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Wednesday, July 29, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nutria: From Rat-Like Pest To Delicacy? -- Louisiana Seeks Ways To Fight Hungry Rodent

Los Angeles Times

NEW ORLEANS - It's another in a long line of scamps and scalawags, pirates and privateers who have profited in Louisiana while the state suffered.

This outsider is straining Louisiana's traditional tolerance of scoundrels. Its gluttony is laying waste to the southern half of the state.

Previous troublemakers have been called dirty rats or even weasels. This new marauder is, in fact, a member of the rodent family. It's a nutria: a nearsighted, ratlike South American import that for 60 years has been reproducing wildly and flourishing in the Louisiana wetlands, all the while eating all the vegetation it could get past its pronounced overbite.

Nutria - several million of them, officials estimate - are destroying the coastal wetlands that are crucial to Louisiana's water-control efforts, vital to the fishing and trapping industries and home to scores of protected species.

Experts are stumped

Environmental and wildlife experts have for decades been stumped at how to rid the swamps and bayous of the creature, whose rampant feeding threatens to destroy a buffer zone for hurricanes sweeping in from the Gulf of Mexico.

Now the state is striking back. Officials with the Wildlife and Fisheries Department have begun a five-year program aimed at downsizing the nutria population and reclaiming denuded wetlands by tapping into what people in Louisiana do exceedingly well: eat.

Officials have recruited the state's top chefs to create dishes to entice citizens to devour nutria. They hope they can saute, braise and fricassee their way out of this crisis.

Not much choice

"We've tried other approaches, and they haven't worked," said Noel Kinler, project manager of the state's nutria project. "We don't have much choice at this point."

So far it's been a tough sell. People here may be famous for their adventurous eating habits, but they appear to have drawn the nutritional line at nutria. Call it what you want, it still looks like a rat.

Spud doesn't give the impression of being an ecological terrorist. The 6-month-old orphan has been hand-raised at the Louisiana Nature Center here and is roughhousing with his handler, Lisa Spardel. Ungainly on land and ill-designed for walking, Spud waddles around the office of the center's director unchecked, happily chewing on phone cords and computer connections. He makes a break for an open door, but his myopia drives him head first into a wall.

Bob Mayre, whose office is being littered with Spud's pelletlike calling cards, is tolerant of his little guest. Spud is a typical young nutria with sleek brown-black fur, sloped head, tiny ears, beady eyes, scaly rat tail and the trademark elongated orange incisors, parted in the middle.

At this age, it's possible to consider him cute. Mayre says his daughters have swaddled young nutria in blankets and played with them like dolls.

The environmental problem grew out of the ruthlessness of the nutria's eating habits. It treats the Mississippi Delta as its personal salad bar. It feeds by paddling around a heavily vegetated marsh and seeks out the tender roots of aquatic plants, chewing its way up to the leaves, which it ignores. Biologists call the damaged sections "eat-outs."

"They eat only 10 percent of what they destroy," said zoologist Bob Thomas, a professor at Loyola University. "Ninety percent of the plant floats away."

Replanting has been tried on a limited basis, with little success. Nutria follow behind, eating the tender shoots of the new plants. Even when they aren't eating, nutria burrow into levees, causing them to collapse.

They are strong swimmers. Adults grow to about the size of a small beaver, propelling themselves with webbed back feet and steering with their rope-like tail. Their vegetarian diet provides little fuel, so nutrias must eat constantly.

When they aren't eating, they have one other major interest. Nutria's mating habits make rabbits seem standoffish. They begin breeding at six months and have three litters a year, with up to 13 offspring in each litter.

One natural population control in Louisiana is the alligator, which is happy to include nutria in its diet but is dormant four months a year.

Fur-industry plans failed

Louisiana's nutria were brought from South America in the 1930s, but hopes of establishing a fur industry failed. At one point, officials estimated there were 20 million nutria in the state, but the current population may be half of that.

They have popped up elsewhere in the country - including Oregon's Willamette Valley - but nowhere else on this scale.

Louisiana officials began the new nutria-control program, which got under way this year, as a response to the damage to what they conservatively estimate is 80,000 acres of coastal wetlands. Forty percent of the nation's coastal wetlands lie in Louisiana, where 80 percent of the total national wetland loss occurs.

If the population is not controlled, thousands of acres of wetlands are in serious jeopardy, Kinler said.

Officials would like nutria to join blackened redfish and alligator meat as part of Louisiana's must-have cuisine. They are spending $2 million to develop a market for a meat that has been tested as highly lean, low in cholesterol and rich in protein.

The key to the program is to add incentive for nutria harvesting. The state will essentially subsidize the hunting and processing of nutria meat.

There is only one licensed nutria processor in the state, Tommy Stoddard of Hackberry. He says the animal is difficult to dress and takes a trained person five minutes to clean. He has processed about 5,000 pounds of nutria meat this year.

Before there is a steady supply of meat, there must be a demand. That's where chef Philippe Parola comes in. He directs the Louisiana Culinary Institute in Jackson and the man responsible for developing enticing nutria recipes.

At his restaurant he offers nutria fettuccine, marinated nutria salad, nutria "a l'orange, culotte de" nutria "a la moutarde" and, for the health conscious, heart-healthy crockpot nutria. Parola was dispatched to Japan in March to test the waters for the product. "Look, I am French, I know about eating odd things," Parola said. "I would like to meet the chef who first went outside, picked up a snail, cooked it, put it on a table in front of someone and said, `This is snail. Eat it.' "

Enola Prudhomme, owner and chef at Prudhomme's Cajun Cafe and the sister of the fabled Paul Prudhomme, has developed her own recipes. "It's difficult to get, but I can sell it when I do have it. Mostly it's the tourists who want it; they also want the alligator. It's the `Louisiana experience,' I guess."

The chefs report that when they can lure anyone to try nutria, they like it. The tender meat tastes like rabbit, it is said. But it's getting anyone to take the first bite that's difficult.

"Here's the deal," said Thomas. "The problem here is that we see them dead and puffed up on the side of the road all the time. It's a road-kill issue."

Looks like a well-fed rat

It's also a rat issue. Because nutria is so well known in Louisiana, people are familiar with what they look like. Naturalists may say they are closely related to the guinea pig, but to the untrained eye, a nutria looks like a well-fed rat.

"We know, we know," said Kinler. "That's why we have high hopes for the foreign market. People will never see the nutria, just the processed meat."

State officials dream of a time in the not-so-distant future when, all over the world, it will be common to hear: "Nutria? Very good. How about a nice chardonnay to go with it?"

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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