‘The good Lord couldn’t get rid of them’: Louisiana’s quest to hunt the swamp rat

A new documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size, follows the hunters waging war against an invasive species that put New York City sewer rats to shame

There are no medals to be earned for the hunters who are fighting the swamp rat takeover of southern Louisiana. Instead, their reward after waging a successful battle against the 20lb, orange-toothed critters is $5 for each severed 12-18in tail they collect.

Louisianas government collects the tails as proof of a kill and gives a cash payout to incentivize citizens to help the states efforts to rein in the swamp rats, known as nutria, whose grazing has accelerated coastal erosion of land already vulnerable to hurricanes.

Nutria,
Nutria, also known as a swamp rat, is a semi-aquatic rodent. Photograph: deVille Photography

With the loss of that land, so goes a way of life for the people who live in the southern Louisiana swamps, where the documentarian Chris Metzler and his fellow film-makers embedded for the film Rodents of Unusual Size.

You see a nutria and next thing you know, theres not one of them, theres 100 of them, Metzler told the Guardian. They put New York City sewer rats to shame.

Nutria were introduced to the region by fur traders, but when the fur industry crashed in the 1980s, so did the system for population control of swamp rats. The animals, which breed rapidly, took over the coastal wetlands, burrowing in marshes and swamps, and even levees and canals where their grazing can seriously damage the structures.

Though the species is invasive, its also admired. One man in the film has a nutria pet and others participate in nutria skinning competitions. A Louisiana minor league baseball team, Baby Cakes, has a nutria mascot and the winner of the local fur festival adorns herself in a coat of the wild animals fur. You would not expect a rat to be elegant, yet here we are and half us wear it every single day, explains Haleigh Willis, fur queen.

Nutria
Nutria tail assessor John Siemion submits the necessary information to the state so that the hunters and trappers can redeem their $5 per tail bounty. Photograph: Gabrielle Savoy

For about four years, Metzler and his fellow documentarians Jeff Springer and Quinn Costello traveled to southern Louisiana, primarily during the November-to-April hunting season. They stomped through the marshes and dined on nutria. We were able to get over the ick factor because Louisianans know how to cook, Metzler said.

That taste test was inspired by the state wilderness departments Nutria for Human Consumption Campaign, an initiative formed in response to the overabundance of nutria. It saw celebrated chefs, including the James Beard award winner Susan Spicer, prepare the rat in barbecue, jambalaya and jerky meals.

In the film, Spicer insists the rodent does not have a swampy taste. With rabbit, there is a stigma they are too cute. Thats not a problem with nutria, he says.

The battle against the nutria, and the destruction of southern Louisiana, is felt intimately by Thomas Gonzales, who informs viewers at the films onset: Hurricane Katrina took my house, but we still have plenty of nutria.

Thomas
Thomas Gonzales, a swamp rat hunter, in the wetlands of southern Louisiana. Photograph: Gabrielle Savoy

Gonzales, an affable swamp rat hunter, lives on Delacroix Island, about 30 miles south of New Orleans. The islands wetlands have been home to a close-knit community for 200 years, but the hurricane threat is rapidly driving residents, including his son, north of the levees.

Metzler said Gonzales declined to attend the documentarys 15 November world premiere in New York City because he had no interest in visiting the city, but the film-makers hope to get him to a screening in Louisiana.

Gonzales concedes at the end of the film that theres only so much hunters can do to stop the species, whose females have only a four-month gestation period, allowing for three pregnancies a year with litters of an average of five animals.

Stopping the nutrias is mission: impossible, Gonzales said. The good Lord couldnt get rid of em.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/oct/31/louisiana-swamp-rat-hunters-rodents-of-unusual-size

Author: Billy Roland

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