At sunset I drove south, to Milwaukie, on the advice of a local naturalist who also issued a warning.
"There have been cases of the nutria getting aggressive and nipping people," says James Davis from the Metro Regional Council. "While feeding these giant water rats, people have run out of food, and they might just try to get a little nip on a finger or something."
Arming myself with a thick pair of knee-high socks, stout shoes, and a stout friend, I was sure to bring three slices of bread and two carrots to stave off these reportedly ravenous beasts. Unfortunately, we forgot a flashlight. Parking behind Milwaukie's Lending Library, we walked through a blanket of darkness to a bank beside a pond. We were completely, utterly blind. It was dead silent. What I didn't know was that we were already surrounded....
Nutria were first introduced to Louisiana from Argentina by fur peddlers in the 1930s. The 20-pound semi-aquatic rodents are bigger than a cat when full grown, and are known, like rats, for their prolific breeding. An estimated 20 million animals bred in Louisiana within two decades, and the animals were brought to Oregon by scammers, according to Davis.
"In the 1950s the so-called 'Nutria Breeding Association' started advocating this get-rich-quick scam, charging $1,000 a pair to breed them for fur," he says. "Nutria ranches were established in California and Oregon, but the market never took off and the animals were either killed or they escaped."
Portland is now infested with the critters. They can be found in huge numbers in the lower Columbia and Willamette Rivers, as well as along the Springwater Trail around SE 110th, and in large numbers, sometimes even by daylight, at the Eastmoreland Golf Course in Southeast Portland. The state of Louisiana has tried to market nutria meat as a way to boost its economy, but with little success, and Portlanders are by and large oblivious to nutria's protein potential. Davis has tried some, though.
"As you'd expect, it tastes like chicken," he says. "A lot like the thigh of a chicken because it's dark meat. But the one I ate—even though it had been fed grain—had this musky, detritus-type taste to it."
As we approached the pond, I began clucking through my teeth like a grandmother calling her cats. My friend and I tore off pieces of bread and carrots and dropped them by our feet. In the pitch dark, it was impossible to tell whether any nutria were around. All I could hear was the gentle lapping of the pond on its banks, and the occasional quacking duck.
I took out my camera and shot it, blind, into the ground. Bringing the LCD viewer to my eyes, I gasped. Three giant animals, the size of pit bulls, were gnawing at our bait. I stepped backward, into another. With a piercing guttural scream, the beast fled. I got out my cell phone, opened it, and realized in the neon half-light that we were surrounded by what looked like a dozen enormous rats. We were out of food, and one of them began hissing at me. Its clawed feet scratching the earth, the nutria began advancing as one—not intimidated in the least. I shrieked. I ran. My friend ran, too.
Tires squealing, we sped from the parking lot and didn't slow down until we reached Portland city limits. I swore to never return. Hipsters may rule the city, but nutria rule Milwaukie.