7 Facts About Nutria, the Invasive Rodents Taking Over Louisiana

Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film
Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film

Rodents are known for being pests, but the nutria may be the worst of them. The orange-toothed, semi-aquatic rodents from South America, which can grow to be up to 20 pounds, have become invasive species whose territory extends to almost every continent on earth. Along the way, they’ve created environmental catastrophes, destroyed infrastructure and crops, and created millions of dollars in damages. The pesky creatures are the subject of a new documentary, Rodents of Unusual Size. The 71-minute film traces the nutria’s rise in Louisiana and the profound consequences it has had on the ecosystem there. Here are seven facts about the animals we learned from the documentary.

1. THEY’RE NOT FROM AROUND HERE.

Nutria are native to South America, but over the past century or so, they have traveled around the globe. In some places, they’re better known as coypu, from the Spanish word coipú. (In Spanish, the word nutria means otter.)

While Rodents of Unusual Size focuses on a small community in southern Louisiana, nutria pose a significant problem elsewhere, too. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, fur farmers and trappers brought them to Europe, Asia, and Africa as well as a number of places in North America to raise them for their pelts. (Some U.S. states also imported them as a method of weed control.) Unfortunately, that led to the rise of feral populations that have since ballooned. The Invasive Species Specialist Group has named nutria one of the world’s top 100 worst invasive species.

2. THEY MAKE A LOT OF BABIES.

One of the reasons nutria pose such a big problem as an invasive species is that they multiply rapidly. They reach sexual maturity at only a few months old, can reproduce up to three times a year, and in extreme cases, can have litters of up to 13. Though they typically only live between three and six years in the wild, they’re such prolific breeders that, as one invasive species project notes, even in that short time frame, “the amount of offspring produced is tremendous.”

3. AS AN INVASIVE SPECIES, THEY’RE REALLY BAD FOR THE ECOSYSTEM.

The snout of a nutria on a black background with the words 'Rodents of Unusual Size'

Growing up in Delacroix, an island community just south of New Orleans, “it was a jungle,” lifelong resident Thomas Gonzales explains in the opening minutes of Rodents of Unusual Size. “There was nothing but big oak trees. When I look out now, it looks like a disaster.”

Nutria, which can consume up to 20 percent of their body weight in plant matter and roots each day, eat up the vegetation that holds together wetland soil, causing major erosion. What was once wetland becomes open water, permanently. “All the grass that the muskrats used to eat, they cleaned it like a baseball field,” Gonzales says. “Now it’s all water.”

He’s not exaggerating. While storms, dredging, and other factors have also played a role in the environmental decline of places like Delacroix, between 2001 and 2016, overgrazing nutria contributed to the conversion of almost 26,800 acres of Louisiana marsh to open water, the state estimates. And since marshes serve as important protection against storm surges, that also leads to greater flooding inland.

Nutria also pose problems in other arenas: The animals dig extensive burrow systems that sometimes end up under roads, around bridges, and in canals and levees. They also destroy thousands of dollars worth of crops like sugarcane and rice each year, and do millions of dollars of damage to golf courses.

4. THEY WERE ONCE BIG BUSINESS.

The nutria’s rise to global domination is largely thanks to the fur industry. In Louisiana, for instance, fur farmers brought them up from Argentina to raise for their pelts in the 1930s. Some of those animals either escaped or were released, taking up residence along the Gulf Coast, where they flourished in the swamps and other wetlands. By the 1960s, nutria were the Louisiana fur industry’s biggest commodity, with trappers bringing in more nutria and selling the pelts for more money than any other animal. In the 1970s, nutria trapping brought in 1.9 million pelts per year [PDF]. Unfortunately, the overabundance of nutria meant that supply eventually outstripped demand—which was falling across the fur industry anyway—and prices fell steeply over the next few decades. Trapping nutria was no longer as profitable, so trappers found work elsewhere. And without the fur industry keeping the nutria in check, the animal's populations exploded.

5. PEOPLE STILL DEPEND ON THEM FOR THEIR LIVELIHOODS.

A man with a gun over his shoulder standing in a boat filled with nutria carcases
Thomas Gonzales of Delacroix Island, Louisiana

Now, as the environmental impact of nutria has become more apparent, the state of Louisiana is trying to bring back nutria trapping. In order to incentivize trappers to hunt down nutria, the state has a $5 bounty on nutria tails. During the nutria hunting season, from November to March, the state sets up collection stations where trappers can bring in the tails of nutria they have killed [PDF]. They get a check in the mail based on the number of tails they bring in, and can use the carcasses however they want—whether that’s selling them for their fur or meat or discarding them. (Sometimes fur dealers are even on hand at collection stations.) Since the program first began in 2002, it has resulted in the removal of 5 million nutria.

6. WEARING THEIR FUR IS CONSIDERED ETHICAL.

Nutria were originally valued for their pelts, and nutria fur may be making a comeback. In most of the world, killing nutria does a service to the environment, making the rodents one of the most ethical sources of fur around.

“Traditionally, the stigma of fur is that people don’t feel comfortable killing animals to adorn themselves,” fashion designer Cree McCree explains in the film. “But the thing with the nutria is that they’re being killed anyway, and they’re throwing these beautiful furs away. It seemed like a colossal waste.” So McCree founded Righteous Fur, a collective of fashion designers who incorporate nutria fur into their designs, making everything from coats and hats to bow ties. Since most faux fur is made of polyester or other plastics, wearing nutria might actually be more sustainable than sporting fake fur.

7. YOU CAN—AND SHOULD—EAT THEM.

A woman sits at a table covered in nutria pelts.
Cree McCree, founder of Righteous Furs

While people may be turned off by the idea of eating a giant rodent with big orange teeth, nutria actually make a pretty good addition to the dinner table, according to chefs and hunters. “If you approach it with an open mind, you’ll find it doesn’t have a really bad, swampy taste,” award-winning New Orleans chef Susan Spicer says in Rodents of Unusual Size. “The nutria flavor is sort of like the zucchini of the animal world. You can kind of make it work with a lot of different kinds of flavors.”

The meat is lean, and, unlike with other meats, you don’t have to worry about feeling bad that a cute critter died for your dinner. In fact, you’re doing the environment a service. And in the right hands, nutria is reportedly delicious. Some hunters in the film even say it’s preferable to steak.

Rodents of an Unusual Size makes its Los Angeles debut on September 14. To find a screening near you, check out the film’s website.

All images courtesy Rodents of Unusual Size/Tilapia Film

What’s Better Than a Dog in a Sweater? A Sweater That Shows an Image of Your Dog in a Sweater

Sweater Hound
Sweater Hound

If you think the sight of someone walking their sweater-clad dog is just about the cutest thing in the world, you’re absolutely correct. But what if that person was wearing a sweater that showed an image of their dog wearing a sweater? If you think that sounds even cuter, you’re in for a treat.

According to People, New York-based apparel company Sweater Hound will knit you a sweater that displays an image of your dog in a sweater—all you have to do is submit your favorite photo of your dog. And, because not all dogs love wearing sweaters in real life, your dog doesn’t have to be wearing a sweater in the photo you upload.

Each sweater is made from a combination of acrylic and recycled cotton, and will prove to your pet that you truly do love them more than anyone else (unless you already own sweaters emblazoned with the faces of your friends and family).

The sweaters, which cost $98 each, come in both child and adult sizes, and you can choose between cream, navy, black, and gray. The options don’t stop there—Sweater Hound offers sweaters that show your dog wearing just a bow tie, a bow tie and a sweater, a Santa hat and scarf, reindeer ears and a sweater, or even a “Super Dog” cape and domino mask outfit.

sweater hound dog wearing a bow tie on a sweater
Sweater Hound

If sweaters aren’t really your style, there are also hoodies and sweatpants decorated with a smaller, logo-sized image of your dog. Or, you could snuggle with your prized pooch underneath a warm blanket bearing a rather giant image of said pooch.

blanket with an image of a dog wearing a bow tie and sweater
Sweater Hound

While the company does specialize in creating dog-related products, they’ll do their best to accommodate people who love salamanders in Santa hats, birds in bow ties, and other pets wearing clothes. You can email them at Hello@Sweaterhound.com to discuss your options.

If you’re hoping to get someone a gift from Sweater Hound this holiday season, you should act fast: You have to place your order by December 4 in order to guarantee delivery before Christmas, and that date will likely change as the days go by.

Adorable, customizable clothing is just one of the many perks of being a dog owner—here are 10 more scientifically proven benefits.

[h/t People]

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Move Over Dogs, Goats, and Peacocks: Llamas Are the Hot New Therapy Animal

jensenwy/iStock via Getty Images
jensenwy/iStock via Getty Images

Possibly because Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, and the rest of the reindeer are pretty busy at this time of year, Kimpton Hotel Monaco in Portland, Oregon, is offering guests the chance to hang out with a few jolly llamas instead.

The Washington Post reports that the friendly, festively dressed llamas belong to Mountain Peaks Therapy Llamas and Alpacas, which usually brings them to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, senior communities, hospice care, special-needs organizations, and even schools. According to the organization’s website, the visits help “alleviate loneliness, lower blood pressure, and reduce stress.”

And, though the clinical benefits to the Kimpton’s guests haven’t been proven, hotel manager Travis Williams confirms that everyone definitely loves spending time with the quirky quadrupeds. Last year, after overwhelmingly positive reactions to the llama visits, the hotel decided to bring them back.

“Once we saw the joy that it brought people, we just kept going,” Williams told The Washington Post.

While it might seem like the use of llamas for therapy is a characteristically Portland-ish idea, it’s not the only place you can find them. The New York Times reports that 20 llamas and alpacas are registered with Pet Partners, a national nonprofit organization for therapy animals, and many others are owned and trained by private family farms across the country.

Jeff and Carol Rutledge, for example, have 13 llamas and alpacas on their property in Stockdale, Texas, outside San Antonio. Three of them are registered therapy animals, having passed a test that includes being touched by strangers and staying unaffected while people argue near them.

During their visits to assisted living facilities, veterans’ homes, and other events in the area, the Rutledges have observed the animals having a profound effect on residents’ behavior. One man, who is nonverbal and recovering from a motorcycle accident, will murmur as he grooms one of the llamas. And the Rutledges’ high-school-aged daughter, Zoe, even did a science experiment for her 4-H club that showed the residents’ blood pressure is lower after visiting with the llamas.

While there’s not a very high chance of seeing therapy llamas in airports just yet, you might be lucky enough to see something a little smaller—like LiLou, San Francisco International Airport’s first therapy pig.

[h/t The Washington Post]

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