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

8 Things to Know About Tiger King, Netflix's Bizarre New True Crime Docuseries

Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Joe Exotic's story has become must-watch television.
Netflix

Last week Netflix quietly premiered Tiger King, a seven-part documentary series that continues the streaming service’s streak of compelling true crime tales. With each increasingly outlandish episode, viewers are submerged in the world of exotic petkeeping and roadside zoos, with Oklahoman polygamist Joe Exotic trading barbs—and eventually threats—with Florida tiger rescuer Carole Baskin. The tale rapidly expands to include a suspected sex cult, alleged mariticide, Exotic’s music career, and a somewhat unreliable hitman.

If you’ve finished the series, take a look at some additional facts surrounding this eclectic cast of characters. Just be aware that many spoilers follow.

1. Carole Baskin says Tiger King misrepresented a certain meat grinder.

When viewers are introduced to big cat breeder and G.W. Zoo operator Joe Exotic in Tiger King, they get an immediate glimpse of his rivalry with big cat advocate Carole Baskin. In addition to threats of bodily harm against Baskin, Exotic goes on to assert that in 1997, Baskin murdered her millionaire husband, Don Lewis, so that she could take over his vast estate and then fed his remains to her rescued tigers. In a blog post, Baskin denied that claim and stated that the meat grinder was a rumor started by the Lewis family. “Our meat grinder was one of those little tabletop, hand crank things, like you’d have in your kitchen at home,” she wrote. “The idea that a human body and skeleton could be put through it is idiotic. But the Netflix directors did not care. They just showed a bigger grinder.”

2. "Doc" Antle has denied his zoo operates as a kind of sex cult.

Tiger King makes significant overtures that Myrtle Beach Safari zoo operator Mahamayavi Bhagavan "Doc" Antle has used his stature in the world of big cats to recruit young women he subsequently develops personal relationships with. Antle dismissed this characterization to Vanity Fair. “There are a lot of cute girls here, because the conservation movement does draw in cute girls,” he said. “But those cute girls have nothing to do with this old fat guy running the place.” Antle went on to suggest his son was the beneficiary of any romantic entanglements. “He is a living Tarzan. He has women throwing themselves at him.”

3. There’s no federal law against owing big cats.

Central to Tiger King is the controversial premise that there’s no federal law prohibiting private citizens from owning potentially dangerous wildlife like lions or tigers. The Fish and Wildlife Service does require permits to sell endangered species across state lines, but traffickers often avoid this rule by marking transactions as “donations.” At the state level, roughly two-thirds prohibit owning a big cat. Others simply require a license, while a handful of states—including Oklahoma and Nevada, which figure prominently in the series—have no regulations at all.

4. Jeff Lowe was once sued by Prince.

Midway through the series, Joe Exotic appears to find a hope of salvation in the form of Jeff Lowe, an exotic animal enthusiast who agrees to have the G.W. Zoo put in his name to thwart the collection efforts of Carole Baskin, who had successfully sued Exotic for trademark infringement and won a $1 million judgment. (Exotic had used his web presence in an attempt to make people believe Baskin’s Big Cat Rescue was associated with his own efforts to antagonize Baskin and confuse her supporters.) Lowe himself was no stranger to controversy. In 2007, musician Prince sued Lowe because Lowe was allegedly selling unauthorized Prince merchandise. And in 2008, Lowe pled guilty to mail-order fraud charges for posing as an employee of a domestic abuse charity and reselling $1 million in merchandise.

5. Joe Exotic's business partner Rick Kirkham had a nervous breakdown.

Acting as a narrator of sorts, television producer Rick Kirkham appears in Tiger King to relate his experience dealing with Exotic, with whom he had a deal for a reality television series. According to Vanity Fair, Kirkham was initially reluctant to appear in the documentary but relented when the filmmakers agreed to come to Oslo, Norway, where he currently lives and works as a journalist. Kirkham said he had a nervous breakdown after his experience with Exotic, whom he described as “evil” and “like something out of The Omen.”

6. There’s more to the story of Joe Exotic’s (third) husband’s death than the series covered.

There is no shortage of astounding footage in Tiger King, but none provokes more of a shocked reaction among viewers than the moment when Joe Exotic’s third husband, 23-year-old Travis Maldonado, walks into the G.W. Zoo’s office, puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. (The surveillance camera captures the reaction of an employee, as Maldonado is not within view.) It is unclear whether Maldonado was using the firearm recklessly, as he was known to do, or whether it was suicide. According to a 2017 article in the Oklahoman, Maldonado believed the gun had a bullet in the chamber but that it would not fire without a magazine, which he had ejected. It appears his death, while self-inflicted, was accidental.

7. Joe Exotic’s zoo is still open—but it might not be for much longer.

Following Exotic’s departure from the G.W. Zoo after butting heads with Jeff Lowe, the zoo he founded is still in operation. Lowe initially renamed it the Greater Wynnewood Animal Park before calling it the Oklahoma Zoo, with plans to relocate it to Thackerville, Oklahoma in the summer. It’s currently open for business. Speaking with Entertainment Weekly, filmmakers Eric Goode and Rebecca Chailkin expressed doubt about the zoo’s future. “All I can tell you is [Lowe] is basically operating on fumes,” Goode said. “No one is going now and there’s no source of income, and that’s been going on for a long time. It’s not something that has just happened because of what’s happening in the world today.”

8. Joe Exotic is still posting on Facebook and is asking for a presidential pardon.

In January 2020, Joe Exotic was sentenced to 22 years for two murder-for-hire plots against Carole Baskin as well as 17 wildlife charges. Exotic, who is currently being held in Grady County Jail in Oklahoma, regularly posts updates on Facebook expressing hope that Tiger King will activate supporters and help petition for a presidential pardon. “Thank you to the millions of people around the world who have watched Tiger King and see now the wrong that has been done to me,” he wrote on Monday, March 23. “It is you the people of the world who can change what has been done. Please keep this alive until someone reaches our President for a Pardon because its [sic] the right thing to do.”

Watch Fennec Foxes Exploring an Empty Chattanooga Zoo

wrangel, iStock via Getty Images
wrangel, iStock via Getty Images

Zoo animals around the country are taking advantage of their newly vacant environments. On Monday, March 23, the Chattanooga Zoo in Tennessee shared a video of its fennec foxes out of their enclosure and wandering halls that would normally be populated by people.

The Chattanooga Zoo closed to the public on Tuesday, March 17, in an effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. Zookeepers are still coming into work, so not much has changed for the animal residents—besides the occasional opportunity to explore new parts of their home.

"While the visitors are away, the foxes will play!" the zoo wrote in a Facebook post. "We miss our interpretive centers being full of visitors this time of year, but while they had the chance, our keepers let our foxes explore the visitor viewing area of the Deserts of the World building for some fun environmental enrichment."

The zoo may have been inspired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. Last week, the aquarium allowed its rockhopper penguins to take a field trip around the facilities, showing them around the Amazon exhibit and information center. As the video above shows, the fennec foxes were able to take in their new environment much faster on four legs.

In addition to sharing clips on its Facebook page, the Chattanooga Zoo is also sharing live-streams of its animals on its website. Here are even more animal webcams to check out while social distancing.

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