Don’t feed the nutrias

The cute orange-toothed rodents have been expanding geometrically

People over social media have increasingly been asking about orange-toothed furry critters that they have been encountering in parks and along the waterfront. They are nutrias or coypus, and ecologists say they are a natural disaster since they are not native to Europe and have no enemies in the wild.

City forestry company Lesy hl. m. Prahy spokeswoman Petra Fišerová said the mild recent winters have not improved the situation, and since the animals have had no lack of food year round they have been expanding their numbers geometrically.

The city forestry service, which oversees wildlife, is attempting to capture the large, herbivorous, semiaquatic rodents to relocate them to zoo corners and other locations where they can live out their lives but not interfere with the natural ecology of the waterfront.

Nutrias can eat so much vegetation that the soil becomes unprotected and this leads to erosion of the river banks. It also robs other animals of vegetation used for protective cover, nests and food.

Urban areas with lots of natural waterways make ideal habitats for nutrias. One place where they have become a problem is Thomayerovy sady, where the Vltava river joins the Rokytka stream in Prague 8–Libeň and also at Podolí. They are not limited to those areas and can even be seen in the waters around Charles Bridge.

People have also been feeding the animals, who look cute and friendly. Ecologists warn people, though, that they can carry disease.

The nutria can carry the bacterial disease leptospirosis. Symptoms range from headaches and fevers to bleeding lungs and kidney failure. They also carry parasites that can cause skin disease referred to as nutria itch.

Nutria come from South America and were imported to Europe to make fur and for meat, though attempts to promote the animal for its meat in Europe have never seldom been successful. The animals would either escape captivity or be set free by investors once they determined the market for fur and meat had been greatly overestimated.

They were introduced to the UK in 1929, but a large eradication effort has all but extirpated them with few sightings after 1989.

Nutria made it to Continental Europe in the 1930s and were in Czechoslovakia by the 1950s.

The meat from nutria, however, has caught on in some parts of the former Soviet Union such as Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and has been hailed by foodies and hipsters in Moscow as a locally bred and sustainable delicacy that is lean and low in cholesterol, with the flavor similar to turkey and pork.

Across most of the world except for South America, nutrias are considered an invasive species. They are not classified as threatened or endangered but are in the least concern category.

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