Merced Life

Nutria rats are the stuff of nightmares

I consider myself a gentle lover of wildlife. I do not like to kill flies, literally, because who am I to determine the fate of a fly? The value of a fly’s life might be infinitely more significant to some superior being than we mere mortals might suspect, and it is certainly important to the fly, even if flies are incapable of conceiving thoughts such as “important” or “I think that newspaper hovering over my head means I am about to die.”

But notice that I said I do not like to kill flies, not that I never kill them. And in fact, my aversion to killing flies has only a little to do with the sanctity of life and much more to do with the feeling that a dead fly is kind of disgusting, and a dead fly on my kitchen counter, where I am most likely to kill a fly, is even a little nauseating. But kill flies I will, because, after all, a living fly is also pretty repulsive, especially when I find myself contemplating the possibility that the fly in my kitchen might only recently have been the fly in my bathroom.

However, though I will sometimes kill a fly, and will always kill a black widow when I encounter one, I draw the line at larger creatures. I cannot stomach the notion of trapping a mouse, rat, or gopher, partly because mice, rats, and gophers are mammals with brains, and though those brains are small, they are capable of registering pain and reacting to situations with panic. So, a spring trap is out, and a sticky trap is even worse because any rodent caught by one will suffer a slow, torturous death. I’d rather just ignore the uninvited furry mammals in my backyard. Let them plop out tiny turds in the storage shed, leap with abandon from the trees to my roof and back again, and excavate the grounds. I am happy as long as they do not aspire to a more familiar relationship. As neighbors, I can tolerate them, but I do not wish to invite them indoors.

My dogs and cats, however, are of a different mind. They frequently bring their rodent neighbors into our home, but they usually (though not always) kill them first. While this is not very hospitable, it is practical, since killing a mouse before laying it next to the couch in the middle of the night allows everyone to enjoy the visitor without having to chase it down. The hard part has already been done for us, courtesy of either our dogs Rufus and Lucy, or our cats Belle and Lily. I know that our Pyrenees, Monty, is not responsible for these visits, as Monty is not inclined to any activity requiring so much industry. If he is going to exert effort, he would much rather raid the pantry than go galumphing after a mouse. And who can blame him? Given a choice between sinking my teeth into a raw mouse or my Stone Ground Wheat Thins (about $4 a box!), I know I would opt for the crackers.

Rodents have been on my mind over the past week because I recently read about the spread of nutria rats in the Central Valley, and in Merced in particular. They are out there, and should one show up in my backyard, it is not out of the realm of possibility that it might eventually show up in my home, dead but nevertheless present. If nutria rats were just like other rats, I would not have more than the usual concern about accidentally stepping on a rodent carcass as I make my way to the bathroom in the early, dark morning hours. But nutria rats are not like regular rats. Nutria can weigh in a whopping twenty pounds. They are my nightmares come to life.

Since nutria rats are aquatic mammals, they are easily mistaken for beavers, until an observer takes notice of the tail. We all know that a beaver’s tail is quaintly shaped like a paddle, that it is short and makes a slapping sound in the water. But nutria tails are not so charming. They are just like a rat’s tail, only longer, and since the tail is the feature I most abhor about rats, this one detail alone will forever prevent me from feeling much sympathy for nutria, mammals though they may be.

But it is not the fault of the nutria species that it finds itself in Merced. Nutria, native to South America, were first brought to California is the late 1800s to augment the fur trade. Up until the 1940s or so, people enjoyed wearing dead rats affixed to collars around their necks or as chapeaux for a night on the town, but then the fondness for rodent wear went out of fashion, and nutria raised on fur farms were released into the wild. A lot of this happened in the southern part of the U.S., but it happened in California, too. Authorities responsible for our environment, such as the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, soon discovered that nutria rats were bad news, since they made their homes by burrowing into dikes and could eat up to five pounds of vegetation every day. Nutria are also enthusiastic breeders—females can have three litters a year, with as many as thirteen little nutria in a litter—which makes them great for the fur trade but not so great as an invasive species. So, state agencies worked hard to eradicate nutria in the wild, and thought they had done so until recently. Now they are back, and if one ends up on the foot of my bed, its tongue hanging out and flies buzzing about its nose, I will most likely have a strong reaction, though I cannot imagine what form that reaction might take.

But for now, I’m not too worried. I do not live near the wetlands, where nutria rats usually make their homes, though the other night someone pointed out to me that I am not so far from a canal, and a confused nutria rat could potentially mistake my pool for a pond. Suddenly, for a fleeting moment, an ordinary house rat did not seem like such an appalling creature to discover under a bed or kitchen table.

This is the first in a two-part series on nutria rats in Merced County.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.