Evergreen grad’s ‘Rodents of Unusual Size’ sounds like a horror film -- and maybe it is

Thomas Gonzales defends Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria.
Thomas Gonzales defends Delacroix Island, Louisiana, from the invasion of nutria. Courtesy of Quinn Costello

You might be familiar with “Rodents of Unusual Size” as fictional creatures in the 1987 comedy “The Princess Bride.”

But the 2017 film screening Sunday in Olympia is neither a “Bride” follow-up nor a horror flick — although some might be horrified by what they’re about to read.

“Rodents of Unusual Size” is a documentary, and the titular animals, known as nutria or swamp rats, are voracious eaters who can weigh upwards of 20 pounds each.

It gets worse. The film, co-directed by 2001 Evergreen State College graduate Quinn Costello, is set in Louisiana, but nutria have been found in coastal areas around the country — including Olympia’s Capitol Lake. (The screening here will be followed by a Q&A with Costello and ecologist Tara Chestnut, who’ll address local nutria issues.)

At least these rats are vegetarians, though. They can be aggressive, but they’re mainly a danger to the environment. Imported from their native South America to the United States in the 1930s in an attempt to establish fur farms, nutria breed so quickly and eat so much that they’ve accelerated Louisiana’s coastal erosion, creating large swaths of swampland.

“The hunters catch up to 1,200 in a day,” Costello, now of Oakland, California, told The Olympian. “The ground was moving in some areas with all of these giant rodents.”

People in Louisiana are fighting back. Hunters kill the creatures for a state-paid bounty of $5 per tail.

Chefs have created recipes. (It tastes like rabbit, Costello said.)

Fashion designers are marketing the fur as sustainable, because the animals, which have no natural predators in North America, are being killed, anyway.

These efforts have failed to get the population under control. “Stopping the nutrias is mission impossible,” bounty hunter Thomas Gonzales says in the film. “The good lord couldn’t get rid of them.”

Thanks to Gonzales and his ilk — and to the filmmakers’ obvious sense of humor — this environmental catastrophe film is often whimsical and ultimately cheerful, which has earned it plenty of attention.

It’s been screened at dozens of film festivals and won several jury awards.

David Lewis of the San Francisco Chronicle described it as “a bit icky yet full of charm,” and Randy Myers of the San Jose Mercury News summed it up as “a bizarre and fascinating documentary that’ll make your jaw drop.”

Despite the number of nutria they saw in four years of filming, Costello and fellow directors Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer had difficulty getting footage of live examples, which are understandably shy and able to stay underwater for as long as 10 minutes.

Until, that is, they met Nooty the Nutria, who has her own Facebook page.

She provided close-ups, including the last shot in which she watches the endearingly upbeat Gonzales dance with his wife — a moment Costello described as “fairy-tale hyperrealism.”

“She is a precious little princess,” Costello said of the rodent. “She’s been to a couple of these screenings and has walked the red carpet.”

Good news for those likely to find the film more than “a bit icky”: Nooty isn’t coming to Olympia. Transporting nutria across state lines is a tricky process.

‘Rodents of Unusual Size’

What: The 2017 documentary, co-directed by Evergreen State College graduate Quinn Costello, focuses on nutria, the rodents who’ve taken over the swamps of Louisiana, and the people who are fighting back. After the screening, there’ll be a Q&A with Costello and ecologist Tara Chestnut, who’ll talk about nutria in Washington state.

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Capitol Theater, 206 Fifth Ave. SE, Olympia

Tickets: $9 general admission, $6 for Olympia Film Society members

More information: 360-754-6670, olympiafilmsociety.org

Nutria news

The 20-pound rodents can be found right here in Olympia.

In 2014, wildlife agents killed four of them in Capitol Lake. And in March, a mysterious creature was spotted near Petco. While police identified it as a beaver, it might also have been nutria.