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