Would you please pass me my rat hat?

Nutria: If you can’t beat ‘em, wear ‘em! (The Brooklyn Paper)

Moral conundrum: At what point is an animal so disgusting that our niggling concerns about animal cruelty fall by the wayside, and we say, “Kill it! Skin it! Eat it! Wear it!”

Take, for example, the cockroach. It’s a bad example, because it’s not an animal, but stay with me here: I recall my first day of employment at an environmental organization called The Natural Resources Defense Council. From down the hall, I heard the pitter patter of tiny footsteps as the floor shook slightly to the rhythm. I emerged from my office to discover an enormous cockroach sauntering about the hallway, terrorizing everyone in its path. But lest you think the good people at NRDC are all talk and no action, onto the scene burst enviro-hero Mathew Perrin, who captured the cockroach between a cup and a piece of paper and released it into nature (or, as it was, onto West 20th Street in Manhattan, next to a methadone clinic.) And maybe that’s why I didn’t last there. Because as much as I worry about the longer-term environmental impacts of our blithe use of pesticides and believe that no living thing deserves death by chemical incineration, I keep a can of Raid in my apartment, and I use it liberally and without internal moral conflict in those occasional events when a cockroach finds its way into my living room. It’s just too disgusting any other way.

A better example, perhaps, is the Canada goose. If you haven’t heard, those fuckers poop four times their weight daily, not to mention what they’re capable of doing to airplanes. There’s also the Alec Baldwin connection*. While certainly I believe that they should be dealt with in the most humane manner possible, I have absolutely zero moral qualms with, ahem, dealing with them.

And so we find ourselves considering the curious case of the nutria. First of all, will you look at this thing??

Since there isn’t anything in the picture to give a sense of scale, I’ll have you know that the nutria is one big-ass rodent: Adults typically weigh 11-20 pounds; they’re 16-24 inches long; and they trail a 12-18 inch tail behind them. Apparently these beasts were introduced to Louisiana in the 1930s, and they didn’t waste any time getting down to business.

Nutria, imported from Argentina in the 1930s for their pelts, were released into Louisiana’s marshland and soon became a threat to the natural habitat because they breed year round, reach sexual maturity within months, and are extremely prolific.

This being a Brooklyn newspaper, there’s of course the gratuitous shot at hipsters:

In that way, they’re sort of like hipsters.

All joking aside, apparently we’re talking about some nasty little bastards here. But don’t just take it from me; take it from the Cornell University Cooperative Extension:

Burrowing is the most commonly reported damage caused by nutria. Nutria are notorious in Louisiana and Texas for undermining and breaking through water-retaining levees in flooded fields used to produce rice and crawfish. Additionally, nutria burrows sometimes weaken flood control levees that protect low-lying areas. In some cases, tunneling in these levees is so extensive that water will flow unobstructed from one side to the other, necessitating their complete reconstruction.

Nutria sometimes burrow into the styrofoam flotation under boat docks and wharves, causing these structures to lean and sink. They may burrow under buildings, which may lead to uneven settling or failure of the foundations. Burrows can weaken roadbeds, stream banks, dams, and dikes, which may collapse when the soil is saturated by rain or high water, or when subjected to the weight of heavy objects on the surface (such as vehicles, farm machinery, or grazing livestock). Rain and wave action can wash out and enlarge collapsed burrows and compound the damage.

Nutria depredation on crops is well documented. In the United States, sugarcane and rice are the primary crops damaged by nutria … Other crops that have been damaged include corn, sugar and table beets, alfalfa, wheat, barley, oats, peanuts, various melons, and a variety of vegetables from home gardens and truck farms …Nutria girdle fruit, nut, and shade trees and ornamental shrubs. They also dig up lawns and golf courses when feeding on the tender roots and shoots of sod grasses. Gnawing damage to wooden structures is common. At high densities and under certain adverse environmental conditions, foraging nutria can significantly impact natural plant communities.

In Louisiana, nutria often feed on seedling baldcypress and can cause the complete failure of planted or naturally-regenerated stands. Overutilization of emergent marsh plants can damage stands of desirable vegetation used by other wildlife species and aggravate coastal erosion problems by destroying vegetation that holds marsh soils together.

Nutria can be infected with several pathogens and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, livestock, and pets … They may also host a number of parasites, including the nematodes and blood flukes that cause “swimmer’s-itch” or “nutria-itch,” the protozoan responsible for giardiasis, tapeworms, and common liver flukes.

I also heard they were talking shit about yo’ momma and might, in fact, be the true reason the economy collapsed in 2008. Clearly, they have to go. Enter Nutria-palooza!

Brooklyn designers and artists are teaming up with Louisianans to stage Nutria-palooza!, a Nov. 21 fashion show and wetlands benefit at Bushwick’s House of Yes that will feature the fur of rodents rounded up by bounty hunters … The show will feature two dozen designers, including “Mad Men”-era cocktail wraps, wintery coats, and even a fur-lined wedding dress. And what’s a fashion show about a pernicious pest without music? … [The] band PRIMA PRIMO will not only perform, but will wear nutria-gangster outfits.

I’m hoping they’ll wear this!

PETA is, of course, up in arms. And as much as I think your average PETA production is rife with insanity, I do agree with them on the fundamental idea that it is cruel and morally wrong to kill animals for no other purpose than to use their fur for clothing. Nutria, however, present a unique case: The animal is not being killed exclusively for its fur. In fact, in most cases, the animal is killed exclusively because it is a pest, and its corpse is discarded. Would it not, in fact, be more honorable to eat the animal’s meat and use its fur for clothing and its bright orange teeth for jewelry?

Perhaps. But I also understand the arguments advanced by the opponents of so-called “Guilt-Free Fur.” I have a visceral reaction to women in fur coats, and to the extent that my reaction is fairly common, it helps minimize the number of animals that are killed exclusively for their fur. However, if we introduce shades of acceptability, will that weaken the fairly universal condemnation of, for lack of a better term, guilt-ridden fur? Vintage fur as a reduced-guilt gray area has never really caught on, but “guilt-free” nutria fur is a much easier sell. And, indeed, it’s already begun to proliferate:

Oscar de la Renta featured a nutria vest in his fall/winter collection and designer Billy Reid, who refers to the pelt as “bad-ass fur” used it for collars, hats and an evening cape.

I mean, there’s an extent to which much of this is intellectual. We are talking about rodent fur here. Those of us who reside in the almost universal middle ground between kitschy, small-scale designers in Brooklyn and high-end, couture designers in Paris likely would never be caught dead in a rat hat. So the weakening of our moral resolve against mink as a result of a massive proliferation of nutria is likely not a potential for which we must prepare. But it’s an interesting question. At least, I think it is: Is there such a thing as “guilt-free” fur?

[* Attentive readers might recall that little asterisk following my mention of Alec Baldwin way back toward the beginning of this post. Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten about it; I would never forget an opportunity to regale you my reasons for disliking Alec Baldwin. From whence sprung my remarkably durable anti-Alec sentiment? No, it’s not related to that substance-induced, profanity-laden, and very much abusive voicemail he left to his 11 year-old daughter a couple years ago. (Though, it mystifies me that your average fan of 30 Rock has been quite so forgiving of the incident. I’m not saying you can’t enjoy the show. I just don’t understand the popular sentiment that the guy’s some kind of national treasure.) Anyhow, my ill will toward Alec Baldwin has a much longer and far more personal history: Dude was one of those Peace for the Geese assholes back in the mid-1990s. My town had a problem with Canada geese, so Alec Baldwin had a problem with my town. Admittedly, the proposed plan to kill the geese and feed them to the homeless was likely ill-conceived. But it really stuck in my craw that some Hollywood heavyweight could roll into town and brand us as bad people for being concerned that our parks were carpeted in filthy, disease-ridden goose poop. And so, while America laughs and clamors for evermore Alec Baldwin — Hosting Saturday Night Live! Appearing in Hulu commercials! — I simmer quietly, decades old injury not yet healed.)


One comment on "Would you please pass me my rat hat?"

  1. Points for using “craw” and “disease-ridden goose poop” in the same sentence. =)

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