On the southern edge of Louisiana, there is almost as much water as land. You can't drive to anyone's house, you have to travel by boat, and sometimes there are hours of water between neighbors. It takes a special breed to make a home here, in the swamp, amongst the mosquitos and almost annual hurricanes. But those who do call it home, love it. They see a magical space of strange stillness and subtle rippling greens and grays where time worries no one and the freedom of the water is at your doorstep.
But this Huck Finn way of life is being attacked on multiple fronts. Climate change's stronger storms are beating away at the fragile coastline, and the oil and gas industries are scarring the skyline while luring younger generations away from the local farming and fishing way of life. As if that weren't enough, 20-pound, semi-aquatic rodents, called nutria, which are native to Argentina, are taking over the marshes, devouring the native plants that hold the soil in place, and causing massive coastal erosion. Chris Metzier, an independent documentary filmmaker, has spent months in these swamps on the front lines of this battle, filming his upcoming documentary Rodents of Unusual Size. He sat down with me recently to talk about nutria and the interesting people who are fighting them to save their way of life.
TakePart: How would you describe nutria, and how did they end up in Louisiana?
Chris Metzier: Nutria are something like a cross between a beaver and a New York sewer rat. They were first brought to Louisiana in the 1930s in order to be farmed for their fur, which was growing in popularity. No one knows exactly how they escaped into the wild. Maybe someone let them go when the fur industry was failing, or perhaps it was the work of a hurricane that tore apart a barn they were being kept in. One way or another, they escaped into the swamps and have just gone crazy. This part of Louisiana is just like a big playground for them. And they can breed within months of being born and have multiple litters a year. There are now about five million nutria in this part of Louisiana. There are nutria in other parts of the country, as well, but nowhere have they made themselves quite so much at home as in Louisiana. That's great for nutria, I guess, but they eat everything that grows, and without plants holding the soil in place, it is eroding away at record speeds—about 40 square miles per year, for several decades now.
What kind of steps have been taken to try and control nutria?
Well, a campaign was started a while back to try and get people to eat them. They had celebrity chefs come up with gourmet nutria dishes and everything. And they really don't taste bad; I've had nutria slim jims and jambalaya, and it's quite tasty. I think people would like it if they didn't know it was a swamp rat. But tell them that, and there's no way they are going to finish their dinner. So that program failed, and now in the last six years or so, there has been a program in place that offers trappers five dollars for every nutria tail they bring in. It's decent money for farmers or fishermen, who only have seasonal income and, for now at least, it is keeping the population somewhat in check.
How is the nutria fur industry faring?
The nutria fur industry has stuck around over the years, specifically for exporting to other countries. It's very small compared to what it was before. But a group of young people have now come together, saying they know that people haven't liked fur recently, because they see it as cruel to animals or just don't think it's fashionable. So they are trying to reframe the debate in terms of nutria fur. This is a sustainable way to get fur; these animals are already being killed because they are an invasive species. This fur was prized in the past, so can we come up with desirable pieces of fashion and get people to wear them? Some of the world's top-end designers have embraced it. Nutria has been worn on the catwalks of Milan, Paris, and New York. This group of artists and designers in Louisiana are trying to get the message out that some fur can be environmentally friendly and beneficial to the ecosystem it comes from. It's really taken off in Brooklyn, where people want to wear fur but don't want to feel guilty doing it. This is a way to reuse the rest of the animal that is already being killed to save the wetlands.
Do you have a favorite character from your time down in the swamps?
Absolutely. The place is busting at the seams with interesting people, so it's always hard to pick one. But, there's a gentleman named Thomas we spent hours talking to. He is someone who has lived such a strange and interesting life, and so thoughtful and warm that he leaps off the screen at you. He has such a melodic way of talking, you just want to hear the stories he tells. Whether it's surviving a hurricane in the '50s that killed 18 of his friends and family or the pet albino nutria he had for several years that he would walk around on a leash. He is a guy that gets stir crazy inside and is all about being outside; he is so intertwined as a person with the land around him. People in this area are so aware of life and death, they know that you just gotta seize it as much as possible and live a vibrant, but respectful life.
Do you address climate change as you tell the story?
Climate change will definitely be discussed. Many people are very conservative in this region, but also quite libertarian. People take facts for facts and they see climate change around them. While they might not be activists in protests, they understand it better than most. The two things that southern Louisiana depends on are farming and fishing, and the petroleum industry. A lot of young people leave communities to go work on the rigs because it provides so much more money than conventional careers in the area. But it is the fossil fuel industry that exacerbates the local environmental issues. Maybe this part of Louisiana could have made it even with all the nutria if not for climate change. The two together…I just don't know how these people who love their home so much are going to go on living here.
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Joanna M. Foster writes about the environment and energy for the New York Times, Popular Science and OnEarth Magazine among others. She has traveled extensively in Africa and India and is passionate about conservation and development issues, especially as they are impacted by climate change. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, but dreams of Kenya.