More than a century ago, U.S. ranchers began to import nutria from South America in order to harvest their soft, brown fur. Eventually, remaining swamp rats were released into freshwater habitats throughout the southeast; some escaped accidentally during hurricanes, while others were freed intentionally as a form of “vegetation control.” And vegetation control is what we got. Today, a colony has directed its voracious appetite and orange buckteeth toward the plant life of the Mobile Delta. Thank goodness for hungry alligators!
EVOLUTIONARY ODDITY Aiding in their mischief, the resilient creatures are highly adaptive to semiaquatic environments. For example, a female’s nipples are high up on her back to allow pups to nurse while still floating in the water.
BAR RATS Trader’s on the Causeway was once home to an Alabama legend: the Nutria Rodeo. In the wintertime of the 1960s and ’70s, hunters would gather to track as many as 5, 500 of the rodents. Until animal rights activists had it shut down, the hunt was followed by a rowdy party complete with the crowning of a Nutria Queen, who rode in on an airboat and kept it classy in only a bikini and nutria pelts.
BABY MAKING Ready to breed again just 48 hours after giving birth, a female can have three litters of up to 13 pups each in a little over a year. It’s estimated nutria gals spend 80 percent of their lives pregnant.
GUILT-FREE FUR Nutria is so in. Pelts of the rodent have been touted as an environmentally friendly way to wear fur, and high-end designers, such as Billy Reid and Michael Kors, have incorporated the animal into their clothing lines. Other uses include human food, fishing bait and gourmet dog food.
HEARTY APPETITES After eating close to 25 percent of their body weight in plant matter per day, the critters can fatten themselves up to 25 pounds, some reportedly even reaching 30. That’s a whole lot of 2-foot-long mammal.
FAIR GAME Today, lax laws make hunting nutria rather easy, says Roger Clay, local wildlife biologist. “They’re an exotic, introduced animal and not covered by game laws. There’s no hunting season restriction and no bag limit.” Just remember one rule: “Only hunt them during daylight hours.”
IF YOU CAN'T BEAT 'EM, EAT 'EM
From the bayou to Brooklyn, nutria has become a staple in what is now one of the hippest food trends since artisan doughnuts.
- Invasivorism, the practice of eating non-native, unwanted alien species, has popularized some unexpected gourmet dishes. Think feral hog sashimi, dandelion wine, Asian carp burgers and kudzu quiche. However, it’s undecided whether or not the increased human consumption of unwanted species actually has a significant effect on these populations.
- Regardless, don’t let nutria deaths be in vain! Their meat is lean and full of protein, with a taste similar to rabbit or dark turkey meat. Try this recipe, below, from world-renowned, Louisiana-based chef Philippe Parola below. If hunting is not your forte, order nutria meat online. Bon appétit!
Heart-Healthy Slow Cooker Nutria
1 small onion, sliced thin
1 tomato, cut in big wedges
2 potatoes, sliced thin
2 carrots, sliced thin
8 Brussels sprouts
2 hind saddle portions of nutria meat
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
salt and pepper, to taste
1/2 cup white wine
1 cup water
1 cup demi-glace (optional)
1. Layer onion, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots and Brussel sprouts in cooker.
2. Season nutria with garlic, salt and pepper to taste, and place nutria over vegetables. Add wine and water.
3. Set slow cooker on low. Let cook until meat is tender, about 4 – 6 hours.
4. Garnish with demi-glace, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Do you have a nutria dish in your recipe rolodex? Email your concoctions to [email protected].
text by HALEY POTTS • illustration by kelan mercer