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When you're getting a haircut, and the barber starts talking about a creature that's 'half rat,' you usually say to yourself, 'Uh-oh. Here come the politician stories.'

But Nancy Schumacher, owner of a place called 'Schumacher A Tonsorial Parlor,' at 426 S.W. Broadway, was describing her waterfront encounter with a nutria. Did I know what that was? No. Frankly, I was still struggling with the phrase 'tonsorial parlor.'

The nutria is a beaver-like beast from South America that was introduced here in the 1890s for its fur. It has webbed feet, a rat tail, and grows to be about 2 feet long.

Anytime a description of an animal involves the term 'half rat' you know you're not going to win over the public. Nutria won't be getting their own show on the Discovery Channel anytime soon. Those perks always go to the lions. They're on so much that they should have an agent. So what do the nutria get?

I decided to take the matter to Oregon Zoo Director Tony Vecchio. As a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, he sits on the executive committee of something called the Rodent Advisory Group.

Half-rat beavers don't need agents, but if they did our zoo director would be a great choice. Vecchio is a huge fan of all rodents. He went on and on about how successful the 2,000 different kinds of rodents are. Did you know that they make up half of all mammals? He had the tone of a grandparent talking about his grandkids.

I asked about the nutria downside. Vecchio acknowledged the environmental damage they've caused locally Ñ invading wetlands and destroying a lot of the native plants Ñ but he said, 'For aesthetics, I think they're as appealing as any rodent.' Then he added a poignant plea: 'Don't hold the bad things that nutria have done against all rodents.'

So what good are the rat-beavers? I asked him if they were on display at the zoo. Of course not. Real beavers landed that gig. Nutria didn't rate high enough on the public-appeal chart.

Are they a potential food source for other creatures? To this, Vecchio responded with way too much information: 'I've eaten rodents before, and they are tastier than you would think.' But then he added, 'I've never eaten nutria.' And, no, he hasn't eaten a rat, either.

'Down in Louisiana, where they were first introduced Ñ there are a lot of happy alligators,' he said. 'We don't have alligators, so I don't think anyone's happy to see the nutria here.'

That might not be entirely true. There are Web sites where pictures of them are lovingly displayed. In one, they frolic in streams near the Beaverton Transit Center.

I asked Nancy Schumacher, the barber, what she thought of the misplaced critters. She didn't seem overly thrilled, but she was more puzzled by the name: 'It sounds like something you'd use to lose weight Ñ a diet aid.' Even Vecchio thought that the name sounded like something 'on a drugstore shelf.'

So what we have here is a creature from South America that looks like a cloning experiment gone bad and sounds like a weight loss program.

But let's be fair. If all you had to eat were nutria, I bet you would lose weight.

Bill McDonald is a Portland writer and musician.