The balance between humans and nature is a delicate one. From our perspective, the environment conflicts somewhere on the line between greed and survival. Greed causes us to destroy the rainforests to increase the bottom line, and on the other end, there’s our survival. The animal rights debate challenges us to reconsider the breeding and slaughter of animals, but our survival instincts often demand that we hunt and kill animals not only for food but also save the very earth we need to protect.
In Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, Quinn Costello’s documentary Rodents of Unusual Size, they delve into the problem of a single rodent that is singlehandedly destroying the entire state of Louisiana. That rodent is a twenty-pound rat known as “nutria.” Native to South America, nutria was brought to Louisiana as a way to bolster the state’s fur industry during the great depression. Safely raised on farms, the nutria were bred for their pelts and turned into low-cost fur coats. While in hindsight a mistake, the nutria created a much-needed source of revenue during these depressed time.
As animals have a habit of doing, they escape. With a gestation period of around four months and litters of up to thirteen babies, the population breeds faster than rabbits. Due to their size and aggressive demeanor, the nutria has no natural predator, so its population grows at an exponential rate. With a thriving fur industry helping to keep the population in check, that industry went away with the disdain of fur coats in general.
“…a gestation period of around four months and litters of up to thirteen babies, the population breeds faster than rabbits.”
The high numbers of nutria have caused significant damage to the Louisana coast. As herbivores, they consume a large amount of vegetation to survive. In just a few short years, the lush swamps have been leveled. Those lush swamps served as their first line of protection from major storms. Now gone it only multiplies the damage from storms and hurricanes, most notably Katrina. It also doesn’t help that nutria are subterranean creatures that build an underground network of tunnels exponentially increases the rate of coastal erosion.
Rodents of Unusual Size follows the lives of various Louisianans affected by the large rat, now numbering in the millions. The doc opens by following the hunters as they scour the shores of Lousiana. Currently nutria has no commercial value on the open market forcing the state to step in and offer a five-dollar bounty on every nutria tail. Kill a hundred in a day, and you’ve made five-hundred, enough to make a decent living.
The film spotlight one city worker whose sole job is to protect the New Orleans infrastructure from nutria by removing them from sewer lines and underground cables. He also has to battle compassionate locals who steal and destroy traps intended for the nutrias.
The filmmakers then address the potential return of some kind of commercial use of nutria. If the state only collects the tail, what do you do with the rest of the animal? Some, like Righteous Fur, choose to revitalize the fur industry rather than waste perfectly good pelts. Others are encouraged to use nutria as a source of food. Nutria meat is clean and viable meat, once you get past the idea of eating rat for dinner. Street vendors struggle to sell it, while some of the best chefs look for a way to create a gourmet meal.
“…a wide variety of citizens who come at the problem from their own unique perspective.”
Then there are the animal rights activists, the documentary does speak to a few, but makes the case that more harm comes to the environment if the nutria is allowed to reproduce freely. No, they don’t make good pets either.
As a documentary, Rodents of Usual Size makes good use of animation illustrating how Louisiana got itself into this environmental disaster. The filmmakers interview a wide variety of citizens who come at the problem from their own unique perspective. They also capture some of the most once beautiful and now devastating images of Louisiana itself.
Rodents of Unusual Size clearly takes the humans’ side in the animal rights debate as the nutria not only threatens the livelihood of Louisiana residents but the once beautiful Southern coast. It makes no apology to the feelings of the environmentalists that don’t live in the state, as its people attempt to turn around a dire situation.
Rodents of Unusual Size (2018) Directed by Chris Metzler, Jeff Springer, Quinn Costello.
8 out of 10 stars