Rodents of Unusual Size

The documentary "Rodents of Unusual Size" looks at Louisiana's battle with an invasive species of giant rat.

When life gives you giant rats, make giant rat gumbo.

That’s the message from the documentary “Rodents of Unusual Size,” which played Tuesday night at the Wisconsin Film Festival. It has an encore showing at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at AMC Madison 6.

Nutria are the rats in question, and the film is not kidding about their size. Ranging in size from 15 to 30 pounds (about the size of a healthy Jack Russell Terrier, if a healthy Jack Russell Terrier had giant orange teeth), nutria are decimating the ecosystem along the Louisiana coastline.

The rats are an invasive species originally from Argentina, brought to Louisiana in the 1920s by an entrepreneur who thought their pelts could be used for fur coats as a cheaper alternative to mink. The plan worked for a while, until the nutria escaped captivity and began to breed in the wild. When the fur industry hit rock bottom in the 1980s due in part to animal rights protests, trappers gave up trying to trap them, and nutria multiplied even further. Now there are estimated to be several million roaming Louisiana, and the state has given up hope of eliminating them.

The film shows the serious consequences of the nutria’s impact on the ecosystem and the resilience of Louisianans who are trying to make the best of things. Trappers and animal control officers kill and catch as many animals as they can to try and stem the rising tide of rats. Fashion designers are using nutria pelts to make more edgy sorts of fashion to appeal to an alternative crowd, and New Orleans chefs are using nutria meat in their dishes. Tastes like rabbit, apparently.

There are Fur Queen pageants and nutria-skinning contests, and one minor-league baseball team even uses the nutria as its mascot, orange teeth and all. In a way, Louisianans’ relationship to nutria mirrors their fortitude living in a post-Katrina world — they know they’re in serious trouble, but want to make the best of it. The film jumps around a lot, but maintains that emotional balance throughout.

“There’s such joy and such life, but these people live in the specter of coastal erosion,” said co-director Quinn Costello, who made the film with Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer. In a way, the film is about two resilient species that refuse to back down — the nutria and the Louisianan. 

The Wisconsin Film Festival continues through Thursday at AMC Madison 6. Visit wifilmfest.org for a complete schedule.

Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.