Food, fur, pets.
Those are some uses humans have found for nutria. The giant, semiaquatic rodents also inspired Boudreaux D. Nutria, mascot for the New Orleans Baby Cakes minor league baseball team.
Meanwhile, the invasive, voracious herbivores are eating the Louisiana coast. Nutria consumption of plant roots in wetlands can transform marshes into salty dead zones.
In the amusing and alarming “Rodents of Unusual Size,” three San Francisco Bay Area filmmakers document nutria impact. The film makes its Louisiana debut at 6 p.m. Friday at the Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center.
Filmmakers and cast members will attend the Friday, Saturday and Sunday screenings. “Rodents of Unusual Size” is playing at Zeitgeist at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily through Aug. 30.
Actor and New Orleans native Wendell Pierce narrates “Rodents” in resonant tones. The Grammy-winning Lost Bayou Ramblers created the film’s soundtrack.
In addition to copious nutria, co-directors Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer populate the documentary with colorful Louisiana humans. Delacroix Island fisherman Thomas Gonzales is the engaging principal character. His peers call him the king of the nutria hunters. A natural storyteller, Gonzales embodies his vanishing culture.
“He’s my buddy,” Gonzales says of the nutria species. “I tell you what. He paid my bills and supported my three kids. Can’t deny him. He was a good friend.”
Another nutria hunter, Liz LeCompte, makes a memorable stand. “Cajun women, they not afraid to get they hands dirty,” she says after a nutria kill. “All my family’s from over here, but if the land’s gone, then me and my family don’t have a future.”
Nutria hunters earn a $5 bounty for each nutria tail they deliver to the Coastwide Nutria Control Program. The bounty program has helped reduce southern Louisiana’s nutria population from 20 million to 5 million. Hunters turn in about 500,000 nutria tails a year.
The filmmakers demonstrate the culinary uses for nutria with a visit to New Orleans. Musician and cook Kermit Ruffins barbecues nutria at his gigs. “I’m a master chef and I play music on the side,” Ruffins says. Award-winning chef Susan Spicer stir-fries nutria. Cree McCree, the founder of Righteous Fur, shows fashion applications for nutria pelts and other parts of the creature.
“Rodents” filmmakers Metzler and Springer discovered nutria about a decade ago. When they screened their environmentally themed documentary “Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea” in Shreveport, a film programmer suggested they do a project about Louisiana’s nutria problem.
The idea stayed with Metzler and Springer for years. About four years ago, while having drinks with Costello, their friend and fellow filmmaker, the three of them agreed to collaborate for “Rodents of Unusual Size.”
For three years, the filmmakers periodically flew to Louisiana during nutria hunting season, which is November to April. They filmed in Delacroix Island, New Orleans, Kenner, Morgan City, Lafayette and the Native American village of Grand Bayou in Plaquemines Parish.
“We didn’t want to just throw the facts up on screen,” Metzler said recently from the Bay Area. “We wanted to capture a story as it evolved.”
“Our biggest hope,” Costello said, “was that we could put something on screen that resonates with the people who live in these communities under threat.”
Several Louisiana expats have seen “Rodents of Unusual Size” at film festival screenings throughout the country.
“Our most gratifying screenings,” Costello said, “are when people from Louisiana see the film and say, ‘That’s my family up there. You captured the life I had growing up.’ ”
Gonzales, Ruffins, Spicer and others who work with nutria in one way or another made huge contributions to the film, Costello said. “We relied on the graciousness and openheartedness of the people down there.”
As destructive as nutria are, “Rodents of Unusual Size” doesn’t paint the creature as the villain.
“Nutria are causing a huge problem, but they didn’t ask to be brought here,” Metzler said. “They’re just doing what they’re biologically built to do — breed and eat up vegetation.”
Not every nutria in the documentary is wild or dead. Nooty, a trained member of the species, appears in transition scenes and the tunnel footage in the film’s title sequence. Nooty and her trainers, David and Karen Milliken, plus nuisance animal control officer Michael Beran will be guests at Saturday’s 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. screenings at Zeitgeist.
“Nooty is quite the diva,” Metzler said. “But she was very well behaved on the red carpet at the EarthX Film Festival in Dallas.”
Nutria hunter Gonzales will be a special guest at Friday’s 6 p.m. screening. Righteous Fur’s McCree will attend the Friday 8 p.m. screening.
“Thomas is timing his appearance around going dancing,” Costello said. “Afterward he’s going to go cut it up at the clubs.”