Merced Life

Did you know you can buy a fob made of Nutria fur?

This is the second installment in a two-part series about nutria rats.

Here is what I can currently buy in nutria fur products sold online: A Fendi, gently used “adorable backpack bag fob featuring genuine . . . Nutria fur” for the low price of $445. A backpack bag fob, in case you have no idea what this might be, is not actually a backpack in the sense of something you might carry a notebook and iPad in.

No, the critical word here is not backpack, but fob. A fob, as you most likely know, is a small doodad one attaches to a key or maybe a larger, more useful object, like a purse. Thus, for $445, you will get something about the size of a substantial chocolate-chip cookie (but not one of those big, OMG-sized chocolate chip cookies), shaped like a backpack and in which you can store loose change, or maybe a tube of lipstick.

Here is what I cannot currently buy in nutria fur products for sale online: A Michael Kors raincoat, with a dyed Denmark mink collar and dyed Argentina nutria lining (because this is Michael Kors, and American rats simply won’t do), black-on-black, with a relaxed fit and self-tie belt. I do not know how much this coat might set me back, since it is sold out, but if a nutria rat key fob goes for $445.00, I can sort of figure the cost-range of a nutria rat coat. I did, however, find a man’s nutria coat on Ebay for $650.00. That’s a pretty good bargain in comparison to, say, ermine and fox, but still way more than I paid for my Tommy Hilfiger puff jacket ($60.00 on sale!) which is, I must say, just as soft as any fur coat I have worn while pretending to be shopping for minks at Bloomingdale’s.

Nutria fur consists of stiff hairs and a soft undercoat, is less heavy than beaver, and is easy to dye. It was first made terribly fashionable in the 1930s, when the lovely and waifish Greta Garbo was photographed wearing collars and hats made of nutria. Though fur sales fell in the 1940s because people around the world had more pressing concerns than choosing just the right mammal to wear while helping to build fighter aircraft or while fleeing German occupation, after the war fur sales rallied once again. A-listers Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor made their fashion statements with nutria fur, often in the form of smart little pill-box style hats and muffs.

And then the 1980s came, and fur went out of style. Ingrid Newkirk, an animal rights activist, founded PETA. Fur protestors started showing up outside of fashion-show venues and could sometimes be found flinging non-water-soluble paint on anyone gauche enough to be caught wearing mammals in public. Profits in the fur industry plummeted.

And that’s kind of where things stayed until 2010, when the Righteous Fur fashion show, sponsored by a nonprofit charged with protecting Louisiana swamps from the devastation wrought by nutria rats, opened in Brooklyn. As mentioned in an earlier article on the subject of nutria rats, the species is invasive in North America, and it is particularly harmful to wetland habitats. Nutria rats are not by any means endangered, especially in Louisiana, where a hunter can earn a $5 bounty for each nutria rat s/he kills. Over the past few years, hundreds of thousands of nutria rats have been prematurely sent to the Great Beyond, but not much was done with nutria carcasses until the fashion industry, always resourceful in creating new trends, conceived of the idea of sustainable, guilt-free fur. In fact, nutria fur is being marketed as environmental activism. So take that, PETA.

And it isn’t just nutria fur that is enjoying a surge in popularity. Now, it is possible to buy necklaces made of silver-capped nutria teeth. (Nutria rats have distinctive, bright-orange choppers, a result of an iron-containing pigment in their enamel.) Nutria hides have been used in the manufacture of handbags and upscale women’s formal wear. Perhaps most bizarre is the nutria merkin—a type of underwear with a triangle of nutria fur just where you would expect it to be—available on ETSY, among other sites.

Righteous Fur has deemed the guilt-free nutria market as the future of the fur industry, and this might just be true. According to the Righteous website, “Fur is very zeitgeist-y right now [and] all about 20-and 30-somethings.” And since the vast majority of twenty-somethings that I know have absolutely no idea who Greta Garbo was, and only a faint memory of having heard of Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor somewhere, it might be fair to say that this new interest in fur is based not on a homage to 20th century fashion, but on current celebrities such as Kim Kardashian, who has been photographed wearing fur of all kinds, even in LA where temperatures rarely dip below the 60s. Perhaps the trend in wearing rats is a genuine desire to rid our native habitats of an invasive, rampaging species. I suspect, though, that today’s twenty-somethings are just as susceptible to the manipulations of the fashion industry as their great grandparents were.

In any case, the fur industry is growing, and at least some of the uptick in sales is attributable to dramatic changes in the business. Between 2008 and 2013, according to some estimates, world exports of fur doubled to $4 billion. But the nature of the furs being sold is not the same as it once was. One company, Petite Mort Fur, now sells fashion items made from roadkill. Soon, I bet, Petite Mort Fur will advertise double guilt-free points for accessorizing with a nutria rat that met its demise on a Louisiana highway.

Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.