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Letters From New Orleans

Invasion of the Bayou Snatchers

Not all oil-soaked animals in Louisiana deserve saving. Our writer attends fashion shows, braises venison, and heads into the bayou to understand the varmint of New Orleans: nutria.

Illustration by Julia Sonmi Heglund

Nutria do not seem real. It’s hard to imagine how aquatic herbivores with long, orange front teeth and webbed feet were imported from South America in the 1930s to be raised on Southern fur farms. That’s the beginning of their story. As the rodents escaped over the next couple of decades, they infested the wetlands of southern Louisiana, along with various New Orleans canals and waterways. In Mid City’s Bayou St. John, the nutria coexist with egrets, pelicans, Pekin ducks, piles of trash, and the occasional pack of wild dogs.

Nutria allegedly devour the stems and roots of bayou plant life, killing vegetation outright. They breed like, well, rodents. The invasion sounds like a New Orleans concoction to make the city seem edgy, full of freakish wildlife gnawing on canal walls. But, after ignoring reports for months, I was forced to accept that the aquatic rodents were real when my roommate brought home a necklace of nutria teeth—four arched, hollow, orange-and-white incisors dangling like wind chimes on a piece of twine.

Annie was going to wear the necklace along with a nutria fur bikini in a fashion show organized by a group named Righteous Fur. In light of the nutria’s invasive, destructive presence in Louisiana’s wetlands, Righteous Fur had commissioned local designers to create fashion from swamp scourge.

Encouraging nutria consumption isn’t a new idea. As the nutria population grew steadily during the 1960s, the state of Louisiana began promoting the nutria fur industry as a way to control it. It worked. Trappers and furriers caught and sold 1.3 million nutria a year. But when the fur market crashed in the late 1980s, nutria numbers grew relatively unchecked and the bayou rats have become the highest-profile invasive species in the region. Audiences at a January show that Annie had appeared in were rapt; and so a follow-up event was scheduled in March at the Marigny Theater.

Nutria are a testament to the bizarre wilderness of New Orleans—where alligators and wild hogs can be found in the more brackish corners of City Park—and New Orleanians jump at the chance to celebrate that wildness through hardscrabble arts events. The crowd was variously hippies, hipsters, and a few folks who might have walked out of an Eddie Bauer catalog. Before the show, two women in gold face paint and strategically angled, mangy pelts stood guard at the theater doors. As the lights went down over a set made from rocks and piles of straw, a woman in a fur vest and vinyl tail leapt on stage, crouching and clawing furiously.

After the interpretive dance, the host introduced Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator for the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, which had given a small grant to Righteous Fur. Massimi is thin, with a head of wild brown curls. He addressed the host and audience like a kindly zookeeper and joked about his job title: “I always feel like it means I’m coordinating the invasion.”

The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries pays trappers and hunters $5 for every nutria tail they harvest. Massimi’s hope is that the Righteous Fur project would bring up the value of nutria pelts. Massimi told the audience he felt “a twinge of guilt” over incentivizing nutria hunting: “It’s not their fault they’re invasive, but the marsh ain’t big enough for the both of us.” At the auction after the show, he bought a nutria-fur stole for his wife.

 

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Depleting the nutria population won’t stop 25 miles of Louisiana wetlands from disappearing into the Gulf of Mexico every year—even with those spooky orange teeth, they’re not eating anywhere near that much swamp. “Back in 1927 we had a major, major flood, and the Army Corp of Engineers was directed to prevent flooding and maintain navigation,” Massimi told me a few days after the show. “That was their double-edged mandate for almost a century now. They’ve been remarkably successful. They’ve levied the river almost all the way up to Cairo, Ill. It’s completely strait-jacketed. The river doesn’t overflow anymore—it used to all the time.” It’s a lack of new sediment input that caused this problem. “All of that sediment goes straight off the Gulf shelf—none of it goes to replenishing the wetlands.”

Scapegoating nutria can confuse the true causes of wetlands erosion. Phrases like “laminar flow,” “Gulf shelf,” or “hydrologic modification” make for less exciting headlines. Just ask all those Jefferson Parish cops ordered to shoot them: Nutria are an easy target.

They’re foreigners brought here against their will and despised because of what they eat and where they live. They’re harming the wetlands, but unlike British Petroleum, or the Army Corp of Engineers, they’re part of the environment.

Next came a jacket decorated with nipples—an homage to nutria nipples, which are high on the animals’ flanks so their young can feed while floating.Around the same time as the nutria fashion shows, I acquired a garbage bag of frozen deer meat that had been shot near Lafayette, La. For months, I regularly roasted or braised venison and impressed my friends with simple, abundant meals. Here was a rare, guiltless carnivorous experience: free meat from an animal that had lived wild in nature, been killed according to strict regulations, and wasn’t exposed to the disgusting byproducts of industrial agriculture.

Perhaps it was even a favor to the species—when I’d taken hunter’s education last May, my instructor had been adamant that deer are overpopulated. Perhaps nutria fur fashion offers the designers of Righteous Fur a similar moment of reprieve: it could be good for the environment, the trapper and furrier businesses in Southern Louisiana, and the wardrobes of New Orleanians. Consciences are quieted, and people can laugh, play, invent, and—oh, finally!—consume more.

Nutria market development has been a mandate at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary since the early ‘90s, though Massimi feels that marketing for consumption as a strategy for eliminating invasive species is, “your absolute last ditch, can’t-do-anything-else-about-them, may-as-well-eat-them” strategy. Even if we all wear nutria coats this winter, Massimi doesn’t seem to believe wearing nutria fur will stem the tide of wetlands erosion. But attention to Righteous Fur reminds people the wetlands are disappearing, Massimi sighs. His job is to put out a wildfire with a garden hose and he wants all the help he can get. Even invasive species control can benefit from a little eye-catching—or stomach-turning—PR.

 

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A bayou Betsey Johnson, Righteous Fur founder Cree McCree has a penchant for velvet leggings and a talent for getting people to buy tickets to weird shit. As she described her nutria fashion shows, McCree did her best to negotiate the contradiction of saving the environment by promoting fur. “It’s a quandary for some, but it’s OK to use this fur, ‘cause if we didn’t, nutria would die in vain.” I’m not surprised to hear this rationale from the author of Flea Market America: A Complete Guide to Flea-Enterprise with a chapter on “The Responsible Flea.”

The clothes McCree introduced, as emcee of February’s fashion show, were surprisingly sophisticated, charming, and nuanced. A riverboat captain’s coat was modeled by its designer, a man named Goat, who, with the perfect balance between scruff and antiquarian polish, looked as though he’d just had cocktails with Mark Twain. Next came an Elvis-inspired jacket decorated with sequined nipples—an homage to nutria nipples, which are high on the animals’ flanks so their young can feed while floating in the water.

Other influences mentioned that evening included Audrey Hepburn, Blanche Dubois, the cartoonish Japanese street fashion fad called Harajuku, Uptown – the Uptown neighborhood of New Orleans, I assumed—and someone’s mother’s stole. A designer named Calamity had created a long, white tunic with a fluffy nutria collar for an outfit he named, “The Rat King.” The model, eyes ringed with black makeup, crawled and clawed across the stage. Impressive as the piece was, it didn’t find any bidders at the after-show auction.

The mayor of Beijing recently traveled to Baton Rouge to inquire about the market for nutria meat.A few days after the show, I asked McCree if any of the designers had been squeamish about using nutria in their designs. “Many were vegetarians. We also have a bunch of animal lovers, so they were not used to working with fur, but they also were committed to saving the wetlands,” she said. “A few passionate animal-rights activists jumped on board because it seemed like such a colossal waste for the nutria to be killed and then make no use of the material.”

She added, “Our goal is not to start nutria farms. It’s to control the existing population and add an extra incentive for nutria hunters.” Which is to say: create a market for something everyone wants to eliminate.

Massimi recognizes the paradox inherent in Righteous Fur and echoes McCree’s own conclusions. “It’s an odd thing because you [would have] to develop a business plan whose ultimate goal is to go out of business,” he told me over the phone. But since nutria were already being killed for the Louisiana State Department of Wildlife and Fisheries bounty program, where hunters and trappers have to register, receive permission, and be assigned a particular region, it makes sense environmentally to find a use for the pelts. “They’re being killed anyway, and hence the righteousness. If the program ever became so popular that we ran out of nutria, I think everyone would be thrilled to go out of business.”

 

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For many New Orleanians, wetlands erosion less than two hours away is forgettable and abstract. New Orleans is full of people without cultural ties to the rest of Louisiana, but there’s more to it than that. Economies, lifestyles, values, and industries in the Big Easy are alien to southern Louisiana, and vice-versa, and this breeds mistrust.

When I asked Massimi where to look for nutria damage, he seemed excited that someone in New Orleans wanted to leave the city in search of evidence. Though explaining that wetlands loss is really only visible from the air—muddy marsh that was once a lush, diverse ecosystem—Massimi recommended a drive down Interstates 56 or 57.

Water defines the small towns of southeastern Louisiana. It’s always visible. Canals, lined with shrimp boats, run parallel to state highways. This is the real bayou. A friend and I drove south, and once we passed Houma, the parish seat, there were no concrete canal walls or pedestrian bridges in sight; however, I didn’t see many trees or plants either. I’d expected lush, chirping swamp like the one protected at Jean Lafitte State Park. Birds were abundant and families fished by the side of the road, but the place felt like an abandoned roadside diner.

I never saw the bayou before it started to erode; I didn’t really understand what I was supposed to be looking for. There was no tour guide, placard, or gaping hole in the ground. We stomped around in the mud, walked through some tall grasses, got back in the car, and drove home.

Two months later, after a British Petroleum oilrig began leaking 5,000 barrels of oil a day into the Gulf, a silent alarm over wetlands loss has become an air raid siren. The oil spill is like setting a piece of paper on fire as it’s going through a shredder: It will destroy beaches, kill animal and plant life, and bankrupt fishermen in the bayou. However, nutria will likely emerge from the carnage unscathed. According to Michael Massimi, nutria prefer freshwater marshes to saline marshes, and won’t be effected unless oil makes it that far. Massimi wants mammal rescue crews to discriminate against oiled nutria. “I hate to think of spending time, energy, and money to rescue and rehabilitate a destructive invasive species, then ostensibly releasing them back to the marsh to go do more damage when we could simply euthanize the oiled nutria that do get picked up.”

If the oil doesn’t drive them away, global trade could put an end to nutria’s time in Louisiana. Last December the mayor of Beijing traveled to Baton Rouge to inquire about the market for nutria meat. But my guess is these robust invaders that glide through water I’d be scared to wade in, ripples fanning elegantly behind them, will likely keep swimming as their adopted habitat dies around them.

biopic

TMN Editor Nicole Pasulka believes she could beat a lie detector. When she sits in a chair she almost never puts her feet on the floor. Even though she likes the internet a lot, she is convinced that people will always read magazines and she is secretly building one in her basement. More by Nicole Pasulka