“There was a kaleidoscope of characters there. And you had everybody…you had all walks of life involved. It wouldn’t just be judges and lawyers and businessmen, or just rednecks – it was just people that were going out to get outdoors and trying to help Mobile County wildlife.” That’s how Win Hallett describes Mobile’s famous – or infamous – Nutria Rodeo.
Begun by the Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation Association in 1958, the Nutria Rodeo was a concerted effort to rid the Mobile-Tensaw Delta of an invasive, semiaquatic rodent that was decimating the native marsh grasses, much to the chagrin of the area’s duck and rabbit hunters as well as ecologists.
Nutria are native to South America and look sort of like a beaver with a rat’s tail, webbed feet and long, bright orange front teeth. And while they are not necessarily the prettiest animal in the wild kingdom, they do have thick, dark brown fur with a soft gray undercoat. And it’s because of this fur, which was very desirable for coats and other fashion accessories in the early 1900s, that nutria were brought to the United States.
As the story goes (and it is a story due to conflicting accounts), sometime in the 1930s, Tabasco founder E.A. McIllhenny brought several nutria to Avery Island, Louisiana from Argentina to farm for their fur. But we can’t lay the blame squarely on his shoulders — others tried to capitalize on this fashion trend as well. Of course, some of the nutria escaped and some were set free around 1939 and, as destiny would have it, in 1940, a tremendous hurricane hit Louisiana, destroying a number of the nutria enclosures and letting a hundred or more loose.
The gestation period of the nutria is only 130 days, and there can be as many as thirteen nutria in a litter
Now, while a hundred nutria in the vast Louisiana swamplands might not sound like much, it would prove devastating. Not only are the critters voracious herbivores that eat about 25 percent of their body weight each day, but they also reproduce like wildfire. The gestation period of the nutria is only 130 days, and there can be as many as 13 nutria in a litter. To compound matters, a female nutria can become pregnant again two days after giving birth.
It didn’t take long before the nutria started moving east toward new marshes with more plentiful vegetation and less competition for food — like the Mobile delta.
Nutria threatened the biodiversity of the bay and were capable of causing extinction of native plants and animals
And as if to create the perfect storm, alligators had been hunted into near extinction about this same time in Alabama. In 1938, the state began taking action to protect the remaining alligators and put a moratorium on alligator hunting. So, with few alligators to prey on them, the nutria population exploded. Vast areas of cattails and marsh grasses were eaten into oblivion and replaced with open waters. Ducks, rabbits and other game were losing their habitat, and local hunters took note.
Something had to be done to save the Delta
Enter the Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation Association which had a grand idea — why not organize a hunt, give out some prizes and make it a party?
“When I got involved in environmental matters in Mobile, I became quite involved in a lot of environmental groups — Mobile County Wildlife, Ducks Unlimited, Gulf Coast Conservation which later became Coastal Conservation Association — and at one point, maybe it was probably the early 70s, I became president of Mobile County Wildlife,” remembers retired judge Randy Butler. “And it was a really active organization back then. We had barbecues. We raised money. We had a speckled trout rodeo down at Dauphin Island. And I also inherited the Nutria Rodeo.”
Before Butler took the helm, participants set the Delta on fire to lure nutria out to the waiting hunters.
Vast areas of cattails and marsh grasses were eaten into oblivion
“In the fall of each year, you could see acres and acres and acres of marsh grass that was intentionally set on fire in the Delta north of the Causeway,” Butler recalls. “You could be downtown and see huge plumes of smoke. Hundreds of acres at a time would be burning.”
It’s been reported that the first Nutria Rodeo eliminated 5,000 nutria. Ultimately, setting fires was deemed cruel to the other wildlife in the marshes and thus abandoned. But the hunt itself carried on. And over the years, even as the nutria population steadily decreased, the spectacle surrounding the Nutria Rodeo increased. Frankly, like most things tend to do in Mobile, it turned into a big party.
“It was a guys’ weekend, you know, for getting away,” says Butler. “And there’d be drinking and carrying on. And they would kill nutria, and then we’d all rally up on the Causeway. Everybody would turn in their nutria, and you would get a prize. And I think it might have been some silly nonsensical prize for the most nutria, the biggest and the smallest nutria.”
But it wasn’t just men who got in on the fun.
“My former husband, he didn’t like Mardi Gras, and that’s when [the Nutria Rodeo] usually is — during Mardi Gras. Now, me, I love Mardi Gras. I do. But he didn’t. Anyway, he finally convinced me one year to go to the Nutria Rodeo.” That’s Mobile native Julia Sanfilippo, one of the women who participated in the hunt. “We had a ball. We laughed about the whole thing. They had a nutria queen and all that stuff, and we thought it was just hysterical. But we always tried to shoot as many nutria as we could because he was a big duck-hunting fan.”
ALL HAIL! The very first Nutria Queen was The late DeAnne DeMouy Tolleson
Yes, you heard that right — there was a nutria queen because what’s a festival without a queen? The late DeAnne DeMouy Tolleson was crowned the very first queen, an honor that even warranted a mention in her obituary: “DeAnne graduated from Bishop Toolen High School and attended the University of Alabama, where she was a member of Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. Although she was a natural at playing the ukulele and bowling, everyone knew DeAnne was going places when she was crowned the first queen of the Nutria Rodeo.”
“When I was involved, all the barmaids up and down the Causeway were the ones that were selling tickets [to participate in the Nutria Rodeo], and the one that sold most would be the queen of Nutria Rodeo,” says Win Hallett. “And that was quite a neat deal. They put a funnel with a nutria tail through the top and put a bungee cord, and that would be the crown for the victory queen. They’d take ‘em around Chocolatta Bay in an airboat and come back. And they used to have this Quonset hut they called Trader George’s, and they had a court. It was ridiculous. But it was, you know, they were serious about what they were trying to do about knocking down the nutria. But the stuff that went on was pretty funny.”
And the competition for the prizes was fierce — fiercely funny
“They gave a prize for the most nutria brought in, and for the heaviest,” Hallett continues. “There was this one guy named Joe Delcambre, and he was a wonderful guy, God bless his soul. He was the guy who would have the weigh station. And he used to tell the story about some of these guys that would load nutria down with window sash lead and all kinds of things. He said that one of them was so stiff he couldn’t even bend it to get it on the scale.”
Even with all the fun and frivolity, the Nutria Rodeo did accomplish some serious conservation goals. By 1976, only 300 nutria were harvested during the Nutria Rodeo — far below the 5,000 killed that first year. And, just before that, in 1973, Mobile County Wildlife and Conservation was named the top conservation organization in the state by the Alabama Wildlife Federation for its attempts to control the nutria.
The first Nutria Rodeo in 1958 eliminated 5,000 nutria
“I tell you what, you had to be a little bit crazy, but it was a lot of fun,” says Hallett. “The interesting thing was after the nutria had done their damage, and they did a lot, they had a moratorium on the alligators, which they should have. And you used to be able to go in one of those bays at night trying to find your way or your camp or whatever, and you’d shine a light and you’d see all these eyes — just thousands of them. And they used to be the nutria. Then they became alligators. Alligators just waxed them, and they really helped because now the cane has come back dramatically. It’s significantly different than it was in the early seventies when I started messing with it.”
But despite all the good the Nutria Rodeo ultimately did for the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, it was not without its detractors, and Mobile socialite and activist Dorothy Trabits led the charge. “I’ve just felt for years that it was cruel,” Trabits told the Anniston Star in 1977. That same year, she spent more than $1,000 of her own money on TV and newspaper ads opposing the rodeo. That’s nearly $5,000 in today’s money. “It brutalizes people,” she said, “This hepped-up atmosphere with beer and prizes does not create the proper attitude for youth.”
During the last years of the rodeo, Trabits and other activists would bring signs and protest on the Causeway as the hunters came in with their bounty. “I did save one nutria,” Trabits told The Montgomery Advertiser in 1977. “One of the fellows gave him to me, and I put him in a clothes’ hamper and took him home. I put him in the marsh behind the house.”
In 1986, Trabits was quoted in The Montgomery Advertiser as saying, “They used to make a gala occasion out of seeing how many of the little furry animals they could kill.” And she also said that her greatest success was stopping the Nutria Rodeo. While Trabits and her protesters certainly didn’t help matters, it was a combination of the increasing alligator population and year-round nutria trapping that ended the rodeo.
The Nutria Rodeo has been part of Mobile history for nearly 45 years now, and the Mobile-Tensaw Delta ecosystem has been restored. But the fond memories of those raucous days still loom as large as the nutria’s bright orange incisors. As Hallett recalls, the Nutria Rodeo was the best of two worlds, “It was a fun thing and something that appeared to be worthwhile.”
We sat with down with Shaun Sullivan of FM Talk 1065 to dig deeper into the history of the Nutria Rodeo. Click here to listen to the interview between Sullivan and writer Audrey McDonald Atkins!