NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A Louisiana couple has run afoul of state law by keeping a 22-pound nutria -- a beady-eyed, orange-toothed, rat-tailed rodent commonly considered a wetlands-damaging pest -- as a pet that frolics with their dog, snuggles in their arms and swims in the family pool.
Denny and Myra Lacoste tell New Orleans news outlets they are devastated at the potential loss of "Neuty," a pet they say they raised from infancy when its siblings were killed in traffic. The move by state Wildlife and Fisheries officials, who say it's illegal to keep an orphaned or injured wild animal as a pet, has sparked a petition drive by those who want him to stay with the humans who raised him.
The state Wildlife Department says the plan is to house Neuty at the Baton Rouge Zoo. But it's unclear when that will happen. A statement from the department Friday said officials had gone to remove the pet from the Lacoste's New Orleans-area residence Thursday.
“The nutria was not at the residence when agents arrived,” the department said. “The matter is still ongoing.”
Nutria were introduced into North America more than a century ago, and they are considered a nuisance invasive species in Louisiana. Their appetite for wetlands vegetation and their burrowing into levees hinder flood control, harm agriculture and contribute to coastal wetlands loss. At various times public officials have put bounties on them and encouraged hunting of them for their pelts and even for food.
They are sometimes derided as “nutria rats.” Yet they have also become such a familiar part of Louisiana landscape and lore that a New Orleans minor league baseball team once employed actors in costume as larger-than life caricatures of the creatures as mascots — Boudreaux and Clotilde.
Neuty was tiny when Denny Lacoste, who runs a family seafood restaurant, rescued him from a road near a canal more than two years ago. Lacoste told New Orleans news outlets that the infant animal's siblings had been killed by traffic.
Now, the animal is a social media star, featured in TikTok videos and seen in a New Orleans Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate video being held lovingly by Denny Lacoste, scampering across a floor with a towel and chomping down on a raw crawfish. Lacoste told the newspaper that Neuty even likes to ride in the car with his head out the window.
The Baton Rouge Zoo said it was ready to give Neuty a home in an area with another male nutria. “In most cases the animal would have been placed back into the wild. However, LDWF biologists and Zoo officials said that since the animal has been habituated to humans, it would not be able to survive in the wild,” the wildlife department said.