The case for eating California’s giant invasive rodents

<em>A nutria in a frozen river in Slovenia tries to look inedible, only somewhat succeeds. </em>

Two-foot-long rodents called nutria, which can grow as large as 20 pounds, are the latest threat to California’s wetlands. But here’s the good news: they apparently taste great in jambalaya. So naturally, I wanted to try some California-grown rodent for myself.

These raccoon-sized rodents from South America have invaded every continent except Antarctica, and have set up camp in at least 18 US states. Now, they’ve set their beady sights on California. Over the past year, more than 24 nutria have been spotted in California’s wetlands for the first time since they were eradicated in the 1970s, according to The Sacramento Bee. Some were pregnant females, and others were just babies — a clear sign that they’re multiplying.

That’s worrying, because nutria are known for devastating marshy ecosystems: they mow down the local vegetation, destroy flood control by burrowing through levees, and edge out native animals that don’t reproduce as quickly — like muskrats and beavers. But I’m higher on the food chain than these furry agents of destruction: could I save the environment by grilling up some nutria?

They look tasty enough. A website called Exotic Meat Market compares nutria to dark turkey meat — and one nutria has twice as many drumsticks. But it sounds like finding the right recipe is key to making nutria palatable, according to three filmmakers who sampled nutria for their documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size. One of the filmmakers described nutria sausage as tasting “like a morgue” — but the team agreed that nutria jambalaya is delightful, according to their article for BoingBoing.

There are certainly plenty of dishes I could try. In Louisiana, where people are paid to trap nutria on their land, the state’s department of Wildlife and Fisheries website includes a link to recipes for nutria soups, salads, even nutria à l’orange. The site’s tagline: “Can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em!” It’s a great idea, in theory. But at least in Louisiana, eating nutria hasn’t been enough to get rid of them. Nearly five million nutria have been removed from the state’s swamps and marshes over the past 15 years. That’s more rodent than I could ever eat, even if it weren’t sometimes funereal-tasting.

Since the laws in California are intended to prevent the introduction of invasive species like nutria in the first place, it’s illegal to possess, own, transport, or kill nutria here. Of course, now that they’re here, “That may be something we look at down the road as a management tool,” says Peter Tira, an information officer with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “But right now, the laws prohibit it.”

So unless I plan a trip to Louisiana or take my chances with mail-order meat, I probably won’t get to try that nutria à l’orange anytime soon. I’m okay with that — because there’s something else I discovered: nutria carry a parasite that causes something called “nutria itch.” Whatever nutria itch is, it’s something I am very content to never experience.

If you see a nutria in California, don’t break out the barbecue tongs. Report it on the California Department of Fish and Wildlife website, by emailing invasives@wildlife.ca.gov, or by calling (866) 440-9530.

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