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If Ya Can't Beat 'Em, Wear 'Em

RIGHTEOUS FUR Nutria pelts are used for hats and decorative trim.
One Louisiana biologist grew tired of watching the nutria, an invasive swamp rat, eat away at his state's coastal wetlands. His solution: start a fashion trend.

"That's the nutria-bikini-clad cello player who provided the ambient music," says Michael Massimi, the invasive-species coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP). The nutria is a large, whiskery rodent, and Massimi, smartphone in hand, is showing photos he took at a rather unusual fashion show.

He describes the evening's highlight: "A tall, buxom woman comes out in a robe with a nutria lining. She walks to the end of the catwalk and drops the robe, and she's wearing a nutria teddy that's completely backless."

"You didn't get a picture?" asks Massimi's boss, Kerry St. Pé. Of course Massimi has a picture.

There's a serious dimension to this outrageous show, dubbed Nutria-palooza! and held in November at New Orleans's Ogden Museum of Southern Art. The nutria was originally imported from South America to Louisiana in the 1930s for its fur. Shortly thereafter, some of the animals escaped -- or were released -- from captivity and started devouring the state's coastal wetlands. Nutrias, which reproduce quickly, eat freshwater marsh vegetation down to its roots. "They're the termites of our coastal wetlands," Massimi says. "This is an existential issue. The marsh ain't big enough for the two of us." Nutrias also eat young cypress trees in Louisiana's swamps and burrow into hurricane-protection levees, destabilizing them.

Trapping kept populations in check until the 1980s, when fur lost its cachet and the price of pelts plummeted. In a 1999 aerial survey, more than 100,000 acres of Louisiana wetlands showed telltale signs of nutria damage. In 2002 the state put a bounty on nutria tails, which is now at $5 a tail. That spurred an increase in hunting, allowing the wetlands to regenerate and reducing the damaged area to fewer than 8,500 acres. During the 2009–10 season, the state paid $2.2 million for 446,000 tails. But most of the carcasses get discarded. There has been little demand for the fur, and the meat has even less appeal, despite efforts to promote dishes like smoked nutria and andouille sausage gumbo.

That's where Massimi comes in. BTNEP, one of 28 estuary programs established by Congress under the Clean Water Act, is charged with helping to preserve 6,600 square miles of Lousiana's coastal wetlands, including the estuary, which the program calls "the fastest-disappearing land mass in the world." These wetlands, which protect the state from hurricane damage and provide much of the nation's energy and seafood, are vanishing at a rate of 25 square miles a year.

A couple of years ago, Massimi met Cree McCree, a New Orleans designer who was putting together a fashion show featuring materials harvested from coastal Louisiana. As McCree recalls, "Michael said, 'Why don't you throw some nutria into the mix?' "He scored her a handful of pelts and a basket of nutria teeth to create jewelry. In 2009 his organization awarded her a $4,500 grant to launch her Righteous Fur project.

Since then McCree has designed nutria hats and other accessories. Two events at a New Orleans theater included screenings of a documentary about the rodent and talks with Massimi and a traditional skinner and dealer. In November, McCree and Massimi made their first foray outside Louisiana, taking Nutria-palooza! to a Brooklyn art space.

Some high-end designers, including Oscar de la Renta and Billy Reid, have started incorporating nutria into their collections. Massimi has even noticed an evolution toward "utilitarian pieces" like iPad covers.

Massimi knows there's a paradox in developing a nutria fur market. "If you're trying to rid it from the environment, then isn't your business plan to go out of business?" he asks. "We're defeating the purpose if there's an economic incentive for people to, say, farm nutria. That's absolutely not what we want to do. But, frankly, that's a problem I would love to have."

image of Barry Yeoman
Barry Yeoman is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina. In addition to OnEarth, his work has appeared in Discover; O, The Oprah Magazine; AARP The Magazine; and Audubon. His web site is www.barryyeoman.com.
This is certainly an interesting article. Making the nutria fashionable should certainly get rid of them faster. Especially if Oscar de la Renta has something to do with it.
There was a reason "fur lost its cachet" in the 80's. It's cruel and completely uncool to wear dead animals as a status symbol. Conspicuous consumption of High-end fashion and fur covered IPads being promoted to save an estuary is not what I would call "environmentally sound". Why don't these rich people just save the estuary directly. Why do we always have to cruelly kill some poor animal that did nothing wrong but live its life. Humane trapping IS possible and humane euthanasia is also possible. I suppose the idea of relocating them back to their original habitat would be impractical even though it would be the right thing to do. But that wouldn't be as much fun for trappers. It was our crime against nature, but the animal, as usual, has to get the death penalty in the nastiest way possible - leg-hold traps, then fashion victim. If we're going to use one ecological mistake to fix another, the possibilities are endless - a veritable pest "palooza"! Maybe next year they could do Feral cat purses to save the rain forest or black bird hats for clean energy. Everyone has a favorite enemy and a favorite cause! Oh so "righteous."
NRDC what are you thinking? Mr. Massimi's efforts to validate the wearing of fur by riding the "Green Wave" is nothing more than a short sighted, selfish, quick fix for the state of Louisiana. Louisianans should need no other reason to deal with the Nutria other than the fact that for many, their livelihood and future depends on these valuable coastal wetlands. The wearing of fur is never "Righteous", regardless of how you package it. Encouraging the public to up their appetite for fur by removing the social stigma is only opening a Pandora's Box. I am enormously saddened that Mr. Massimi was given a platform in the pages of "On Earth". The editors appear to have swallowed the Green Bait, hook, line, and sinker. To anyone who buys into this idea that it is "Righteous" to wear fur if it is from an invasive species consider this: In the United States there are approximately 93 Million Domestic Cats. Domestic Cats wreak havoc on native Reptiles, Mammals, And most especially Birds. They spread disease to both native wildlife and Humans . They are an invasive species. Perhaps when Mr. Massimi rids Louisiana of its Nutria he can expand his work to the National level...to work on the Greening of America! Maybe NRDC will even run another story on his new "pet" project, they can call it Heeeere Kitty, Kitty, Kitty!