Film Review: Rodents of Unusual Size

Brings a light touch to a complex problem.
Specialty Releases

The informative documentary Rodents of Unusual Size sheds light on the environmental havoc being wrought by nutria across Louisiana. Not that it’s the nutrias’ fault. Natives of South America, these 20-pound “giant rats”—the titular “rodents of unusual size” (a term borrowed from 1987 movie The Princess Bride)—have webbed feet, vividly orange teeth and prodigious appetites. They were brought to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and demand for their surprisingly lush fur made them a viable commodity. Maybe some were deliberated set loose, maybe they escaped—stories conflict—but as long as there was a market for nutria fur, hunting and trapping kept their numbers under control. But the bottom fell out of the market in the ‘80s, at least in part because of animal rights activism, and the trouble began.

Prodigious breeders capable of nursing their offspring in the water, nutria did what they do best: Eat and make hungry little babies. Lots of them. And so, as one local says, Louisianans had to take a stand against the “big old swamp rats.”

Depending on how you feel about hefty rodents, it’s hard not to feel at least little sorry for the nutria. It’s not as though they invited themselves to the party that was coastal wetland vegetation. But they have prodigious appetites and wetlands are delicate ecosystems, already under siege from real-estate development, water diversion for agricultural use, climate change and industrial pollution. And nutria have few natural predators in the US; the local alligators can’t eat enough to make a dent in their numbers, which is quite something given that alligators are natural born eating machines.

And while Louisiana’s Coastwide Nutria Control Program put a price on their heads (actually tails, but why quibble over details), local hunters can’t kill enough, either. As the film shows, at least some locals grant that they’re kind of endearing and make good pets (one such owner turns out to be a nutria hunter, and no, the irony isn’t lost on him). They make for pretty good eating—comparisons to rabbit are apparently on par with the assertion that alligator tastes like chicken; if you blanch at thought of eating rats and or reptiles, that won’t help—and the Louisiana-based company Righteous Fur is dedicated to promoting nutria-pelt coats and hats as easy on the conscience, given that the rodents are 100% free range, eat organic and are being killed anyway, as opposed to being sacrificed on the altar of human vanity.

Director-producers Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer, along with narrator Wendell Pierce (of TV’s “Treme”) keep the tone light, but the underlying message is both timely and worth remembering: You can mess with Mother Nature, but she will mess back. As nutria hunter Tommy Gonzales ponders, “We’ve got something in common, me and the nutria. He’s a survivor like me—he wants to survive.” Hurricanes will blow off your roof, floods will wash away entire towns, but the nutria will endure.