Rodents of Unusual Size (Costello, Metzler & Springer, 2017)

Though it’s only just slightly over an hour, Rodents of Unusual Size covers a lot of ground when it comes to the nutria, a large, rat-like invasive species terrorizing the wetlands of Louisiana. From its history as a source of inexpensive pelts in the early twentieth century, to the damage its very existence is causing to the state’s coastal regions today, the filmmakers provide a reasonably thorough primer on this curious beast, and by and large it’s quite entertaining. What I most appreciated was that the film’s stance was not limited to one sweeping claim that the nutria are bad news and need to be hunted down as much as possible. The filmmakers are careful to explore issues of sustainability and stewardship with regard to the animal, including its possible use as a food source and a revived interest in its pelt for eco-friendly fashion. Because, yes, fur can be eco-friendly if it means helping save wetlands from an invasive species! They also look into the fact that the hunters licensed to keep nutria populations in check rely heavily on the income provided by the tails they turn in, so that the initial cruelty of seeing these creatures die en masse is mitigated by all these factors.

Even diehard animal lovers are addressed here; the film briefly shows us that some Louisianans find the nutria to be cute mainstays in their daily lives, and we even get to meet one guy who has a nutria for a pet. It really comes out to be a very generous documentary in that sense, because every viable viewpoint is touched on to some degree. Again, perhaps they’re not all given equal weighting due to the film’s shortness, but enough is covered here to give you an informed opinion on the issues at hand. Furthermore, on an aesthetic front, the filmmakers all do a splendid job of capturing the starkness of the wetlands on film, interpolating some lovely segments of Louisianan and Cajun culture to evoke the environment that the nutria are threatening. I was also pleasantly surprised to find so much meditation on the bigger stakes—namely, how hurricanes will only strengthen in force as the coastal regions are depleted further and further by factors like uncontrolled nutria growth. The focus on one particular couple, who lost their home due to a natural disaster, helps concretize the consequences to those who wish to retain their livelihoods in precarious areas.

The environment, and our interactions with it, is a linked chain; as this film shows, actionable steps can be taken to keep environmental disasters at bay, but they need to be concerted. Controlling the nutria is one measurable effort, and while killing this animal seems like an unpleasant task, the things that will happen if it’s not done will be much, much worse in scope. Solutions have to be found, and fortunately, Rodents of Unusual Size does a great job of presenting many of them.

Special thanks to Chris Metzler for reaching out to me with a screener!