"Invasive Species," a cautionary tale about non-native wildlife, takes over Northville theater

A few years ago, Joseph Zettelmaier read an article about the great snakehead, a large, inordinately aggressive fish capable of breathing air and moving across land. the existence of such a creature captivated him.
"They eat everything that is smaller than them. They'll cannibalize themselves. Occasionally, when a watering hole is depleted, they'll just get up and move," Zettelmaier says. "And they're not particularly pretty either."
While the great snakehead could capture just about anyone's imagination, Zettlemaier's creative powers tend to take things a step further. So when the Milan, Michigan, resident and Eastern Michigan University lecturer became fascinated with the great snakehead, that fascination turned into a play, "Invasive Species," which is now playing at Northville's Tipping Point Theatre.
"I just started riffing on that what it would be like if a Michigan fisherman caught one of these things and was like, 'What the heck am I looking at?'" Zettlemaier says.
"Invasive Species" is a particularly Michigan tale. It takes place in the small town of Gobles near Kalamazoo, where an irascible loner spends his days fishing an inland lake. Its dialogue expounds on the state's beauty. It even features a Michigan DNR officer. It's also about an invasive species—something Michiganders are increasingly associating with their home state.
"The concept of an alien fish taking over the Great Lakes isn’t the stuff of science fiction anymore. It’s in the news almost every day." writes John Monaghan in his Detroit Free Press review of "Invasive Species."
Invading our collective consciousness
To be clear, the great snakehead has never been spotted in Michigan.
"That's me playing a little bit with reality," Zettlemaier says. "They have been found in America before though. That's why they're listed in America as invasive species."
Given the climate they prefer, no one is too worried about the great snakehead, or Channa marulius, showing up in the Great Lakes. Northern snakeheads, on the other hand, or Channa argus, are a genuine threat to Michigan waters—and are no less terrifying than their larger cousin. They are also aggressive, air-breathing, and walk on land. ("Walking is maybe giving it too much credit," says Zettlemaier. "It slithers.")
"The snakehead is a potential threat to inland lakes and rivers because it feeds on native fish and can wipe out some species of sport fish," wrote NBC News in 2004 when a Chicago-area fisherman caught a northern snakehead in Burnham Harbor. "In the Great Lakes, they would compete with popular sport fish like bass and walleye."
While that threat is real, public awareness is a crucial step in preventing the arrival and ensuring the early detection of invasive species. And a play about an invasive species raises and reinforces that awareness.
"The biggest key to success is prevention and early detection," says Sarah LeSage, aquatic invasive species program coordinator for the Water Resources Division of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. "Just about anybody can play a role in reducing the risk of invasive species. Certainly there are species people can learn how to identify and keep an eye out for."
Recognizing pathways invasives take into Michigan ecosystems and knowing actions that can be taken to block those pathways, says LeSage, are critical components of that public awareness. Cleaning boats and live wells when changing fishing locations, using local bait, and never dumping exotic aquatic pets into open water are important measures for controlling the spread of invasives—something Zettlemaier discretely addresses in "Invasive Species."
"In the play, I never actually say how the fish got into the lake," he says. "Because you never know. Unfortunately, it really is the truth."
A warm reception
"Invasive Species" has been well received by critics—not something that can be said about the play's eponymous subject.
The Free Press calls it "a pure Michigan delight." Encore Michigan says "'Invasive Species' proves sweet and funny and raunchy."
The romantic comedy pairs a curmudgeonly fisherman with two unexpected partners: the great snakehead he pulls out of a lake and subsequently develops an emotional attachment to and a DNR officer who insists he destroy his new pet.
"He absolutely refuses to do it," Zettlemaier says. "He ends up declaring himself the protector of this not particularly intelligent and very aggressive animal that doesn't have anyone else to look out for it.
"Really, it's about what it is to be an outsider in a world that you don't understand anymore," says Zettlemaier.
In the play, the audience gets to watch the fisherman discover where he belongs in the world around him, even as he watches over a creature that doesn't belong there at all. In reality, the status of invasives like the snakehead fish is less nuanced: they pose a threat and shouldn't be here. But thanks to knowledge about invasive species becoming established in our cultural consciousness, we're better prepared than ever to detect and prevent their spread in Michigan.

This story is a part of a statewide Invasive Species Community Impact Series edited by Natalie Burg. Support for this series is provided by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.