A nutria is a semi-aquatic swamp rat with web feet, big orange fangs, lots of fur and weighs up to 30 lbs. (13 kilos).
These plant-eating rats are literally eating up the Louisiana coastline, munching through the wetlands, destroying all the vegetation that binds the soil together, leaving the earth to wash away. Nothing can grow back.
Although found worldwide, they are abundant in the American Gulf States and during the 1970s, there was an estimated population of 20 million nutrias in Louisiana, now culled down “to only a couple of million”.
The Cajuns who live in the wetlands are losing their soil and their livelihoods in this life-or-death struggle with the nutrias. Every mile of wetland reduces the storm surges by about a foot. As Louisiana loses its wetlands, damage from hurricanes reaches further inland.
Originally introduced from Argentina to the USA in the 1930s by the heir to the Tabasco fortunes as a cheaper alternative to farming muskrat fur, the nutrias escaped into the bayou during a hurricane (of course). They drove out all competitors; there is no natural predator (except alligators). Nutrias have a litter every three months; and with breasts on their backs can happily swim around the bayou carrying their children.
When activist animal rights groups brought the demand for fur down in the 1980s, the nutria trappers all left for the oil fields. Louisiana stopped hunting them, they bred out of control and increasingly destroyed the swamp. A Nutria Control Program ($5 a tail, no limit) was created and serious, well-equipped hunters are capable of making $1000 a day.
“If there’s one thing Hurricane Katrina taught us, it was having defective canals was not a good thing for human habitation”.
In New Orleans, the nutrias dig extensive burrows under the canals and when they hear each other digging, link their burrows up, creating a subterranean labyrinth. The canals start caving in.
Apart from eradication, two other strategies are used.
Revive the fur trade.
And eat them.
Not everyone in this documentary finds eating nutrias at all palatable. But, as proponents point out, they are extremely clean, lean animals that only eat roots and taste like something between rabbit and chicken. “Clean meat”.
One of New Orleans’ greatest contemporary trumpeters, Kermit Ruffins, calls himself “a master chef and I play music on the side”. He barbeques nutria at his jazz club in Treme. “We tell them it’s chicken and don’t tell them till the next day ‘[it’s nutria] in case they regurgitate.” Others have made nutria gumbo, nutria hot tamales and nutria sausage but resistance is still strong: “People just couldn’t get over eating something that looks like a large rat”.
And there are pets. Eric Demet keeps a very large one in his home: “She doesn’t know she’s a nutria. She doesn’t know what that is. She thinks she’s a dog…[nutrias] require a lot of maintenance and she doesn’t socialize with people she doesn’t know”. He carries his nutria around town in his arms or in a special cage on the back of his Harley Davidson. Demet is also a nutria hunter, killing thousands of them every year.
The resilience of the nutrias is hard to separate from the resilience of the Louisianans.
This short, charming documentary is briefly introduced by Louisiana actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme, above) and boasts a great Cajun score from the Lost Bayou Ramblers.
Barbequed cane toad, anyone? Or maybe as my dentist suggested, a Gucci bag from cane toad hide?