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Louisiana backs off, lets family keep invasive rodent as a pet

After initially attempting to seize Neuty, a 22-pound nutria, officials will allow the animal to remain with his adoptive family

Myra and Denny Lacoste, who's holding their pet nutria, Neuty, on the right. (Courtesy of Myra and Denny Lacoste)
6 min

Denny and Myra Lacoste told a Louisiana newspaper reporter last week all about their pet rodent, Neuty, whom they’d rescued two years before. The animal, a nutria, had since become a part of their family and something of a local celebrity.

The 22-pound “water rat” liked to stick his head out of Denny’s pickup truck like a beagle, they told the Times-Picayune. He ate a mostly vegetarian diet but sometimes got Popeye’s fried chicken as a treat. He had been declared the official mascot of Bayou 95.7, a New Orleans rock-and-roll radio station.

On Thursday, a day after the story ran, officials with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries showed up at the Lacostes’ seafood business in Metairie, La., a New Orleans suburb. Wildlife agents told them that state law prohibits people from owning nutria, a semiaquatic rodent that, according to the department, “has caused considerable damage to the state’s coastline, crops and marshes.” They had come to seize the animal, which is considered an invasive species in Louisiana.

Although Neuty wasn’t there — the Lacostes’ son had taken him out — the agents said they’d be back.

The threat of losing their pet put in motion a 33-hour scramble to keep Neuty, one that would involve lawyers and thousands of Neuty fans demanding that state officials back off. It worked. A day after citing the Lacostes and demanding they fork over Neuty, wildlife officials issued them a special permit, allowing them to keep him so long as they obey certain provisions.

“I think this is a good conclusion for all sides,” Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Secretary Jack Montoucet said Friday in a statement.

The Lacostes adopted Neuty in December 2020. That month, Denny was driving next to a canal on his way to work. Up ahead, Denny spotted roadkill, stopped, got out and discovered a mother nutria and several of her offspring had been crushed to death. But he also found a survivor, crying. He scooped it up and took it home, where his wife used a syringe to feed the orphan some cat’s milk.

Over the next two years, life was good for Neuty. His paw that had been run over and crushed when he lost his family finally healed. He took dips in the Lacostes’ swimming pool. He became a part of the family, joining their dogs Shelley, a 13-year-old chihuahua-dachshund mix, and Moose, a 5-year-old English golden retriever.

“He thinks he’s them. He sits up on his two hind legs for treats just like dogs do,” Myra said in an interview.

In July, he became the official mascot for the radio station. Leaning into Neuty’s growing fame, Myra created a TikTok account in December and posted videos of Neuty swimming in the pool, sporting a Mardi Gras hat, and scarfing a bedtime snack of apples, kiwis, cucumbers, corn on the cob and Cookie Crisp cereal.

Owning a nutria hasn’t been free of challenges. About a year ago, Myra went to start her Mercedes, only to have the car’s sensors go berserk. After towing it to a shop, a mechanic told her that a rodent had chewed through the wiring. The cost to fix it: $1,400.

Myra turned to Neuty.

“I said, ‘That’s it, you’re going back to the canal,’” she joked.

When wildlife officials showed up at the seafood shop looking for him on Thursday, Denny told them that, although the rodent often accompanied him to work, he wasn’t there at the moment. Denny tried calling his son but couldn’t get him to pick up. Before leaving empty-handed, the agents cited the family for having a wild animal without a permit.

Native to South America and imported to Louisiana for their fur, nutrias have been proliferating near the state’s coastal waterways for nearly a century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. When the fur trade collapsed in the 1940s, thousands of nutrias got loose or were set free. Their numbers exploded, and for decades, they’ve burrowed under levees, dams and ditches, weakening and at times destroying parts of the state’s flood-control system. The escalating damage led the state in 2002 to create a bounty program to encourage hunters and trappers to kill up to 400,000 each year.

On Thursday evening, the wildlife agents tried again to seize Neuty, this time showing up at the family’s home, the Lacostes said. Denny and Myra told the agents they still didn’t have Neuty or know where their son was. Although the agents once more left without the nutria, the Lacostes expected them to return the next day.

“I almost couldn’t stop crying because I just knew I was going to lose this pet. I just knew that they’re going to take him. We’re never going to see him again. We were just devastated,” Myra said.

When the Lacostes got to the seafood shop at 7 the next morning, their lawyer was waiting. And when the wildlife agents showed up at 8:15, the lawyer spoke with them. The agents left, saying they would get warrants, the Lacostes said.

Word about the battle over Neuty got out. On Friday, someone started a petition on to keep him from being “ripped away from the only family he knows.” Within hours, 17,400 people had signed it.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing the Lacostes talked about finding a compromise with department officials. When all was said and done, the state relented, offering to issue the Lacostes a special permit to keep Neuty. In exchange, the family promised to take him to the vet regularly and agreed to build a department-approved enclosure behind the seafood shop where Neuty must remain for the entire workday. And employees and customers are banned from touching him.

The Lacostes are happy to comply because it means they get to keep Neuty. But, they added, officials have asked them to warn people that owning a nutria is a lot of work.

“He’s sweet as can be. He loves us to death,” Myra said, “but we’re not trying to promote —”

Denny jumped in with a more direct message.

“We’ll never have another one.”