RODENTS OF UNUSUAL SIZE: A Tale Of Rats & Resilience
Rodents Of Unusual Size is a lesson in just how much a canny filmmaker can fit into a documentary that's barely an hour long.
There are few animals with whom we share the planet that are more widely reviled than rats. Yet in the last two years, documentarians have been obsessed by them. In 2016 we had Rats, from Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock. It was only a few weeks ago that Theo Anthony‘s luminous Rat Film was released.
And now we have Rodents Of Unusual Size, which forgoes your common rat in favour of the nutria – beaver-sized beasts who have been literally eating away at the coastline of Southern Louisiana for decades.
Meet The Nutria
As we learn in an early animated sequence (narrated by the great Wendell Pierce), nutria were originally brought to America from Argentina during the Great Depression, when they were bred for their fur. During one of Southern Louisiana’s frequent storms, they escaped and headed straight for the swampland, where they’ve been thriving ever since.
For decades, the nutria were still hunted for their fur; it was so popular, even Sophia Loren sported it. In the seventies and eighties however, the animal-rights lobby killed off interest in fur, and so with nothing in effect to control it, the nutria population rocketed. By the end of the 1970’s it was estimated at twenty-five million.
Louisianans would be quite happy to let the nutria live in peace, if it wasn’t for the tremendous damage that they have done and continue to do to the land. Though the rodents are herbivorous, they attack it with the ferocity of lions going for meat. And once they’ve had their way with the vegetation, nothing grows any more.
Louisiana has the highest rate of coastal erosion within mainland America, and that is thanks to the nutria. In such a hurricane-prone state, this is a real problem; the coastal wetlands that surround Louisiana are the most important protections against storm season. The more damage the nutria do to the wetlands, the more damage hurricanes will do to the state.
Rodents Of Unusual Uses
Rodents of Unusual Size is an unusually short documentary. It barely comes in over the hour mark. Yet within that scant time frame, co-directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler, and Jeff Springer manage to squeeze in an awful lot. Much of this documentary is simply illustrating the wide variety of ways that Louisianans have come up with for dealing with the nutria problem.
First and foremost is the money that trappers can earn from their tails. The state will give $5 for each tail, and considering the amount of rodents that are still out there, prodigious trappers can earn enough from nutria-hunting to support their whole family. This is a particular blessing during the winter months, when the waters are too cold to yield their usual bounty.
Then there’s the fur. Whilst animal-rights activists had put a near-halt to production of nutria fur, in recent years attitudes have changed. Nutria fur isn’t like other fur. They are being killed out of necessity, not for fashion, and so wearing their fur is generally seen as preventing a waste, rather than cruelty. Garments made using their fur are actually more sustainable than the fake kind, which contains plastics which are bad for the environment. Nutria fur may not have become widely fashionable yet, but it seems that day may not be long off.
The same is not necessarily true for the third major use of nutria: food. As they are herbivorous, nutria apparently make for a lean meat, and a tasty one. Louisiana has tried a campaign recruiting celebrity chefs to come to the state and create dishes using the rodents. Whilst the chefs have won some converts, for the most part, people are not keen on tucking into unusually large rats, however delicious they may be. And who can blame them?
There are other, more esoteric uses. Some keep nutria as pets. There’s a beauty contest where the winner is awarded a nutria fur coat, and a nutria-skinning competition. The New Orleans Baby Cakes minor league baseball team even boast a nutria as their mascot! However much damage they may be doing to the land on which they dwell, Louisianans have accepted the rodents as an important part of their culture.
Rodents And Resilience
Beyond the manifold uses of nutria, there’s another theme running through Rodents Of Unusual Size, and that is resilience.
We meet many (human) characters in the documentary. The person we spend the most time with is Thomas Gonzales. He and his wife lost their house a decade ago during Hurricane Katrina. Unlike most of their friends, they decided to stay in Southern Louisiana, despite the often destructive weather that threatens to take everything from them again. Thomas, along with his son Tommy, make their living from hunting nutria.
Early in the film we hear Thomas marvel at the fact that Katrina could wreck his house and so much of Louisiana, and yet leave the nutria population unharmed. It is not lost on him that despite the damage the rodents have done to the wetlands, they have also enabled him to provide for his family. He also recognises what he, in his determination to stay in his hometown despite the risks, shares with the nutria. “We’ve got something in common, me and the nutria. He’s a survivor like me. He wants to survive.” He may make his money from killing the rodents, but he still respects them.
And this shared human/rodent resilience is really what Rodents Of Unusual Size is all about. Whilst the various efforts to curb the nutria population have been successful (estimates are that they currently number five million), it seems unlikely that they will ever be completely eradicated. And so the residents of Southern Louisiana have come to respect them. The people and the nutria both live in inhospitable environments. Death and danger is always lurking just around the corner. The fact that both people and nutria are still residing there quite happily is nothing short of miraculous. That is what this documentary celebrates.
Rodents Of Unusual Size: In Conclusion
Rodents Of Unusual Size is a lesson in just how much a canny filmmaker can fit into a documentary that’s barely an hour long. It presents the surprisingly complicated history of these unusually-sized rodents in an entertaining and informative way, it illustrates the varying viewpoints surrounding the nutria in an accessible manner, and beneath it all serves as a loving tribute to human fortitude in the wake of natural disasters.
Have you seen Rodents Of Unusual Size? What did you think?
Rodents Of Unusual Size is released in the US on November 15th. For further release information, click here.
Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.