They come at night. They come in hordes. They feast indiscriminately on both the living and the dead. Humanity struggles to defend itself but our weapons and tactics are ineffective. One wonders whether civilization as we know it is doomed.
So what are they? Zombies? The wights from Game of Thrones?
Nope. I’m talking about pigs. Yes – pigs. They go by many other names – feral hogs, wild boar, razorbacks, swine – but most defensibly wild pigs and at least in Texas more commonly hogs. And in case you haven’t heard, hogs have become an epidemic of late. There are as many as three million of the beasts in Texas alone, where they are estimated to cost half a billion dollars in property damage annually. Hogs devastate farmland, tear up recreational areas, terrorize other wildlife, and sometimes even consume pets and livestock – the whole while spreading disease in their wake.
This isn’t just a Texan problem – wild pigs are widespread across at least 39 U.S. states – and it isn’t an American problem either. In Germany, a population of millions of wild boar is estimated to be doubling each year and causes up to a hundred car accidents daily. In Australia, where wild pigs now outnumber humans, the latter have resorted to environmental poison to cull the onslaught. But even that hasn’t stopped the swine.
What can? And how on earth did it get so bad?
Let’s glance at hog history. In America, as in Australia, pigs are nonnative. They were first introduced by European settlers as livestock five centuries ago. The practice back then was to set domestic hogs free to feed in the wild and then to go out and fetch them come slaughter-time. Inevitably some of these domestic pigs turned feral; others were abandoned. Later, in the 19th and 20th centuries, undomesticated Eurasian boar were set loose to be hunted for sport. These wild newcomers interbred with the domestic-hogs-gone-feral, and over the decades a new sort of swine-kind assimilated quietly into the American wilderness.
Until recently wild pigs kept mostly to themselves – a curiosity. Then, in the late 20th century, various human activities unleashed what might be dubbed Pandora’s hogs – or perhaps the pig bang.
Texas was the epigcenter of this pork-quake.
For one thing people began to discover how fun hogs are to hunt. Southern landowners began fostering wild pig populations. They trapped pigs and carted them around to stock ranches for commercial hunting experiences. At the same time, the proliferation of subsidized cash crops like corn, soybeans, and rapeseed provided thousands of new acreage on which wild pigs could, well, pig out. Hog populations expanded rapidly. Through the turn of the millennium this growth accelerated. It continues to do so at alarming rates. All of a sudden, 21st-century America found itself besieged by boarbarian raiders – or Hogzilla, if you prefer.
So the issue of wild pigs is a recent and modern one. Ask any longtime Texas landowner, rancher, or farmer, and chances are they’ll remember the day they came. Chances are they haven’t left, either. Feral hogs have made themselves quite at home here. Pigs are intelligent, hardy animals. They have adapted to southern heat and hunters by turning nocturnal and nesting in dense, shady brush. Waterways don’t stop them – they swim, and enjoy doing so to cool off in summer. Fences don’t stop them either. As the saying goes, if it doesn’t hold water, it won’t hold hogs. Hogs have been known to charge through expensive fences; conventional barbed wire hardly scratches their tough, thick hides.
Their reproductive ability is also impressive. A sow might begin breeding at six months of age, and can produce litters as large as eight or even a dozen piglets every six months thereafter. It’s no wonder that pigs are the second most widely distributed large animals on earth, behind humans. In America they have few natural predators. Perhaps a brave alligator or a starving cougar might brave the mature pigs to hunt the piglets. But once the piglets have grown past 20 pounds, or certainly 100 pounds, or up to 400, 500, or even 600 pounds, only humankind has the means, or the desperation, to mess with them.
The pigs, on the other hand, will prey on anything. Besides ravaging woodland, farmland, and grassland in their relentless search for roots, nuts, and crops, they’ll also eat insects, small reptiles, rodents, and even fawns, lambs, calves, cats, and small dogs. Some have been seen to gorge on the carrion of their own kind, adding new meaning to the phrase “to eat like a pig.”
This feasting is truly devastating. Hogs will root as deep as three feet to find food, tearing up the ground as they go. When a group of wild pigs, called a sounder, makes a nighttime pass at a fertile cornfield or a pristine green golf course, the morning aftermath resembles the wake of a bulldozer (boar-dozer?). Recently hogs have made their way into suburbs in Dallas and Houston, where they have launched nocturnal raids against lush, complacent targets like sports fields, parks, and cemeteries. They also present a danger on roadways. Their sturdy dark forms are both inconspicuous to late-night drivers and devastating to fast-moving vehicles. Still, the most costly damage has been dealt to rural agriculture. Again, in Texas, it’s half a billion dollars a year.
It’s only getting worse. Researchers at Texas A&M University have estimated that stabilizing the rapid growth of the feral hog population would necessitate annually eliminating 66 percent of the creatures. That’s right – you would have to kill two out of every three pigs every year just to keep their population from expanding.
Sportsmen have been eager to rise to the challenge but frankly they haven’t come close.
Hogs have become unsettlingly wise to the ways of humans. They are intelligent, resilient, and adaptable. They’ll avoid cars and lights, and once familiarized with the scent of hunters (hogs have an incredible sense of smell) they will adapt to avoiding them too. Given the swaths of unkempt wilderness available for them to hide in, pigs are nearly impossible to contain by hunting alone. But no one could say that America isn’t trying her American best, as we continue to “deck the hogs with shells of shotties” as well as to “bring home the bacon.”
The pandemic of wild pigs and the accompanying demand for their elimination has given rise to a unique, distinctly American subculture, somewhere around the crossroads of necessity and cowboy, boosted by personalities like rock-star Ted Nugent and boasting such tag lines as hand to ham combat, black hog down, and my personal favorite, aporkalypse now. Here traditional hunting methods have been set aside to make way for newer, more exciting techniques with a preference towards mass extermination over single trophy kills. Helicopter hunts have proven to be quite effective. Professional hunters may also use trained baying dogs to flush out elusive pigs. Hog hunting is an intriguing new space. Some hunters pay landowners for the opportunity to pursue such exciting quarry while some landowners pay hunters to control such incessant pests. And it is hardly an exclusively private or grassroots effort. Texas taxpayers beware – state programs are responsible for killing several hundred thousand hogs a year.
Of course, it was hunting that largely created the problem in the first place, when ranchers illegally transported groups of hogs to new hunting grounds all across Texas in the 70s and 80s, thereby contributing to their rapid proliferation. Hogs also benefit from pilfering corn that hunters intend for deer. In any case hunting, while simultaneously a cause, prolonger, and treatment, is certainly no cure for the pigdemic. No amount of hunters, hunting dogs, or helicopters could reach a majority of the hogs – not even the 66% required to cap their growth.
There are a few other means besides hunting of containing wild pigs. Commonly trapping is a landowner’s first line of defense. Whole sounders may be baited into an enclosure equipped with sensors and cameras to allow for springing a mechanized gate. But hogs are clever, and if a trapper isn’t careful they learn to avoid such contrivances. Successful trapping requires painstaking effort. There are simply too many pigs.
Poison is another option. Sodium nitrate, which, coincidentally, is used to cure bacon, is also especially lethal to pigs and is presently used to curb wild hog populations in Australia and New Zealand. In the U.S. the substance’s potential use for swine-control lacks federal approval, owing to environmental concerns. Still, several agencies are working to develop a viable sow-icidal form. We may see its implementation in the near future.
As an alternative to poison, swine-specific contraceptives are also in development. These substances would be delivered to wild pigs through bait and then function to disable their reproductive systems. The introduction of contraceptives or sodium nitrate might be a game-changer, if not necessarily game over. Something to consider, however, is that some players are enjoying the game as it is.
After all, hunting hogs is fun. In the U.S. no other large animal can be so indiscriminately pursued, neither legally nor sustainably. In Texas hog hunting is permitted day and night, year-round, without limits, without permits, and without guilt. Hog hunters may use bait, lights, dogs, vehicles, and helicopters – pretty much anything short of weaponized drones. In such a heavily regulated domain as hunting, this relative leeway reveals the perceived scale of the task at hand. It also allows for wildly exciting sport, as demonstrated by those who pursue hogs with dogs and knives, bows, or, in a more decidedly modern fashion, helicopters and automatic rifles.
In fact, the War on Hogs seems to have expanded the civilian armament. Enthusiast and professional pig eradicators implement an assortment of sophisticated killing gear. Thermal and night-vision optics and flashlight attachments allow for night-hunting, which is typically illegal with other game but almost necessary for serious hog-extermination efforts. Firearm suppressors, a.k.a. silencers, are used to preclude hearing damage. Also, while suppressors are hardly ever as silent as represented in films, a suppressed gunshot often won’t spook a group of pigs under fire as quickly. This allows for more kills before they escape. Firearms with semi-automatic functionality are popular for similar reasons; they provide faster successive shots than traditional bolt-action deer rifles, helping hunters bag as many pigs as possible.
Those unfamiliar with the civilian gun scene may be surprised or appalled at the widespread availability of such gadgetry. It may come off like it’s straight out of a video game, or perhaps a battlefield. For hog hunters the gear is just an expensive part of the job.
The AR-15, a type of semi-automatic rifle, owes the pig problem at least partly for its status as the most popular type of firearm in America. AR-15 rifles earned widespread notoriety after their involvement in two mass shootings in 2012, the Aurora and Newtown massacres. Gun control advocates called for new restrictions, declaring that the rifles were obvious, all-too-accessible weapons for murderers. In response advocates for gun rights defended them vigorously as widespread and useful tools, rarely abused. It is no exaggeration to say that the rifles are used in hundreds of mass pig-shootings daily, and that livelihoods depend on this – the same way many farmers need pesticides, or gardeners use weedkillers. Indeed, the swine situation has become a valid consideration in the ongoing debate on gun rights in America.
For some, all the killing has raised a question of ethics as well. Animal rights groups have voiced disapproval of the ceaseless slaughter of so many animals – of punishing beasts for a manmade problem. They advocate less lethal measures, like improved fencing. But again, quality fencing is expensive and surprisingly ineffectual. Confronted with trouble, landowners, like any other businessmen, will do what’s economical and effective, which often involves trapping and hunting. When some sportsmen are willing to combat their problems for free, or even to pay them for the privilege, it’s hard to argue with the economy of such arrangements. Some landowners are truly conflicted: hogs are a terrible nuisance, but they’re also exciting game. And did I mention tasty?
Yes, wild pigs are delicious. Their meat puts a nutty, gamey spin to pork, and it’s not at all unpleasant. Hunters often field dress their kills and share the meat with friends. Groups of hogs caught in traps may be transported to butchers – the only legal transport of wild pigs – wherefrom their meat is distributed to restaurants across the East Coast and internationally, and advertised on menus as wild boar. Of course, many Texans would mock this inflated labeling of what they consider pests, along with the exorbitant prices fetched by food that costs them the price of a rifle cartridge.
Despite their appeal as food, however, many dead pigs are wasted. The sheer number of the animals slain makes cleaning them and storing all their meat impossible. Federal safety regulation also restricts the marketability of wild game. The Department of Agriculture requires animals intended for human consumption to be inspected alive. With wild pigs, live inspection is rather a no-go.
It is a pity that much feral pork goes to waste. But, not all of it. When gun-toting celebrity Ted Nugent massacred hundreds of wild pigs by chopper in a single day, dismaying animal rights activists everywhere, he went to the appreciably costly effort of donating much of the resulting meat to charity, apparently bypassing regulation.
In light of this enterprise, global swine demographics make one consider whether all these resilient hogs are unappreciated, or at least underutilized. The same tenacity that makes wild pigs such pernicious foes also makes them sustainable quarry and a highly renewable source of food. That is, if you can find them. Good luck tracking down those porkuswines. America has been trying, and failing, for a while.
It’ll get worse. Much worse. Soon they might make it into your neighborhood. Maybe they’re already there. The swine dilemma certainly isn’t going away any time soon, but awareness is a good first step. Most of all we should respect the pigs, and respect those whose domains collide with them; and as we face the Boar Fortune of the Aporkalypse together we should all try not to get too… disgruntled.
Hogs and kisses.