Monday, May 24, 2010


Last week while visiting North Carolina with my daughter Stephanie and her husband Brad, we encountered two “whistle pigs,” (so-called because they make a shrill whistliing noise) or groundhogs, on the highway curving along the Nantahala River and, later, near Cherokee, North Carolina. Stephanie, who loves animals and makes clucking noises to call them to her, glimpsed the groundhogs and was unable to get out and capture the animal’s attention from a car window as we sped by.

The appearance of these whistle pigs reminds me of the infamous nutria that abound in Louisiana and that were featured in a recent article by Laura Parker on the internet. Parker speculated about whether this creature would disappear due to the Gulf oil spill. However, according to those residents who live near the coastlands, chances are that these brackish marshes and wetlands vegetarians will continue to eat away at the 100,000 acres of coastal wetlands.

Although the nutria were introduced from South America to California back in 1899, E.A. McIlhenny of Avery Island and Tabasco fame became the third farmer to bring the “coypu” to Louisiana, and by the 70’s, over twenty million of the water rats had begun destroying the root system that holds the marshes together. They graze and strip away large parcels of marshlands and have also deterred the planting of Louisiana bald cypress trees, rapidly eating new seedlings as fast as they're planted.

Back in the 70’s, my former husband, a petroleum engineer, decided to take up the sport of trapping nutria. He befriended an old Cajun trapper and learned how to construct nutria traps, and on week-ends, armed with maps, he’d set out in a green aluminum Joe boat to help rid the Louisiana marshes of this unpopular water rat. During one foray, he became lost in the swamp and had to drag the Joe boat overland, arriving home at dawn on a Sunday, sans nutria and boat motor. At the time he was entertaining himself trapping nutria, he garnered enough pelts to pay for gas and pack lunches, but when he contracted an infection from nutria while skinningthem, he gave up trapping and took up frogging as an alternative hobby. He was always threatening to feed us nutria meat, which happens to be high in protein and low in fat, but the thought of eating an oversized rat repulsed me and my two daughters. I might add that he never tasted his catch either.
Several years ago, my good friend Morris Raphael, wrote a children’s book about Ti-Nute, a water rat who lived in Devil’s Pond in City Park, New Iberia, Louisiana. Morris created a kinder treatment of this semi-aquatic rodent, and Kate Ferry’s wonderful illustrations depict a smiling animal with a beanie cap on its head that gives readers the impression the nutria is an amiable creature.

The only way I think Louisiana will control the population of nutria is by introducing more alligators since nutria are a preferred dish for ‘gators, but then we’d have a problem with alligators! One good result from the introduction of nutria to Louisiana was that the animals controlled water hyacinths and alligator weeds. However, success was short-lived because nutria also began to invade and cause damage to two major Louisiana crops—sugarcane and rice.

Unlike whistle pigs, nutria can’t be socialized, and I hope when Stephanie returns to Louisiana, she won’t cluck to these water rats because they resemble the whistle pigs we saw in North Carolina. Coastland residents predict the nutria will survive the oil spill and will escape upriver to create more damage.

Note: The illustration of Ti-Nute by Kate Ferry is on the cover of Morris Raphael’s children’s book, TI-NUTE, THE ANGEL OF DEVIL’S POND.
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