Yesterday we were walking through town and stopped on a bridge in the centre of Canelli to look down on the birds along the river.
We were watching the ducks and seagulls sunning themselves when suddenly Stu went quiet.
I assumed he was in a state of bliss, the sun warm on his back and the river flowing gently below him.
Oblivious, I continued to rant on about the ducks. I wondered which ones had been to visit us in our valley recently. I wondered where they went in winter. I wondered at their laziness and simplicity.
Then I heard Stu gasp.
I looked over at him, wondering now why he would gasp at my rantings.
'What's wrong?', I asked.
'Can't you see THOSE things?', he said, pointing to the banks of the river.
I followed his finger.
Now it was my turn to make a noise.
There playing gleefully in the river was a pack of giant rats!
These things were very long and massively fat. They had webbed feet and rats tails. They looked like giant wombats. Call us sheltered or ignorant Australians but we'd never seen anything like them before.
We were about 80% through the 'freaking' stage and 50% through the 'preparing to sell' stage when I became so desperate that I accosted a lady who was passing on a pushbike. I blurted my demand : What WAS this animal?
She confirmed that it was from the rat family. She kept talking, clearly telling us everything about this creature. Unfortunately, my knowledge of Italian didn't stretch far enough to understand much of what she said. So in the end I simply asked her if it was 'good or not good'. She shrugged her shoulders and dropped the sides of her mouth in thought (the way Italians do) then announced that it was 'good'.
Stu and I thanked her then walked back to the car in silence. Why would she say they were 'good'. Surely no rat, especially one that big, could be good. Hadn't they had giant rats in Europe in the middle ages? Hadn't these rats been responsible for the plague?
We had visions of these rodents invading our valley, perhaps even our septic, bringing the plague to us.
We rushed home, dashed upstairs, fell onto our PCs and signed onto internet.
Neither of us spoke. We would occasionally glance out the window lest we missed the hoards of giant rats that would soon penetrate our valley.
Stu looked up 'giant rat' while I looked up '*rat*water*webbed feet*Europe*'.
My search took me to sites that told me way too much about the various rat families. Did you know that there are 5 Suborders, 4 Superfamilies, 2 Infraorders, 1 Parvorder and a total of 34 Families of the little blighters!?
Anyway, I eventually got to the rat family 'Myocastoridae' and there I found our giant rat!
It turns out that our horrible man-rotting sewer-dwelling animal is actually a Nutria, which is a sort of otter or beaver that has historically been slaughtered for its fur. It lives in burrows along waterways and feeds on plants.
'Good', I guess...