Would you wear a swamp rat around your shoulders? Michael Massimi, the invasive-species coordinator at the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) in southeast Louisiana, hopes swamp rats–properly known as nutrias–will become part of your wardrobe, reports Barry Yeoman in OnEarth.
The scruffy, long-tailed rodents, originally from South America, were brought to Louisiana in the 1930s for their fur. As the demand for pelts decreased, nutrias became a serious threat to the state’s 6,600 square miles of wetlands, which are disappearing at an alarming 25 square miles a year. Yeoman explains:
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.
With mangy brown fur and long orange teeth, nutrias are not pretty animals. Nonetheless, Massimi and New Orleans designer Cree McCree, of the Righteous Fur project, have staged fashion shows in New Orleans and Brooklyn featuring nutria-fur hats, a nutria bikini, a nutria-lined robe, and a backless nutria teddy to highlight the animal’s potential in the fashion world. Already, high-end designers like Oscar de la Renta and Billy Reid have taken notice, incorporating nutria into their collections.
So what happens in the unlikely event that nutria fever spreads throughout the fashion world? “Massimi knows there’s a paradox in developing a nutria fur market,” Yeoman writes, as Massimi tells him:
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.