Waste Not, Want Not: Nutria as Ethical Fur (and Meat?)

This story isn’t about food, really, but it could have been. It’s about the use of fur from the toothy beast known as the nutria (a.k.a. swamp rat) in the world of fashion, and the attempt to market its pelt as “ethical fur.”

By Anna Jane Grossman, for the NYT: Is Their Pest Your Clean Conscience?

[U]nlike other soft and furry animals, nutria is being rebranded as a socially acceptable and environmentally friendly alternative way to wear fur. The effort culminates this Sunday, when Ms. Melancon and about 20 designers take part in a “righteous fur” fashion show at the House of Yes, an art space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.

Whence the ethics angle? Well, see in the swamps of Louisiana, the nutria is a pest — indeed, an ecological menace.

in the 1980s, the nutria population soared and started to endanger the fragile ecosystem. The invasive rodent eats away the bottom of the plants that hold the coastal wetlands together.

In 2002, Louisiana started paying trappers and hunters $5 for every nutria killed. The effort to control the nutria population had some success, with bounty hunters killing about 400,000 animals last year. But the carcasses were simply discarded or left to rot in the swamp.

The solution? Rather than let the rodents go entirely to waste, harvest their pelts and make them into coats, hats, etc.

OK, so the food angle? Wikipedia’s entry on nutria (also known as “coypu”) notes:

Coypu meat is lean and low in cholesterol. While there have been many attempts to establish markets for coypu meat, all documented cases have generally been unsuccessful.

So, if those who shun fur are tempted by the nutria’s “ethical” fur, are there vegetarians who would be tempted by the nutria’s “ethical” meat? Added bonus: as the story notes, nutria is organic and free range.

I’ll give the last (hilarous) word to an artisan quoted in the NYT story:

Jessica Radcliffe, a New Orleans dollmaker and performance artist, won’t use leather in her work but has made several nutria stoles. “I personally don’t want to be in a position where I have to kill an animal,” she said. “But if it’s them or us, I don’t want to be a lily-livered sissy about it.”

About Chris MacDonald

I'm a philosopher who teaches at Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of Management in Toronto, Canada. Most of my scholarly research is on business ethics and healthcare ethics.
This entry was posted in animal rights, ecosystems, ethics, meat, vegetarianism. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Waste Not, Want Not: Nutria as Ethical Fur (and Meat?)

  1. Anastasia says:

    It seems a shame to let all this nutritious meat go to waste, especially when I bet there are people in Louisiana who could use it. Why not use the meat in shelters and such? I’ve heard many cases where hunters donate deer, elk, etc carcasses to food banks.

    As for whether vegetarians would partake – it probably depends on why the individual became a vegetarian. I have mostly environmental reasons (energy loss, tropic levels, all that good stuff) so the nutria in this case is an ethical meat – but I’m just not personally interested in eating flesh anymore. I’m sure that others would have different opinions.

    To make the discussion a little more broad – why not nutria or other rodents for meat all the time, not just when it is convenient because they are pests? Rodents like rabbits, guinea pigs, and nutria produce healthy, nutritious, good tasting meat with little feed. They have to make less bone and thinner hide so they are simply more efficient than cows and their waste is far more environmentally friendly than that of pigs. They are also easy to keep and aren’t aggressive. Slaughter is easier with a smaller digestive system so less potential for fecal contamination. Plus, you can use the fur. Win-win-win for the environment and for those who insist on continuing to eat meat.

  2. Yes, it definitely depends on one’s reason for being a vegetarian. Of course, for many people, being a vegetarian has a kind of momentum to it, such that it’s hard to do something different even when principles allow it. After 2o years of NOT eating meat, I find it hard to imagine doing so, even though I have no principled ethical objection to, say, eating the meat of a critter that’s going to go to waste otherwise.

  3. apasolini says:

    I read in a different article that the reason why nutria is in the wrong ecosystem in the first place is because the fur industry introduced them by accident some years back. And now come along offering themselves up as a solution to ‘the problem’. Humans are an ecological problem so are we going to start killing people and eating their flesh because of that?

    • Apasoloni – well, if you are making humans and animals as equal then, no, killing humans would be perfectly normal.

      Animals kill animals all the time and eat their flesh.

      Since, us humans, as a species, have generally decided that this is wrong – we won’t be killing each other for food. The point that humans may or may not have introduced them is irrelevant to a solution.

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