Showdown at the West Esplanade Canal
Story and photos by Darrin DuFord

Can two hundred tons of chili save a city? Our author ponders the question as he goes varmint hunting with New Orleans' best marksmen.

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.

New Orleans burb patrol

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 flooded most of downtown New Orleans. "We've been shootin' these canals since 1995," said overseer of the nutria eradication effort Major Kerry Najolia, 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, camouflage–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 Esplanade 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, brick faced 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.

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Buy Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car. at your local bookstore, or get it online here:
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