Editors' Choice

Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal

by Darrin DuFord

Can two hundred tons of chili save a city?

Exciting events are not supposed to happen in the suburbs. I mean, what would the neighbors think?

So I wondered what the neighbors thought as I cruised past their curtained living rooms while shell casings flew in front of my nose. It was midnight and I was sitting in the back of a pickup truck between a two-man SWAT team that was blasting away at an insidious foreign invasion threatening to destroy New Orleans.

The invaders, from the lawless jungles of South America, are not aware of their transgressions. That’s because they are large, furry rodents called nutria. What’s worse, they did not choose to invade America; Americans brought them here. Imported in the 1930s for their luxuriously soft coats, they were released from farms in southern Louisiana when the price of the fur was high. Now that wearing rat has fallen out of vogue, the fur is almost worthless. Millions of litters later, the creatures have been ravaging the wetlands that protect New Orleans from storm surges, munching up vegetation with their unsettlingly orange buckteeth and leaving nothing but mud behind. The state now pays five dollars for each tail to encourage eradication -- but not a penny for the fur -- and has attracted few hunters.

More recently, some nutria, perhaps preferring a nicer neighborhood for raising their young, have moved into the burbs around New Orleans. But instead of taking advantage of the well-funded school systems, the rodents, averaging twelve pounds apiece, have been chewing up and burrowing into banks of the city’s canals, destabilizing levee walls and disrupting drainage in a city that lies mostly under the level of the ever-eager Lake Ponchartrain. Hurricane Katrina made the lake’s intentions clear.

If the nutria were left to do what they do best, America would not need another hurricane to undermine the levees. The Jefferson Parish sheriff’s office, however, is not about to let that happen. The truck I was jostling around in had prowled the same route many times before, including along the infamous Seventeenth Street Canal, where a breach during Katrina in 2005 had flooded most of downtown New Orleans. “We’ve been shootin’ these canals since 1995,” Major Kerry Najolia, overseer of the nutria eradication effort, mentioned to me, not without pride, when he drove me to meet the SWAT team.

His Crown Vic now followed the pickup, along with another truck, the carcass cleanup crew, forming the three-vehicle caravan of death. My shoes slipping on shell casings, I asked the baggy, camo-outfitted team what it’s like being paid to hunt. “We’re just tryin’ to help out before something bad happens,” Officer Sparky answered, a clump of tobacco bulging inside his lip. “They quick fellas, too.” He spit into his makeshift spit cup, an empty bottle of Coke, while aiming a spotlight at the other side of the canal along West Esplinade Avenue, part of Jefferson Parish’s 300 miles of drainage waterways. Sleeping strip malls and single-family homes trustingly overlooked both sides, while Officer Mark aimed his scoped Ruger .22 on the spotlight, searching for telltale damage above the waterline indicating what they call nutria condominiums.

We crept past a peaceful midnight scene of Americana - cul-de-sacs and backyard barbecue grills in the glaze of a light-bulb moon. These were the kind of houses harboring baseball card collections and potpourri bowls and toasters that create images of the Virgin Mary. It didn’t seem like a natural setting for squeezing off rounds.

Then the spotlight found the condominiums, networks of holes gouged into the canal bank, complete with a few pudgy balls of brownness lounging around as if moonlight nourished them. Nutria, Myocaster coypus, champions of chowing down, losers of beauty contests.

Above them, brickfaced houses nuzzled up to the canal. We were so close, I could see the curly metal trim around the doorbell buttons. Mark signaled for the driver to stop. “Yup, that’s a condominium,” Sparky remarked with unruffled inflection, as if he had said, “Yup, the train’s on time.” The .22 reported a deceptively short pop.

I kept reflecting that it’s not the nutria’s fault. They are just doing what nature intended, although nature never intended for them to do it on this continent. Inhaling gunpowder smoke and watching the cleanup crew collect the vanquished with a garden rake (the action spotlighted like a circus act gone wrong), I could not help but ponder how the answer to the nutria invasion has come down to this.

There used to be another answer: our stomachs. In 1998, in the wake of the fur market collapse, the state of Louisiana promoted the eating of nutria meat, which has more protein and less fat than beef. Since nutria only eat vegetables and roots, their meat is clean and healthy, meat that Chef Paul Prudhomme of K-Paul’s Restaurant began serving in his dishes of apple smoked nutria and nutria fricassee. Loyola University professor Robert Thomas then organized Nutriafest, an event at which Louisiana chefs slugged it out to see who could serve the tastiest presentation of the plentiful meat: a locavore’s prize.

Such and idea is not surprising coming from a state whose gastronomic ingenuity considers turtle and alligator fair game for the stew pot. Virgin toast or not, even New Orleans’ Holy Trinity is edible, thanks to the city having replaced the frustratingly metaphysical father/son/holy-ghost routine with the much more palatable communion of bell peppers, onions, and celery.

Confronted with an army of orange teeth, Louisiana had found a resolution that only Louisiana could deliver, a resolution that had grabbed me by my salivary glands and offered me a chance to serve my country as culinary patriot.

But not even Louisiana could deliver. The palettes of restaurant patrons turned bland and trembling at the thought of eating a healthy wild animal (no growth hormones or veal cages!) that happened to come from the dishonorable rodent family, no matter how beneficial for the city and the bayou.

Sure, Cajun hunters from the nearby bayou still make home-simmered stews from freshly trapped “nutra-rats,” an understandable choice for a resourceful culture that sews up turduckens and throws mudbugs into a spicy boil. (The insectile-looking mudbugs are better known as crawfish, now one of New Orleans’ most renowned offerings, even though crawfish are scavengers and eat dead matter that nutria won’t touch.) But a few years after the nutria promotion started, restaurants dropped it from their menus. Then the state cancelled the promotion.

Earlier in the day, I called chefs of several restaurants in New Orleans to see if they would be willing to bring back their smothered, smoked, and stuffed nutria. While the chefs enjoyed chatting about cooking invasive species as they prepared for evening service (one even shared tales of experimenting with nutria back in his culinary school days), none said yes, most of them citing the insurmountable rodent stigma. The critter non grata.

My quest then led me to a popular New Orleans cooking school (remaining anonymous at their request), where one instructor could not stop lustfully recounting her experiences with nutria tacos. “They’re eating the state, so we should eat them. By the way, nutria is great in chili too!” she beamed while the cashier stood by in mute, lip-biting horror.

Perhaps nutria needs a marketing makeover. Like a new name. How about calling it a bayou pig? Even tour guides can get in on the fun. Before our air-conditioned bus arrives at the dock for our swamp cruise, we’ll sit down at Stinky Thibodeaux’s Restaurant for his famous bayou pig etouffee. Laissez les bons temps rouler!

As for other solutions, traps lost consideration because they were not as fast and cheap as bullets. Poison did not receive the community’s approval. The prospect of releasing alligators -- natural predators of nutria -- into the canals similarly tanked, since alligators do not bother making a distinction between tasty nutria and tasty joggers.

Thus what might seem like a Wild West approach is the most efficient way to knock down the nutria population and spare the city from flooding. Which brings me back to the breezy pickup truck. The driver, Maurice, a superintendent of the drainage department, was scribbling out a meticulous tally of the evening’s score. Since 1995, the parish’s SWAT teams have bagged over 18,500 nutria, which could have made a half million servings of chili.

Sparky and Mark’s job seemed enviable: getting paid to hunt. But, alas, they had to work a regular eight-hour shift beforehand. Unlike in the wilds of the state where a hunter’s only worry is inadvertently pulling a Dick Cheney on his buddy, the Jefferson Parish SWAT team is shooting in a city. With the embankment so close to homes, a scant lapse in hand-eye coordination could send a bullet into someone’s living room.

Despite long days and a constant need for perfection, the team still managed to save time for smiling, all while their friends were most likely slurping down beers on Bourbon Street. When Mark’s .22 jammed, Sparky announced above his spit cup, “You’re an animal rights activist.”

“It’s easier to shoot nutria with a flashlight,” Mark fired back.

Such levity seemed unusual coming from an elite duo trained to take out drug lords and hostage takers. But I found myself strangely reassured by their approach, in all its defusing humanness. It’s that same untiring New Orleans spirit that returned to a flooded city three years ago and recaptured it.

The team will need the humor. “Even if we work 24/7, we can’t get them all,” Kerry mentioned. “They reproduce like you can’t believe.” Each female can start breeding at five months of age, and can crank out three litters per year, averaging five offspring per litter. They’re like tribbles with appetites of Pac Man. The nighttime shifts do provide an unrelated benefit, though: exceptional training, owing to low light conditions, moving targets, and an urban environment. Note to aspiring drug lords: the SWAT team is a damn good shot.

As the casings filled up the pickup bed, I tried to assess my mission. I had arrived to sample nutria prepared by the inventive hands of a New Orleans chef. I was ready to eat one for the team. But I was denied a chance at culinary patriotism. Some nutria, however, would be destined for gullets, albeit not in the finest of dining settings: all spoils of the night’s shift would feed the alligators at the zoo. While my visceral half -- now engorged with darting curiosity and adrenaline -- begged to snag one of the carcasses and stew it, I decided I didn’t want to rob a caged creature of its feeding time pleasures.

So what did the neighbors think? In diligent suburban fashion, few wandered around at midnight, in naked contrast to Bourbon Street five miles away, where you're never more than a tittie beads' toss from a frozen drink machine. But with a roving sniper in the cradle of the American Dream, where were the gasping mouths? The community protests? Instead, one pedestrian barked at us, “Hey, I wanna shoot too!” while another waved a sloppy hand at us and asked, “Y’all goin’ after gators?” No, just their breakfast, actually.

If the SWAT team were patrolling around any other suburban landscape in the States, the reaction would have probably been less amicable. But New Orleans’ version of normalcy comes fortified with an attraction to the second amendment.

Throw in a fondness of spice rubs and New Orleanders just might be willing to help their city by barbecuing nutria on their backyard grills after all. As long as their neighbors don’t find out.


Darrin DuFord is a self-described connoisseur of slow-cooked, bush rodent but draws the line at hunting in the New York City subway system. His book Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car won the silver medal in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards. He has contributed articles to Transitions Abroad, GoNOMAD, and Perceptive Travel, where “Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal” first appeared. Read his latest travel pieces and recipes on his web site, www.OmnivorousTraveler.com. DuFord won the Travel & Food Silver for "Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal" in the Fourth Annual Solas Awards.

About Editors' Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we've received from travelers around the world and present it here as our "Editors' Choice." For more about the editors, see About Travelers' Tales Staff.




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