrow in dams, making a tunnel entrance from the water. This fellow burrowed in our dam, causing a small collapse. They have no natural predators except ... us.
Mississippi declared the nutrias a nuisance animal and placed a bounty on them. You can get $5 for every nutria tail. Round here that could be a better pay off than selling aluminum cans.
In Louisiana they decided just to eat nutrias, coming up with recipes like nutria chili, nutria sausage and smothered nutria, Cajun style.
To cook nutria Cajun style you skin 'em, and cut the meat into pieces, brown the meat in hot oil, add seasonings and some chopped onion, bell pepper and flour. Salt to taste. Might want to add some of McIlhenny's Tabasco sauce. Pour in three cups of chicken broth and stir 'til it thickens.
We didn't sell our nutria for $5, nor did we cook it. We just left it there for the buzzards to enjoy.
Shannon Rule Bardwell is a Southern writer living quietly in the Prairie.