Is the Tabasco Family Responsible for an Infestation of Nutria?

Nutria were originally brought to North America to control unwanted vegetation. They were a little too good at it. Dan Dzurisin/Flickr

You may already know that the nutria infestation in Louisiana could easily spread across the country if climate change continues. But how did these pesky rodents get here in the first place?

Many place the blame on E.A. McIlhenny, the former company president of McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco Sauce. Some, like the hunting blog, have even gone so far as to call the nutria the "Tabasco Sauce rat":

The Nutria or Coypu (Myocastor coypus) was first brought to the United States from South America by the McIlhenny family, of Tabasco Sauce fame. Their idea was to start a fur farm on Avery Island, Louisiana. Unfortunately, in 1941 a hurricane blew in and wrecked the cages, releasing about 150 nutria into the local marshes.

Unfortunately, it appears these rumors are not true — at least not entirely.

According to the McIlhenny Company's own FAQ, E.A. McIlhenny was not the first person to import nutria into Louisiana (he was at least the third, they say), and he never imported them from abroad, instead purchasing them from an existing fur farm in New Orleans. But what about the hurricane?

The truth is that a hurricane did not rip through the fur farm, and the nutria were not "accidentally" released into the wild. It turns out that McIlhenny did it deliberately as an effort to bolster the wild fur trade. In his defense, he was not the only one to contemplate this bright idea:

"McIlhenny intentionally freed a large number of nutria into the South Louisiana wild to bolster the local fur industry. It is important to note that as early as 1930, the State of Louisiana had encouraged nutria farming among its citizens, and in the mid-1940s, the State announced its intention to release nutria into a state-managed wildlife area near the mouth of the Mississippi River."

Ultimately, whether or not a specific man long dead is to blame for an outbreak of invasive species is of little consequence to environmentalists today. What's more important are the lessons we can learn from the past.

Any time we mess with the natural ecology of a particular ecosystem, whether that's by releasing new species or by changing the conditions that existing species live in (like say, dramatically warming up the climate, for example), we are gambling with consequences that we can't predict.

Next time we have a bright idea to make nature "better," perhaps we should remember our history and reconsider.