How will PC New Englanders react to seeing nutria gunned down by hunters, and some bashed on their heads to make sure they are dead?
By Gerald Peary
Hail savvy Edmund McIlhenny who, in the 1860s, invented Tabasco sauce in Louisiana. Fie on his idiot grandson who, in the 1930s, imported to Louisiana from Argentina a bevy of bizarre rodents called nutria, which he planned to hold in captivity and kill for their furs. They were to be a low-end alternative to mink. But the cunning nutria escaped from their cages and scooted away into the Louisiana swamps. And multiplied. And multiplied. For females, a litter every three months was doable, with oodles of toddler nutria each and every time.
In their glory decades, fairly recently, 20 million nutria ran wild in the bayous of Louisiana.
Did I mention that nutria grow to 20 pounds? And that they have webbed feet and immense sharp teeth? And that they look like behemoth rats? Scary! Creepy! It took three documentarians—Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer—to find a way to recount their bizarre story. But recount it they do, mighty entertainingly, in Rodents of Unusual Size. This winning “stranger than fiction” non-fiction feature plays this Wednesday, September 19, at Arlington’s Regent Theater with the filmmakers, Metzler and Springer, present.
Let’s say it. Maybe fifty nutria were harmed—murdered!—in the making of Rodents. How will PC New Englanders react to seeing nutria gunned down by hunters, and some bashed on their heads to make sure they are dead? And other nutria caught and killed in unfriendly traps?
That sounds really terrible, and it is. And yet. And yet. The undeniable fact is that nutria are, like kudzu, a scourge of the earth, an astoundingly potent spoiler of the eco-system. Nutria are vegetarians, hungry ones, and they chew through anything in their way, marching into a thickly verdant area and, as someone says in the film, “cleaning it like a baseball field.” They are destroyers of coastal wetlands, making hurricanes far deadlier when they hit the mainland.
Seemingly there was a time when myriad nutria meant a worthwhile payday for hunters, because they could sell the furs for decent money. Even Sophia Loren was seen modeling a stylish nutria coat. But, as the movie reminds us, the bottom fell out of the fur market in the ’80s. Animal rights activists were successful in their campaign to get people to stop buying mink stoles and other animal furs. What that meant was that hunters in Louisiana went their way, leaving nutria alone. This non-endangered species then grew and grew, devastating Southern Louisiana, even crawling, and swimming, into New Orleans.
So here’s what’s happened in recent years: The Department of Wildlife and Fisheries has entered the arena and offers a bounty for the killing of nutria. Bring in a nutria tail and you get $5. A lot of Rodents follows various colorful backwoods folk offering up tangy Southern stories and rifling nutria. They cut the tails off the carcasses and bring in buckets of tails into town, where the government man counts them and pays them on the spot. It’s a rather grotesque business exchange, but it surely puts people who might be unemployed to work—nutria socialism? The estimate now is that only a million nutria scurry free in Louisiana in place of the wrath-of-god twenty million. Still too many for comfort. (Meanwhile, nutria have spread to other countries, including France and South Korea.)
But what about those dead nutria bodies lying about? Well, some people use them for recreation. There are nutria skinning contests, including ladies’ renditions. And, curiously, nutria furs are being rediscovered. A group of yuppie women in New Orleans are turning them into high fashion items; it’s hard to register a complaint given that these furs would rot in nature otherwise. And they really are lovely when properly treated, though they look like scurvy on the living animal.
And then there’s the obvious use: why not eat them? Vegetarians, nutria are, on the inside, clean animals. Rodents focuses on an African-American jazz musician in New Orleans who is also an amateur chef. Watch him dab a 20-lb nutria carcass in barbecue sauce and cook it up in his special stove. Yum? This critic draws the line. I who have eaten snake soup and pickled pig lips and lamb brains gag at the thought of smoked nutria bouncing around in my stomach. YUCK!
Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. He is currently at work co-directing with Amy Geller a feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West.