Look at our dwellings on this river delta. We’ve adapted with style, painted wooden cottages pink and yellow, bent wrought iron into the shapes of spindly vines, followed the cadence of the water with a drumbeat.
Spaniards from the Canary Islands moved to the coast of Louisiana and set up two homes: waterfront stilt homes for the fishing season and salt marsh shacks for fur trapping. But we’re not the only ones who have moved in and lived off the land. There’s a long list of beings and things that have sailed, crawled and flown their way into this delta and hung on tight through storm and fire, apple snails in the lagoons, “Asian Carp” in the bayous, feral hogs in the forests, yellow fever in the mosquitoes in the banana crates at the port.
Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of the “invaders” has been the nutria – an aquatic rodent that can grow to the size of a dog. Large swaths of green wetlands have turned to brown water at the paws of the nutria, which dexterously excavate soil to feast on the root systems of cypress, cattails, bullrushes and just about anything else they can get their hands on. They can eat up to 25% of their body weight in a day and grow up to twenty pounds. In 2000, experts found the nutria was responsible for 97,000 acres of damage in coastal Louisiana, adding insult to to injury in a place that loses more land every day than any place on Earth.
They’re so bad that literally tons of them are shot dead in a bounty program to control the population. Over the last eleven years, the good people of Louisiana have grabbed their flashlights, climbed into boats and killed 3.6 million of the animals. A joint state and federal program pays $5 per tail for the kill, and in 2013, it paid out $1.94 million to the 252 hunters who were enrolled in the program. And it apparently has worked. Damage estimates are down to nearly 4,000 acres annually.
E.A. McIlhenny, hot sauce magnate and patriarch of Tabasco Brand pepper sauce, is famously blamed as the first importer of the South American rodent to Louisiana. (In reality, he bought his nutria from a dealer in St. Bernard Parish, south of New Orleans, and their entrances into the ecosystem are thought to be many). Up until the fifties, nutria had been intentionally brought here to feed the fur industry. Between 1962 and 1982, trappers effectively controlled their population and captured 1.3 million rodents for eventual sale every year. But farmed furs increased supply in Europe as the Soviet economy collapsed, animal rights activists wiped fur from store shelves and demand plummeted. Prices fell, trappers lost incentive to harvest and the nutria population went wild.
Many are understandably rattled by the mass exterminations. Only about 12,000 of the 388,160 animals killed last year were used for food or fur. But some have made good business out of the biomass. A Baton Rouge start-up, Marsh Dog, began selling nutria-derived dog biscuits and jerky. They recently won the Louisiana Wildlife Federation’s Conservation Business of the Year award and turned heads at the New Yorker.
In New Orleans, two dozen emerging designers came together to create contemporary garments and jewelry out of both nutria pelts and their electric orange teeth. Their collective, Righteous Fur, has been featured on runways in New York and airwaves as far away as the UK. If you’ve seen the hit indie film Beasts of the Southern Wild, you know their work. “Righteous Fur played a small, but pivotal, role in the film’s development,” they write on their website. “We supplied the nutria pelts that helped director Benh Zeitlin realize his vision of the titular Beasts: prehistoric creatures known as aurochs.”
Finally, designer Patti Dunn has made some real clean gear from the fur of nutria and other Louisiana and founded a brand, Tchoup Industries, whose motto is “For City and Swamp.” They write in their raison d’etra: “Some people think that vegetarian choices should go hand in hand with environmentally sensitive stories. We disagree. Vegan leathers and yarns are usually made from synthetic (plastic polymer based) components. We would much rather choose naturally grown materials over oil-based. Especially when we have such a rich history and tradition of fur and leather industry at our fingertips.”
Rich indeed is that history – nearly as rich as the food ways of the southern Delta. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries website, nutria.com, wants to help you spice up your table. Visit for full recipes of nutria ragondin sausage jambalaya, nutria chili, or Enola’s smothered nutria. Hungry?
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