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Rodents the size of large raccoons, sporting webbed feet and large orange teeth. Sounds like the stuff of nightmares, but the animal in question, nutria, prove surprisingly endearing in Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer and Quinn Costello’s documentary that recently received its world premiere at DOC NYC. Depicting the resilience of both the nutria and the Louisianans who’ve endured their presence for many years, Rodents of Unusual Size proves enjoyably quirky and informative.
The nutria were imported to Louisiana during the Depression because it was thought that their fur would prove desirable and provide income. Unfortunately, the animals escaped the fur farms during storms and vanished into the bayou, where they were able to breed uncontrollably. Their numbers eventually swelled into the millions, creating a major problem since their rapacious consumption of plant life and propensity for extensive burrowing severely damaged the coastal wetlands so crucial for preventing damage from hurricanes.
Eventually the government put a bounty on the animal, paying $5 for every nutria tail turned in. The “Nutria Control Program” turned out to be a boon for hunters, including one on whom the film focuses in particular, Thomas Gonzalez, a native of Delacroix Island. Not that the profession is limited to men, as demonstrated by one intrepid female hunter who points out, “Cajun women, they not afraid to get their hands dirty.” Another hunter, a young man, hunts nutria to fund his college education. “It’s like dollar signs on the ground,” he observes of the slow-moving animals.
We’re also introduced to an animal control agent who says that he gets many calls to remove nutria from toilets, which they’ve managed to access through the sewer system. If that’s not the stuff of nightmares, nothing is.
Despite the many problems the animals cause, many of the area’s residents have come to respect them for their tenacity. People have also put them to good use. Their fur is once again being exploited, which is not an animal-rights issue since the animals are being hunted and killed anyway. “I like to think of it as a giant recycling project,” comments the owner of the company Righteous Fur. The nutria are quite edible, with the state promoting them for human consumption. They apparently taste like rabbit, although some people, not surprisingly, blanch at the thought of eating a large rodent. On the other hand, as one chef points out, “The stigma about rabbits is that they’re too cute. That’s not a problem with nutria.”
Some people even find the nutria so endearing that they keep them as pets, including one hunter who kills thousands of them a year and acknowledges the irony of his situation while cuddling his nutria. The nutria has also provided the inspiration for the mascot of a local minor-league baseball team, and people enthusiastically compete in nutria-skinning contests.
Narrated by Wendell Pierce (HBO’s Treme), Rodents of Unusual Size enhances its fast-paced narrative with amusing animation and a buoyant Cajun score by The Lost Bayou Ramblers.
Production companies: Independent Television Service, Tilapia Film
Distributor: Tilapia Film
Narrator: Wendell Pierce
Directors-producers: Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer
Executive producer: Sally Jo Fifer
Director of photography: Jeff Springer
Editor: Quinn Costello
Composers: The Lost Bayou Ramblers, Louis Michot
Venue: DOC NYC
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