Rodents of Unusual Size are Real – and They’re in California

“While this giant rodent might not be as violent as what Westley and Buttercup encountered in the Fire Swamp in the Princess Bride, Rodents of Unusual Size depicts a creature that sends chills up my spine for the damage and destruction it can inflict. This is not a fantasy and yes, they do exist, in the form of 20-pound swamp rats known as nutria.”

These are the words of Christi Cooper, an Emmy-award winning cinematographer with a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and one of our 2018 film Jurors. She took some time to write out a reflection on the jury’s take on Wild & Scenic Film Festival’s Best of Festival award-winning documentary Rodents of Unusual Size. “The film by Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer follows charming, but hard-headed, characters from the marshlands of Louisiana as they attempt to take back their land and protect the wetlands in which their ancestors grew up,” says Christi.  The topic of nutria is at the forefront of our minds these days, and not only because they are the subject of our Best of Fest film. But also because they have very recently been found in the festival’s home state of California. Why are we disturbed by this and why is it important to discuss?

The topic of invasive species management can get contentious because inevitably it deals with the ending of a being’s life. Christi adds, “some might wonder why a film that focuses on hunters and the extermination of an animal would win Best of Festival at one of the foremost environmental film festivals in the country. Well…it might be time to start taking a different approach to conservation and to challenge our classical views on environmentalism. Nutria are native to South America, but were brought to the United States to supplement the fur trade in the 1800’s. What once was profitable for the trappers has now lead to the devastation of wetlands and erosion that threatens pollution and storm surge control, recreational and commercial fisheries, and habitats for native species. With no natural predator, the rodents have multiplied out of control (a mother can give birth to 200 pups in a year), with millions of nutria just in Louisiana. The nutria problem in the wetlands of Louisiana is like poking holes in the levee system, and exacerbating the impacts of climate change in ways we didn’t previously understand. Louisiana has the highest rate of coastal erosion in mainland America, much of it thanks to nutria, and these wetlands are the coast’s most important protection against the hurricane seasons. Between 2001 and 2016, nutria converted 26.744 acres of marsh to open water, taking away any semblance of flood or storm surge control. In other words, more nutria equal more hurricane damage.”

Imagine our surprise in the office when we got wind that nutria had been found in California. The San Francisco Chronicle released an article on February 9th about the quick response to the discovery – and why that’s important – by the state to the rodent’s presence (Read the full article here: “Nutria crackdown”) The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is encouraging any sightings be reported directly to them (Read more about what actions are being taken and how you can help in NPR’s recent article “California Officials Set Up Invasive Swamp Rodent Hotline“).

The weekend of Wild & Scenic, we reckon most folks did not know nutria even existed. While it is undeniable that nutria are a problem and are now threatening our home state, we recognize that it can be hard to come to terms with the ways in which we as humans have become challenged to manage them. Despite the sensitivity around the topic, Christi and the Wild & Scenic Jury think that the filmmakers of Rodents of Unusal Size “did an excellent job depicting the conflict between rodent and land, and the stories of those who want to protect their heritage and their culture. Tons of conservation groups are working like crazy to eradicate this invasive species from our coastal lands, and the $5 bounty for a nutria tail in Louisiana is meant to encourage the harvest of up to 400,000 nutria annually from coastal Louisiana. This is a conservation issue, it’s an environmental issue, and it’s become a climate change issue. From Native Americans, who have been trapping and hunting for centuries and want to continue their traditions, to Louisianans trying to eke out a living and save for college tuition, ROUS paints a picture of real life in the swamp lands. Rather than wasting all of the meat and fur, the food and fashion industry are adapting to make use of this bountiful supply of supposedly good-tasting meat and lovely soft fur. ‘I like to think of it as a giant recycling project,’ as one character in the film says. Clothes made with nutria fur are actually more sustainable than fake fur, which contains plastics and chemicals that are bad for the environment.”

Wild & Scenic’s tagline is where activism gets inspired. By expanding our notion of what “activism” entails and really challenging ourselves to see the nuance in such topics, we are becoming allies to the people on the front lines who are working day in and day out to keep our coastlines intact. Our world is changing in unexpected ways, calling for innovative and creative adaptations. As Christi sums it up from a Juror perspective: “Perhaps it’s time we challenge our thinking about what “conservation” means today. Perhaps a greater understanding of other cultures and their issues will allow us to fight the good fight together. We’re all on the same side after all.”

More nutria news here: Nutria Discovered in San Joaquin Valley and Invasive Rodent Once Thought Long Gone.

Thanks to Christi Cooper for offering her insight to the jury deliberation.