Neuty, the celebrity nutria, did not approve this message

Every winter Louisiana aims to kill 400,000 of the nutria gobbling up the vegetation that binds up what is left of the coastal wetlands.

Nutria love to sink their orange teeth into the roots of marshland grasses, while burrowing into levees and canal banks. They vie with feral hogs for the title of Louisiana's most destructive invasive species.

Nutria come from South America and are with us to stay; all we can hope for now is to reduce the enormous environmental and economic costs of the invasion. To this end, every time you kill a nutria, hand in its tail and the state Department of Wildlife and Fisheries will pay you $6.

Right, I wouldn't venture into the marshes to bag a swamp rat for such a puny sum either. But for the most adept of our hunters and trappers, nutria represent a very handy source of income.

Be careful though. If, through some ghastly error, you should dispatch the wrong nutria — and show up demanding $6 for Neuty's remains — you may never be readmitted to polite society.

Neuty is the pet name of an orphaned nutria that the state proposed to consign to a zoo, as the law demands, until he took the public's fancy and somehow became a symbol of individual freedom. His image has even been co-opted for political ads and mailers, with state Sen. Cameron Henry of Metairie taking credit for saving Neuty from the evil clutches of the Wildlife and Fisheries department.

"That's what common sense government is all about," Henry declares in a commercial, as Neuty quietly fidgets in his arms. 

No Louisiana critter is regarded with greater ambivalence than the nutria, which a generation ago was hunted along the suburban canal banks nightly by then-Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee and his SWAT team marksmen. Extermination was the name of the game and Lee could always be relied on to finish the evening with boatloads of carcasses and applause all around. 

But times have changed. Nowadays, the demise of Neuty would be the occasion for parishwide mourning. It speaks volumes that Lt Gov. Billy Nungesser, U.S. House Majority Leader Steve Scalise and Henry have all been pictured cuddling Neuty in the paper, for the politicians can always be trusted to know what will tug the public heartstrings. Neuty's is the most prized endorsement of all.

Beauty is said to be in the eye of the beholder, but bewhiskered rodents must surely be a minority taste. Altogether, as a threat to the environment, the economy and potentially the health of attention grabbing politicians, the nutria seemed unlikely to command the affection of the public until Neuty burst on the scene.

Back in the days of Lee's midnight patrols, it seemed inconceivable that anyone would have a kind word for the nutria, more properly known as coypu. In a campaign to reduce nutria depredations, we have been encouraged not just to hunt them but to eat them. Of course, nobody is keen to dine out on nutria and fries, so a title more redolent of haute cuisine was wheeled out. Hopes that we might attack nutria with more relish if it were called ragondin were soon dashed, however.

Although the hearts of animal rights groups bled for the despised nutria, nobody in those days could have foreseen the day when a Henry flier would feature a photo of Neuty as an infant. Politicians used to be content with kissing human babies.

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