New book tells the story of ‘Swamp Rats’ aka nutria

When you first see the cover of Theodore G. Manno’s book “Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie’s Nutria Invasion,” you might wonder why anyone would read a book about a giant rat.

First of all, you know what they say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”

Secondly, Nutria, commonly known as “swamp rats,” are not rats, but are rodents, specifically Myocastor coypus, more akin to a prairie dog than a rat.

And, for a third point, they didn’t ask to be brought here, but now that they’re here, everyone should know how that happened and how they place us all at risk.

Or so believes author and scientist Theodore G. Manno, who explains it his book.

Manno begins with the explanation that nutria have two kinds of fur that trappers came to love in the early 20th Century as a cost-effective replacement for the near extinct beaver’s fur.

Unfortunately, after they were introduced into Louisiana, their population increased in two decades from 20 to 20 million, a population that “contributes to the loss of a football field’s worth of wetlands daily.” Manno then corrects the myth that Tabasco sauce manufacturer president and Avery Island resident Edward Avery McIlhenny did not introduce this South American pest to Louisiana. Explorer William Frankiln Frakes began the first American nutria operation in Los Angeles in 1899, and although McIlhenny claimed that he brought nutria to Louisiana at a time (the 1930s) when they promised to be an economic boon to the region for their much-desired fur, he was in fact the third importer of nutria to the region.

Henry and Susan Brote operated a nutria farm in Abita Springs in 1933 and released nutria into the wild in 1937, three years before McIlhenny released 21 into the marsh surrounding Avery Island.

And that’s when the trouble … no, the disaster, began. At first, for $159, women could purchase a coat with the look and feel of mink costing $1,200.

But with changing attitudes about wearing fur in the 1970s and ’80s, the large-scale harvesting of nutria began to dwindle.

Since relatively scarce alligators apparently do little damage to the swamp rat population, that population has exploded much to the chagrin of everyone who resides in or near Deep South wetlands.

The damage, though, started becoming clear to Louisianans in the 1950s.

Dense stands of cattails became ragged eat-outs, or areas of open water.

Rice and sugar cane fell victim to the nutria on a large scale, proving that Hurricane Harvey had not done as much damage to the pests as once had been hoped.

The Louisiana Legislature responded in 1958 by removing nutria from the protected species list and putting a bounty on them of 25 cents per tail.

Suffice it to say, this effort, Manno notes, proved a day late and a dollar short.

Hurricane Katrina again thinned out the population, reducing the number of damaged acres from 21,888 in 2003 to 9,244 in 2007.

But although nutria make excellent zoo pets (check them out at the Audubon Zoo) man’s efforts to eliminate or divert this wetlands threat have left us, like Charlie Brown, saying “Rats!”

This is no laughing matter, however, as the loss of Louisiana’s wetlands threatens the 55,000 jobs and billions in revenue created by that state’s wetlands, to say nothing of reducing one of nature’s most significant barriers to even larger and stronger hurricanes.

A 1999 study revealed that over 100,000 acres of coastal marsh had been damaged by nutria. No one wants to rely on hurricanes to remove this threat, so Manno notes several means being utilized for reducing the herd.

Bounty hunters, wire mesh fencing around trees, zinc phosphide poison (very effective but toxic to the environment) have been resorted to, but most methods used for other pests, such as induced fertility, simply are ineffective with nutria.

So it appears that the nutria are here to munch for the time being, and Manno’s account of their introduction to our wetlands and their determination to destroy it is a surprisingly fascinating story, and one we would all do well to familiarize ourselves with before our beloved marsh becomes as extinct.

‘Swamp Rat: The Story of Dixie’s Nutria Invasion’

By: Theodore G. Manno

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi; 1 edition(May 31, 2017)