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One town's plague of Rodents of Unusual Size

Nathan Coleman

Tuesday, September 18, 2018, 8:09 PM - It hasn't been a good century so far for the Louisiana town of Delacroix Island. After enduring hurricanes -- including the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005 -- and oil spills, the people of the community now have to contend with massive, 20-pound rodents known as nutria.

They're an invasive species that have been devouring the coastal wetlands around the town, a key barrier against hurricanes and storm surge, but the locals have been fighting back. Now, their war against the invaders has been chronicled in a new documentary, aptly named "Rodents of Unusual Size." We caught up with producer and co-director Chris Metzler. Here's what he told us.

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How have weather conditions contributed to the size of the rodents?

Nutria grow to be around 20 pounds and these semi-aquatic swamp rats an invasive species in Louisiana. This has caused a lot of problems as nutria are herbivores and are eating up the vegetation in the wetlands, which accelerates coastal erosion. This process increases the impact of storms and hurricanes.

Why are the rodents causing concern as it relates to hurricanes and erosion?

The wetlands of Louisiana both provide a rich fishery of shrimp, crab and oysters for the people to harvest, but also provide a buffer to protect communities from storm surge and flooding.

What made you decide to create an entire film around rodents?

As climate change continues to literally move populations, we hope that this film spurs conversations about what makes a place worth preserving and how far should we go to hang on to places that appear to be destined to be destroyed. 

We see the story of this most unlikely invasive species as an entry-point to a unique part of the world that is rapidly changing before our eyes. We wanted to document the place at this moment of time and the nutria served as a  good through-line. The three of us filmmakers are big fans of quirky documentaries with interesting characters trying to overcome the odds. Even though this movie is about giant swamp rats (and what’s not to love about that) we hope the broader environmental themes resonate beyond the animals.

Were they a difficult subject to work with?

While there are millions of nutria in south Louisiana, they are skittish of humans and so it is difficult to film them. However, with a lot of patience we were able to capture some great scenes.

Did anyone on the crew get squeamish?

We always thought it was likely tougher for Jeff because as being both a director and cinematographer he had put his face up close and personal with all of those dead nutria. However he always felt that looking through the lens or at the viewfinder kind of creates a barrier to all of this action you are witnessing and so you feel a bit detached. But as the bodies pile up (any given hunt could yield a body count as high as 300 nutrias) and you look up from the camera it quickly brings you back to reality. 

And then after awhile when you see the destruction they cause and consider how many other animals are going to suffer because of that we started to understand and accept that hunting is just part of what's necessary and controlling their numbers. Also, hunting is not just about collecting food. It's really an activity that bonds families together.


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