Rarely does an invasive species destroying the Gulf Coast turn into a business plan, but for siblings and LSU alumni Veni and Hansel Harlan, it has become a benefit.
The pair are co-creators and co-owners of Marsh Dog, a brand of dog biscuits and jerky made out of nutria — a large rodent that has devastated the Louisiana wetlands. Nutria devour essential marshland in a region where rising sea levels, storm surges, coastal erosion and subsidence have already wrecked much of it.
Dog lovers Veni, a graphic designer, and Hansel, an attorney, used their dynamic skills to map out a business plan to both get rid of the nutria population and make healthy organic treats for dogs.
“We both cooked for our dogs, and we both have a lot of dogs,” Veni said. “Like most people in south Louisiana, we felt sad about the environment. My brother one day said to me, ‘This would be a great protein for dogs,’ and I looked at him and said it was a great idea.”
Most people think nutria are native to Louisiana, but they are an invasive species from South America brought here decades ago for the fur trade.
“When I was at LSU, I got a scholarship to study in Buenos Aires, Argentina,” Hansel said. “When I was down there studying, that was when I first learned nutria were not from Louisiana. I guess I just never really thought about it and sort of assumed nutria were from here.”
The fur industry declined rapidly, and nutria weren’t being hunted, causing a huge growth in the population. Wetland biologists noticed the damage to the marsh caused by nutria year after year and realized something needed to be done.
The state at first tried to process nutria for human consumption, which didn’t go well. Then in 1998, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began offering bounties for killing nutria, which helped reduce the population, but most of the thousands of bodies were simply discarded.
“They just said, ‘We give up. We need to do something. Let’s just pay guys to go kill them,’” Hansel said. “I was like, ‘Huh, I think you missed a step. What about using them for pet food?’”
Veni and Hansel talked about the dog food idea for years, and in 2011, Marsh Dog was born. At the time, Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program had a plan in which it gave out grants to those who had ideas to deal with problems plaguing the wetlands. Hansel and Veni submitted an application for a grant detailing the plan for what would become Marsh Dog, and they won.