By now, anyone following environmental news recognizes Louisiana as one of the front lines for climate change in the United States. In recent years, writers from the state have famously wondered out loud about whether the boot shape we all learned in elementary school fits anymore, and residents of a small community in Isle de Jean Charles made headlines in 2015-2016 by becoming the first “climate refugees” in the country. Between flooding and the various forces pushing coastal erosion, the town quite literally lost 98 percent of its physical land in the 60 years between 1955 and 2015, forcing a concerted relocation effort.
The causes of this crisis are complex, numerous, and varied—but only one contributor kinda, sorta resembles a real-life Raticate. The large swamp rats known as nutria don’t look anything like the small mice you might take home from a pet store. Larger than small dogs and sporting giant orange teeth capable of doing some damage, most people wouldn’t want to mess with one in close quarters. But many in modern Louisiana don’t have a choice these days, which is where Rodents of an Unusual Size—a documentary making its TV debut on PBS’ Independent Lens on Monday, January 14—comes in.
Know the nutria
Back in the early 20th century long before environmental changes imminently threatened the state’s natural resources, Louisiana still needed more industry. So businessmen like EA McIlhenny (of the Tabasco family, yes) had an idea. Argentina has this abundance of these large, furry creatures called nutria, what if we acquired some?
The concept seemed solid: raise ‘em on a fur farm, skin ‘em for the pelts, and then export hats, jackets, and other fine furs to make a pretty penny. And for a long time, the scheme worked—even Sophia Loren once wore nutria, and the industry for Louisiana trappers peaked around $15 million in annual revenue. But as animal rights became more of a mainstream concept, the popularity of fur drastically decreased. Suddenly, folks in Southern Louisiana didn’t have the same motivation, and nutria quietly built out a larger population within their new habitat.
This, to put it lightly, had consequences. In the ’70s and ’80s when the fur game started drying up, Rodents of an Unusual Size estimates 25 million invasive nutria occupied Southern Louisiana. Unfortunately, the rats tend to devastate their immediate environment, eating anything green in sight and uprooting plants in the process, which makes a plot of land more at risk to the natural forces of coastal erosion. When combined over time with things like trying to canal the Mississippi and dredging land for the oil and gas industry, it becomes easy to see where the nutria fit in within the larger pending-environmental disaster puzzle.
Rodents of an Unusual Size gets through this history as swiftly as a fanboat in order to focus on the now—since recognizing the dilemma, how has the state and the people of Louisiana approached a problem like nutria? The most effective (or at least most documented here) tactic seems to simply be reinstating a financial incentive. In 2002, Louisiana Wildlife & Fisheries instituted a bounty—just on nutria tails, even, so those wanting to utilize the meat or pelts could still double their profits.
There’s impetus to do it for a livable wage—at $5/pelt and the ability to (in good times at least) snag 1,200 or so pelts in a week, the money can be significant despite the tough work—but everyone seems to recognize a greater cause in play as well. “When I grew up this was a jungle, nothing but big oak trees,” says older nutria hunter Thomas Gonzales, who’s lived in Delacroix his entire life (the nutria only came to Delacroix in the 1950s by his account). “When I look out now it looks like a disaster. The nutria took over, and they’re going to destroy the land, so we gotta keep fighting ‘em.”
Today all types of Louisianans get involved, and this documentary sings by simply tagging along with a variety of hunters in order to showcase each one’s distinct motivation and approach. Viewers spend time with the elderly and the youth, men and women, entire families, locals of all different racial and ethnic identities including those belonging to nearby Native American tribes. “This is pretty much one of the best college jobs you can do, coming out here is like seeing dollar signs on the land,” says college student Trey Hover. “Each one I kill gets me closer and closer to paying for school.”
And by this point, the nutria have expanded far beyond the immediate coast. Rodents of an Unusual Size rides along with animal control specialists who take to the heart of New Orleans and battle these creatures within the city’s canals and sewer system, for instance. One constantly on call expert estimates in a two-mile stretch of canal these days, you’re likely to find at least 300 nutria, which means infrastructure faces more risk via burrowing and humans may have to deal with them showing up at home. “I remember calls to get nutria out of toilets,” the control expert says. “Canal drainage leads to sewer, which leads to toilet. So there’s going to be more human versus nutria conflict.”
Listing image by Tilapia Films
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