Stalking Tall

Like Buford Pusser before him, Sheriff Harry Lee is mad. For his brazen archenemy--the nutria, a large, burrowing, oversexed rodent with an insatiable appetite for flood-control canals--that means a dose of maximum justice.

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Among the dead and stuffed things in Sheriff Harry Lee's offices are a black bear, a cougar, and two big-antlered whitetail bucks. These occupy the reception area, along with a white leather sofa. On view elsewhere are an elk, a bighorn sheep, an antelope, a raccoon, numerous iridescent fish, a zebra, wild turkeys, a javelina, a skulking fox with a pheasant gripped in its teeth, many, many ducks, a warthog, and something resembling a caribou, although it might be a moose.

Not having been forewarned about this collection, I stand gaping at the wildlife until Lee appears, at which point my gape shifts to him. Harry Lee, 63, is the longtime sheriff of Jefferson Parish, a long, narrow county a few minutes west of New Orleans that runs from Lake Pontchartrain to the Gulf of Mexico. Six feet tall, he carries 320 pounds of personal bulk with a surprising nimbleness, is a first-generation Chinese-American, and looks like an older and sunnier version of Oddjob, James Bond's hat-wielding nemesis in Goldfinger. "How yawl?" is how he greets me.

I'm in Lee's Metarie office because of an animal he's been hunting recently, although I fail to find this particular specimen on site. Word has it that Jefferson Parish is under invasion from many thousands of large, furred, burrowing aquatic rodents known as nutrias, which are said to be inflicting millions of dollars of damage on the levees and drainage canals that help keep the whole thing from going underwater. Last year, Lee cracked beneath this pestilence and, like Buford Pusser, started taking matters into his own justice-dispensing hands. What he'd done, it seems, was send his Special Weapons and Tactics team to conduct search-and-destroy missions in the parish's quiet neighborhoods, even joining the nocturnal hunts, armed with a laser-scoped rifle.

Now, in late March, the hostilities have escalated dramatically. After several months of nutria recon and tactical experiments, Lee is in the midst of a huge offensive, a rodenty Tet, to knock the nutria population back down to acceptable levels. For the last several weeks, his hit squads were idle, occupied with Mardi Gras and its attendant criminality. The nutrias, emboldened by this cease-fire, seized the opportunity to resume their vandalistic outrages with cocky vigor, mowing vegetation from the banks of the parish's 270 miles of drainage canals and then burrowing repeatedly into the denuded berms.

The holiday has ended, though, so Lee and 20 SWAT-team marksmen are again patrolling the canals in the predawn hours, looking to kill every one of the raccoon-sized rodents they see.

"Listen," Lee says, as he eases himself onto a couch, shoving aside Cabela's catalogs and boxes of ammunition, "if we had a rabid dog out in the neighborhood, it would be my duty to go out and get that dog. That's the position I find myself in now. These things are threatening the parish, and in my simple way of thinking this is the most cost-effective way of addressing it."

Lee gestures toward his SWAT team leader, Tom Rushing, a rugged-looking major in his forties who has been showing me around. "I said to Tom, 'Listen, we can do this. If we got the guys that can shoot humans, we got the guys that can shoot nutria.' We're very serious with this."

Major Rushing turns to me. "In other words," he says, "we're not a bunch of yay-hoos with .22 rifles and a six-pack in the back of a pickup truck."

It's hard not to like Rushing. He's languidly self-assured and speaks with the engagingly overprecise diction of law-enforcement lifers. (The next night, commenting on a wounded nutria that struggles valiantly to escape, he'll announce, "That is a singularly motivated nutria. However, there is a good possibility that he has expired.") Rushing has become the sheriff's nutria expert, and he embraces the many ironic pleasures of the role--a few weeks ago, for example, he gave Lee a luxuriant coat fashioned from nutria fur.

"Constructed," he explains, "from 20 very large nutria."

The state's 30 million nutrias trace back to an original 13 rodents imported from Argentina in 1937 by Tabasco tycoon E. A. McIlhenny. His motives remain a mystery. As an amateur naturalist and a professional capitalist, he hoped either to diversify the wildlife in Louisiana's swamps for his own obscure scientific reasons or, more likely, to undercut the then-profitable muskrat-fur market with nutria pelts, in which he would have a monopoly. Whatever the case, in 1940 a storm bashed apart McIlhenny's nutria cages, and the rodents were loosed on the bayou, where they became known to the Cajuns as le rat Ned--after McIlhenny's nickname, Mr. Ned--and propagated with staggering success. (Over 16 months, a single female and her progeny can produce more than 150 nutrias.) The ever-growing horde was kept somewhat in check through trapping, but in the mideighties the fur market collapsed, trappers stopped taking nutrias, and their numbers exploded.

The nutria is an odd farrago, with a beaverlike hide and gouging teeth, a round, pink thumb of a tail, and vacant eyes. "He either a cute little animal or a ugly little animal, depend on which way you look at him," Lee explains. "You look at it from the side, he ain't too bad. You look at it dead on, he's an ugly little sucker. What happens is he grows up to anywhere from 18 to 25 pounds, and then all he wants to do is eat and screw. And that's OK, until he start to eat away at my canals."

While Lee's guerrilla operation may seem swollen with cruelty, there's little argument that nutrias are a serious problem. The afternoon before my field trip with Lee, I meet with Marnie Winter, the parish's beleaguered, willowy environmental director. A conga line of nutria skulls fringes Winter's window, ending at framed photos of her two sons. Situations like rodent infestation fall to her by default. Last year, when the drainage department began tallying the harm that the burrowing rodents were causing to the canals and the figure reached more than $8 million, Winter was called in.

By official estimates, some 10,000 nutrias have immigrated to Jefferson Parish over the last few years. Others peg the population at closer to 100,000. Having advanced from the bayou--where their numbers are also causing havoc, including great "eat outs" of swamp firmament and thus wildlife habitat--the nutrias have rapidly honeycombed beneath the parish's roadways and along its canals. This being floodplain territory, residents are obsessive about both drainage and escape routes. Furthermore, the nutrias have become increasingly bold, reportedly attacking dogs and in one instance confronting a parish councilman, Willard-like, as he bent to retrieve his morning paper. "They just sat on it, staring at me," he told a reporter.

At various times last year, Winter debated having the canals lined with concrete (at a projected cost of $750 million, this idea did not last long) and experimenting with gnaw-resistant ground covers. She also considered working with state wildlife officials, whose solution involved increasing nutrias' value to trappers by creating a market. "We could sell millions of pounds of meat to African nations," one official told me. Nutria coats are also being promoted by the state, with limited success. Maison Blanche, a swanky department store, recently offered a selection of such coats--dyed in nutria-masking reds and purples. None sold.

To Winter, a better tactic was to curb the nutria population itself. Various methods were discussed in parish council meetings and, more heatedly, in the media: tiny nooses to trap and drown the rodents as they crawled out of their holes, floating barges piled with poisoned sweet potatoes, gassing, and finally shooting.

"The animal-rights groups started sending me all sorts of proposals on how not to kill the nutria," Winter says. The idiocy of these suggestions tended to undercut their moral authority. One group claimed that nutrias could be frightened away simply by lining the canals with giant xenon strobes. "Of course," the author noted helpfully, "their effect on motorists would have to be considered." Another suggestion was to hire a person to roam the canals, shooing nutrias away with "a focusable noise gun" or deploying "specially trained harassment dogs."

"It amazed me that people who don't have a problem with rat control were bothered by this," says Winter, who admits to some sympathetic qualms about Lee's wholesale rub-outs. "I guess it's a size thing. You reach a certain size, pet size, and they get all upset." Winter was resigned to a long, possibly futile process of studies, state contracts, and more studies when Sheriff Lee abruptly stood up in a council meeting last spring and volunteered to go out and just kill the things himself.

"A lot of people laughed and thought it was a joke," Winter says. "I know Sheriff Lee, and I knew it wasn't a joke. Course, it wasn't until later, when I saw his animal collection, that it actually made a little sense."

Back in Sheriff Lee's office is a wall of fame, among the most impressive I've ever seen, and I waste the better part of an afternoon studying it. Lee grew up in New Orleans, where he toiled in the family restaurant for a time before escaping to law school and then to a federal magistrate position. Finally, in 1979, he was elected to the Jefferson Parish sheriff's office. Sheriffing proved to be Lee's forte, his forcible personality and iron-hard crime stance drawing 80 percent approval ratings, national attention, and periodic allegations of police brutality. Lee is a statewide celebrity now, evidenced by the grip-and-grins covering his wall. There are shots of Lee in the clutches of Jimmy Carter, George Bush, Gerald Ford, and rascally former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards; of him eating fried chicken with Tip O'Neill, hugging John Glenn, Walter Mondale, Al Haig. Celebrities receive equal time on an opposite wall, where Lee sings with Willie Nelson, hunts with Steven Seagal, and chums around with Clint Eastwood, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, Dennis Hopper, and a very young John Travolta. There are certificates of appreciation, honorary plaques, assorted kudos, all detailing 16 years as possibly the best-known pol in the state.

"Sheriff Lee is the most natural politician in the country," boasts his press officer, the wonderfully named Johnny Fortunato. "He's got more stroke than Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush combined."

The budget for Lee's department is $65 million annually. His professional plate brims with murders, drugs, robberies; he supervises 1,450 people. When he holds his birthday fais do do, also a fund-raiser for his political war chest, 5,000 revelers pay $100 each to spoon jambalaya alongside the sheriff. With his obvious star status, I have to wonder: What's he doing driving around in the middle of the night blasting rodents?

"If there was some way I could become a Pied Piper and lead them back to the swamp and leave them there, I'd do it," he says. "But if I let it go, sooner or later the nutria will overrun everything and some child will get hurt and the headline will go, WHY DIDN'T SOMEBODY DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS?"

An assonance among many big men is their ease-making skill, and Lee plays this note expertly. He's endlessly engaging and matter-of-factly certain of his own common sense. Explaining why, last October, he abandoned his red-hot gubernatorial bid--in the Democratic primary, Lee had moved from the middle of the pack in a field of 13 to second place--he says, "I just realized I didn't really want the governorship. Some people were upset, but that was my decision.

"I guess in this little part of the United States, I'm the closest thing there is to being a king," Lee says. "The only one looking over my shoulder is the voter. What I like most about this job is the autonomy. Like with the nutria thing. As you can see, I hunted all my life. I knew what a .22 bullet can do. I knew that they would kill the things. I knew that they're inexpensive. I knew I could schedule our people to address the problem. And I just went ahead and did it. It's not really the nutria's fault. They just a problem. And even as ugly as it is, I don't have any personal dislike for a nutria. Course, I don't have any love for a nutria., let me show you something."

Lee returns with his fur coat--Rushing's present, a shimmery curtain of nutria. "When I first saw this, I thought it was artificial. It is so soft. I mean, a nutria's an ugly little son of a bitch, but that's a beautiful coat. Just beautiful."

He pets the coat.

After several near-misses, I finally connect with the man who is doing all he can--which, admittedly, is not much--to stop Lee's nutria jihad: animal-rights activist Jeff Dorson, who meets me in the lobby of the Jefferson Parish administration building. He's a bendable reed of a man, 38 years old, breathy and seriously mussed, though smartly turned out in blue blazer, tan slacks, and rep tie. Seven years ago, while living in Minneapolis and working as a tennis instructor, Dorson awoke one day and "came to the sudden realization that animals are very precious." Sensing in this epiphany that the number of potentially imperiled creatures would be highest in the Deep South, Dorson and his wife hied it to New Orleans and started Legislation in Support of Animals, which together with other animal-rights groups voices displeasure about the parish's eradication efforts. While reading up on the situation I also ran across a group called the Nutria Liberation Army, a discovery that offered the exciting prospect of seventies-style armed radicals, but it turned out to be a joke by a local newspaper columnist. Major Rushing seemed as disappointed as I was by the NLA's nonexistence.

"Really?" he said, when I gave him the news. "That's too bad. However, it did seem a little unusual for Louisiana."

Since I have yet to see a nutria, I ask Dorson if he'll help me find one. As we cruise the parish in my rental car, he describes Jack Sprat's, the vegetarian restaurant he started two years ago. "We wanted to expose people down here to good, flavorful vegetarian food, but it's not doing well," Dorson says. "This is big meat country. But when it takes off, we've got great franchising possibilities with our character, Jack Sprat. You know, provide an alternative to that awful Ronald McDonald."

I park the car and, while walking along a roadside canal, get Dorson talking about the protest groups' opinion of the nutria. Dorson hands me a booklet called "About Nutria and Their Control," which presents a rodent that is far more benign than the one I've heard described. In it, cartoon nutrias dress up in hats, ride about in cars, and throw birthday parties for each other.

"Nutria are very cute, with darling orange teeth," he says as we stalk along. "They're playful, always in twos or threes, very sociable." I mention their ratty mien.

"Well, I like them," he says.

It turns cold. We pace alongside the canal, which forms a brackish median for six lanes of buzzing traffic. Dorson is very thin, and he hugs himself for warmth. When we come to a nutria burrow, he pokes it with his black loafers. "They really don't do that much harm," he says, referring to the hole. "I can live with that." As it happens, this is the protesters' current stand on the issue. At first, when the parish floated the idea of trapping or poisoning the nutrias, these groups hurriedly claimed that the canals held no nutrias. Later they admitted the animal's presence but disputed the damage being caused. Now they admit to the damage but insist that the parish is cooking the dollar figures involved. "I'm not sure that there is all that much to it," Dorson says. "It's become politicized."

Obviously, we aren't going to see any nutrias here. It's too brisk, too noisy, too windy for them. Dorson grimly marches on, however, his wispy hair whirlpooling in the wind and his eyes tearing. We start talking about Sheriff Lee, and I tell him about the nutria coat. Bad idea. "This is a joke to him?" he asks, suddenly furious. "Something funny?"

He launches into a "living things" speech. I listen, but not really, because just then I spot a dead nutria floating in the canal--a casualty, most likely, of an earlier hunt. I hope Dorson doesn't see it; his fragility is shiny and near, and I fear a meltdown. He's muttering something about "Chinese-American rednecks."

"That's...that's...that's what it's like down here," he says, struggling for footing on the canal's steep banks. "Every day, I'm surrounded by every violence possible against animals. Slaughterhouses, hunting, animal testing... It's, it's, it's... Why can't we learn to be a kinder species? Why can't we live peaceably with the wildlife? Why can't we all just get along?"


Twenty-three hundred hours. A Dunkin Donuts on Veteran's Memorial Boulevard, a busy thoroughfare paralleling the Mississippi River. Members of the parish SWAT team congregate inside, variously dressed in camouflage or serious-looking black coveralls, with weapons belts and walkie-talkies attached. Soon 20 officers are present, drinking free coffee and eating free donuts.

"Damn cold out. We going to freeze our asses."
"You seen the sheriff's nu-tra coat?"

"He the Mecca of nu-tra in that thing. He come out in it and they all rush round him, worshiping."

"Maybe he could just march 'em back to the swamp."

Sheriff Lee arrives, wearing an insulated black jumpsuit and bright orange hunting cap. "Hey, there they are, the varmint killers," he says.

A waitress rushes up with coffee as Lee finds a stool. "You got any of them cremes tonight? Bring me a couple, will you?" We wait while Lee eats his donuts, orders a third, finishes his coffee. "You be careful out there now," the waitress tells Lee as he leaves.

"Don't let one bite you, you'll get hep'titis."

"Don't you worry none."

Tonight, part of the squad will work the canals west of the Mississippi while the rest patrols the eastern side of the parish. Sheriff Lee, Major Rushing, and a few others plan on venturing into Kenner, a city within parish boundaries that has been suffering particularly severe damage. A while ago, citizens there asked the police chief to shoot the nutrias. "My men are not in the extermination business," Kenner's chief sniffed to the local paper. Lee ignored the jab, saying that if Kenner wanted its nutrias shot, he'd be happy to have his team do it.

We form a caravan with a squad car in front, then a flatbed truck, Lee's car, and finally a truck from the drainage department. "We tried it on foot for a while," says Major Rushing. "But it is just like Patton's theory--strike quickly and move." I climb into the flatbed with Rushing and a SWAT sharpshooter; these two will be doing the shooting, along with the truck's driver, who fires from his window. Another officer rides atop the truck's cab, working a high-power spotlight across the canal banks and the water's surface.

Once in Kenner, we pull off the road and creep along at five miles per hour, past trailer homes and the Airline Adult Bookstore. It's still unseasonably cool, which will keep the nutrias sluggish and might affect the number of kills. Last week's shoot, the first full assault after Mardi Gras, reduced the local population by 440. Rushing predicts half that number tonight.

A long time passes before we even see a nutria, though. Canals lead past a clutch of low-income apartments called Chardonnay Village, through an industrial park, even onto a commercial drag lighted with a Wal-Mart and chain restaurants. The shooters, bored, discuss the vagaries of rifles and ammunition. You using that German round? No, Remington subsonic. Matched grain? And on.

Then, as if a gate has been swung, the nutrias appear. First singly. Then in pairs. Then whole churlish batches of them, a dark cabal slicing through the water, visible beneath a full moon.

"Here comes one, Jack."


"Oh, ouch."

"Over there."

Bang bang.

"Against the bank. Other side. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. That one goes 20 pounds, easy."

Bang bang bang bang.

"Check the ripples. There it is, hold it. Good shot, good shot. Who got that one?"

Spent cartridges plink to the bed of the truck. The caravan is a riot of activity. Rushing shouts instructions to the driver, the spotlight officer, the shooters. Dogs are barking throughout the neighborhood. When hit, a nutria launches itself in a frenzied twist, like a hooked trout dancing across the river on its tail, before collapsing in the water. Many of them are stilled with one shot, but dozens of others take ugly multiple hits, feral squeals erupting as they try to flee.

"A whole family!"

"Pull up, pull up, pull up."

"Right there."

Bang bang bang bang bang bang.

"There's another bunch."

"Talk about a target-rich environment."

It proceeds this way for several hours: the slow careful crawl, scrambled shooting, then the furred carcasses being pitchforked from the canals by drainage workers in chest-high waders. At one point a worker slips, plunging into the freezing water. Sputtering, soaked, and cursing, he's hauled away to change clothes. For an hour there is no corpse retrieval. The many dead nutrias simply float away, a grisly spectacle that draws barely a comment from the shooters. They, in fact, seem divorced from their work, exhibiting only rare shards of excitement for the tricky marksmanship involved--as if they're spending a few hours practicing on an especially challenging range.

We roll through Kenner until two in the morning and then take a rest break at a neon-bright convenience mart. Lee chats pleasantly with the female sales clerk and then peels off dollars for snacks. As he sits in his truck, a young officer approaches with a pen and scrap of paper.

"What's up?" Lee asks, removing a candy bar from his mouth. "She wants your autograph," the officer says, indicating the sales clerk. "What's her name?" Lee says. The officer spells it, and Lee signs: "To Nuria, Your friend, Harry Lee." He studies the woman's name. "Damn, that's just like nutria. Tell her she needs a t in there."

Lee brushes crumbs from his mouth and begins zipping his coat. "OK," he says. "I think I'm ready to shoot me some."

Eager for a less violent view of nutrias, I head to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. A chipper, friendly employee named Debbie Pearson walks me through the park. I recognize parts of it from the movie Cat People, which was filmed here and which includes a satisfying scene wherein Ed Begley Jr. gets his arm ripped off by a leopard. "They made the whole place look medieval, very spooky," says Pearson. We move into an ersatz swamp that features a tumbledown swamp shack, an upturned skiff, and the air of a hurriedly abandoned moonshine operation. "It's very realistic, isn't it?" she asks.

One of the shacks actually houses the reptile exhibit and a makeshift nursery for infant nutrias, which eventually will be displayed in a modest exhibit nearby. Inside is a large tin trough, filled with hay and warmed by heat lamps. Tucked within this nest is a pair of three-week-old nutrias. Heather Parker, a young staff member, plucks one out. The infant nutria is the size of her closed fist. Its large, webbed rear feet cling frightenedly to her sleeve, and it mews when I raise its front legs for inspection. They are long and slender, with dark curved claws--excavation tools. "Here, look at this," Parker says, using a thumb to peel back the nutria's upper lip, exposing orange, chisel-like teeth.

Parker proceeds to describe nutria husbandry, their capacity for domestication and play, all the while affectionately stroking the baby's coat while it tries to bury itself in the crook of her elbow. I watch this cute display awhile, before becoming aware of a deep thunk, thunk, thunk echoing from a back room: Nutrias, casualties of Sheriff Lee's war, are being quartered for feeding to the alligators.

"We're having a hard time with this batch," says a staffer. With a long blade she skims the fur from a pinkened carcass; then she switches to a meat cleaver and lops off head, feet, tail. The pelt is tossed into the trash. "Usually the bullets just fall out of them during skinning, ding, ding," she says. "And they just have head shots, normally. But this batch is riddled, four or five slugs in them each." She looks at me, puzzled.

"Well, the sheriff was shooting last night," I offer.

"Oh. OK."

A bloody plate of nutria chunks in her hand, Parker climbs into the alligator exhibit. She stands on a log bridged across the water, and for a few moments nothing moves. Then a pair of alligators silently glides beneath the log, and one of them launches itself at her feet. "Hey!" she says, jumping back. Both the alligators are albinos, rarities for which the zoo is famous. They are wrenchingly beautiful, paper-white skin luminous from a recent scrubbing by zoo staff. Parker sticks a piece of meat on the end of a long pole and waves it over the water while the alligators scramble after it. She briefly teases them like this before lowering the meat to be gobbled.

"We could feed the nutrias to them whole, skin and all," Debbie Pearson says. "The alligators love that. But we decided it would be upsetting to zoo visitors." She throws monkey chow to some penned nutrias and leads me from the zoo.

As I mentioned to Parker, Sheriff Lee finally got around to shooting. Borrowing a rifle from one of his men, he laboriously climbed onto the back of the flatbed, which canted about 15 degrees to port. With his black jumpsuit and formidable girth, he was Brando as Kurtz, bunkered-in 40 clicks upriver, awaiting the watery emergence of personal justice. His first few shots sailed high; then, overcorrecting, he fired below the nutrias; the sights on the gun giving him trouble. Soon, however, he found the range, the rodents barely skittering into the search beam before Lee ended their lives. When the night was done, Lee and his men had tallied their 2,000th nutria overall, a fifth of the parish population if you accept the conservative estimate of their numbers.

Late in the night we ended up on the edge of a country club development, Chateau Estates, with $300,000 homes nosed up to the banks of the canal. "Don't the people in these homes get upset with gunfire this near to them?" I asked Danny Russo, one of the sheriff's men.

"Ah, no," he said. "These are the first people to complain when the nutria get in their yards. They got those pricey little dogs. Yippy ones. They get killed or bit, they'd be up in arms."

Russo often seconds Lee on his hunts, and we talked about those for a while: the time Lee got the zebras, the cougar hunt, gatoring with Steven Seagal. I was still curious about overlap, about whether Russo thought any of those experiences informed tonight's activities, if Lee hadn't perhaps internalized this nutria thing a bit too much.

"You know, there is no hatred between the hunter and the animal," Russo said. "Most animals we hunt, you listen to the sheriff talk about these animals and he talks about the beauty of them and all this kind of stuff and it's a sport like anything else. When you're in a very stressful job, like the sheriff's job, hunting and fishing is the greatest relaxation there is."

So he doesn't think the sheriff hates nutrias?

"Oh, no, I wouldn't think so."

So what was all this?

"This here? This is just killing."

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