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Gambian pouched rat menaces Keys

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US authorites have just begun the final phase of a two-year offensive to eliminate the non-native Gambian pouched rat from the Florida Keys, Reuters reports.

The cat-sized rodent has for the last eight years been breeding in Grassy Key, 60 miles north of Key West, after an exotic pet breeder "allowed the critters to escape". Officials fear they might do a cane toad and spread across Florida, threatening crops and indigenous wildlife.

The US has now banned importation of Gambian pouched rats, amid concerns they may be a vector for monkey-pox, "similar to but milder to humans than smallpox", after the disease was "linked to Gambian rat contact with prairie dogs in the US Midwest".

Gary Witmer, a biologist with the US Department of Agriculture's National Wildlife Research Centre in Fort Collins, Colorado, explained: "They don't belong here and they need to be controlled. They could cause a lot of damage. They're a big rodent. They're not particularly attractive. I don't understand why anyone would want them as a pet. They're very messy animals."

According to Reuters' description of the beast, Witmer's right. The Gambian pouched rat weighs in at 6-9lbs (2.7-4 kg), and boasts "large ears, black, beady eyes, hamster-like pouched facial cheeks, sharp teeth and distinctive long, stringy and white-marked tails".

Wildlife officials have now begun to bait 1,000 rat-busting traps with peanut butter, almond extract, anise, and less appetising toxic zinc phosphide, hoping the animals will take a final meal and crawl off into their burrows to die.

But while Florida may soon be free of the Gambian pouched rat menace, it has other threats to face. In mid-April, officials captured an 8-foot (2.4-metre) Burmese python in a Key Largo state park, which had dined on two of around 500 remaining Key Largo wood rats - an endangered species. ®

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