Ask McGehee

Did Mobile really have a nutria rodeo?

A face only a mother could love? Nutrias, with their telltale bright orange teeth, are semi-aquatic. Their webbed feet make them more agile in water than on land. These rat-like rodents feast on Gulf Coast wetlands, making them a cute, but destructive, nuisance.

In 1958, hoards of hunters and their dogs headed over to the Causeway to participate in the first nutria rodeo. Marsh grasses were set on fire, and as the furry critters ran for their lives, they were assaulted by dogs and gunshots. Why would there be such uproar over these vegetarian creatures?

An ad from 1918 or 1919 for Herman & Ben Marks Wholesale Fur Makers featuring luxurious nutria fur coats.

Origins in Argentina

Residents of the Gulf Coast have long blamed Ned McIlhenny, the proprietor of Tabasco, for importing nutria from Argentina for their fur in 1938. After a hurricane in 1941, 100 of the critters were released into the adjoining Louisiana swamps, and the animal’s epic level of procreation did the rest. McIlhenny was not actually the first to get into the nutria fur business, so he can’t be held solely responsible.

The animal’s fur was described as being very similar to mink, and coats made from it cost hundreds of dollars, making the nutria a valuable commodity. Unfortunately, no one realized just how quickly the rodents reproduced. And with a beaver’s head, orange buck teeth and a long hairless tail, they would not win a beauty contest.

When the animals escaped or were released, they began devouring marsh plants, with a preference for roots. Stands of cattails vanished and were replaced by muddy holes. As the nutria proliferated, hundreds of acres of wetlands began disappearing in Louisiana and were replaced by open water. By 1960, it was estimated that there were 20 million of the rodents in the state of Louisiana alone.

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Mobile Gets Invaded

Nutria were introduced to the Mobile-Tensaw Delta in 1948 with the idea that fur trappers would keep them in check and the animal’s voracious appetite would tackle water-choking plants. Whose idea this was is not recorded, but within a decade, nutrias had caused such damage to the Delta that a rodeo was planned.

In 1958, participants bagged some 5,000 nutrias and thus began an annual event. A Nutria Queen, clad in pelts, was crowned each year, and the event took on the air of a circus, complete with plenty of beer. And to go along with the beer? Barbecued nutria meat.

By the mid-1970s, animal rights protesters were condemning the rodeo, and the numbers killed were only in the 300 range. Trappers were having a lot better luck, with an annual count hovering around 10,000. Between those trappers and an ever-increasing alligator population, the rodeo came to an end.

Today’s Picture

Nutrias continue to cause damage to Alabama’s delta marshes, but thankfully their numbers are kept somewhat in check by trappers and alligators who find their meat quite appetizing. In comparison, Louisiana’s licensed trappers captured 170,000 of the rat-like critters last year, with the state paying them a $6 per tail bounty.

A Baton Rouge dog food company may have found a solution. It has begun selling a dog treat made from nutria meat, which is said to be high in protein and low in cholesterol.

And while Ned McIlhenny may not have introduced the nutria to this part of North America, he was quite interested in propagating varieties of another invasive species: bamboo. His gift to Walter and Bessie Bellingrath has reproduced almost as rapidly as those buck-tooth nutria!

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