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Rodents of Unusual Size
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by Lybarger

"Come of the giant rats. Stay for the people who live with them."
4 stars

The team behind Tilapia Films (Quinn Costello, Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer) have managed to make environmental horror stories that are also humanistic and occasionally hilarious. Their movies don’t berate the viewers what human folly has done to the planet. Instead, they wisely focus on what has to be done with the current catastrophe.

They also excel at making ecological ruin entertaining.

Rodents of Unusual Size, like Tilapia’s previous movie, Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea, recounts how a seemingly great idea had long term consequences that make the ones in the Book of Revelations seem mild.

In this case, the destructor is not the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man but something equally absurd: 20-30 pound furry rodents called nutria. They have with long, bright orange teeth. The title, of course, refers to fearsome beasts in The Princess Bride, and the critters in the documentary are roughly the same size.

Nutria, for those who haven’t encountered them before, look like beings from another planet, but they actually hail from Argentina. Nonetheless, they do as much damage to terrain in Louisiana and Arkansas as ET’s evil cousins can.

As New Orleans native Wendell Pierce drolly narratives, leaders in the south needed a new industry to rejuvenate an economy crushed by the Great Depression. It’s easier to make a fur coat from a nutria than from a mink, so importing the beasts seemed like a good idea.

When the market for fur evaporated in the 1980s, the beasts, unfortunately did not.

In South America, anacondas and mountain cats keep the number of nutria in check. There are no such creatures in Louisiana or the rest of the States, so their numbers have grown, and the damage they cause is considerable.

The film documents how dredging for petroleum contributed to the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina because the trees in the wetlands helped protect New Orleans and other low lying areas. Nutria, who eat the seedlings and just about any vegetation imaginable, keep those wetland from growing back.

While the nutria are genuinely fascinating, if destructive creatures, Rodents of Unusual Size focuses primarily on how Louisianans have learned to live with the orange-toothed menace.

To prevent further erosion and other damage (nutria build tunnels that destroy dams, roads and farmland), the state pays $5 a piece for their tails because their pelts aren’t as valuable anymore. People who have lived in the deltas for decades supplement their incomes by hunting. These scenes look less like stereotypical images of swampland and more like something from a Mad Max movie.

Most of the people in Rodents of Unusual Size have had to learn how to deal with deal with the animals, and their creativity is astonishing. New Orleans chefs cook them because they’re plentiful. It’s hard to think of a more free range type of meat.

There are also fashion shows demonstrating some stylish outfits that can be made from the animals even if they don’t comprise a multi billion dollar industry. One hunter keeps a nutria as a pet, and men in nutria costumes are mascots at baseball games.

Tilapia Films has a rare gift for celebrating local quirks without getting condescending to the people who have them. For example, animal control specialist Michael Beran depends on his beloved dog George W. Bush to find nutria that have wandered into his traps. If he were not a genuine animal lover, he’d be lousy at his job. His encyclopedic knowledge of nutria is at times intimidating.

At this point in history, second guessing Mother Nature is clearly established as a form of folly. Tilapia Films succeed because they realize that dealing with the results of that folly are is more enlightening and amusing than a tired but justified sermon.

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originally posted: 03/25/19 11:40:09
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Directed by
  Quinn Costello
  Chris Metzler
  Jeff Springer

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