I was in France recently, in the province of Alsace, visiting a dear friend. It was absolutely beautiful there: the mountains, the vineyards, the sun! During my visit, we went to a Reintroduction Centre. Alsace is known for their population of storks (they’re everywhere; roosting on churches, swooping over villages, chilling on the side of the road), but in the 60’s their numbers were dwindling until only two breeding pairs were left! The centre was set up in 1976 with the intention of breeding and reintroducing storks back into Alsace. And thus far, they have been very successful 🙂 (Check out their website here if you’re interested in learning more).
Anyway, at the centre I saw quite a few animals. Plenty of elegant storks (their chicks are really ugly though, in case you were wondering), playful otters, fast, fish catching cormorants, and a whole family of adorable coypus (aka river rats or nutrias).
First and foremost, coypus are super cute! It was pretty much love at first sight to be honest. Seeing them swim around, nuzzle each other, devour carrot slices with their ridiculously large buck teeth, and happily play with leaves that had fallen into the water filled me with a lot of joy – I could have watched them all day.
Coypus are rodents, originally native to South America. They look very similar to beavers, except they have tails that closely resemble that of rats (hence the name, river rat) rather than the characteristic flat tail of the beaver. They come in a whole range of different colours. At the centre I saw black ones, bright white ones, and (my personal favourite) nutty brown ones. Their back feet are webbed, like a duck, to allow them to swim more easily in the water. Their front incisors are usually bright orange, although the coypus at the centre had teeth of a slightly muted yellow colour.
Even though the coypu is originally from South America, it has since been introduced to North America, Europe, Asia, and Africa, initially because of the growing demand of coypu fur in the fur trade (apparently, coypu fur farms were good business). However, some coypus escaped these fur farms, and thanks to their incredibly fast breeding rate (gestation is only 130 days, they can have up to 13 offspring at a time, and they are ready to breed again the day after giving birth!), coypus have become a bit of a pest.
Their large numbers means that they require a lot of living space (they live in burrows alongside stretches of water – usually freshwater marshes) and a lot of food (their main diet consists of river plant stems). Because of this, coypus have caused massive damage to aquatic vegetation, marshes, river banks, and irrigation systems, as well as caused the displacement of native water based animals. Coypus are also notorious for destroying man-made items such as tires and wooden house panelling. Finally, as if all that wasn’t enough, coypus are also a host for nematode parasite that can infect humans, causing dermatitis (inflammation, itching) of the skin in a condition known as “nutria itch” (seriously, it’s actually called that, I’m not making it up!).
In order to control their growing population, culling programmes have been initiated, particularly in North America. Even though I recognise the damage that coypus have caused to the native wildlife and habitat areas, it’s still a bit disappointing to know that people are encouraged to kill a coypu if they see one, considering that they were initially introduced to these countries due to selfish human reasons in the first place (the fur trade).
Coypus are definitely curious creatures. Their webbed feet, bright orange teeth, and crazy breeding practices make them rodents to be reckoned with. Plus, don’t know if I mentioned it already or not, they’re so cute!