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The unusually breezy summer evening was more than perfect hunting weather for Philip Schoppe. The dogs were packed in the truck, his knife tucked securely in his back pocket, and dusk was just completing its short run for the day, giving way to dark. Sweat, swine and grain mixed to make a thick summer air run like a syrup through his lungs, and Schoppe stopped to inhale it, waiting to hear the telltale bark of the lead dog informing him that the prize had been spotted.
The excitement in running after the sound of five barking dogs in an inkwell of darkness, through head-level cornstalks, plowing through dense woods, slipping on muddy paths, builds as Schoppe rushes closer to the catch.
For Schoppe, it's another night's work in his job as hunter -- specializing in controlling the region's burgeoning wild pig population.
Feral hogs have always been around Texas, and have caused many problems for ranchers. In the past ten years, though, the numbers of wild pigs here has exploded. There are an estimated two million of the wild things in the state, and their tendency to show up in pastures has turned from being just a nuisance to a threat.
This is the case of the feral pig that has been kicked out of its natural home, looking for food and finding lots of it, just in the wrong place. Signs of these animals -- mainly rooted terrain -- can be found with increasing frequency anywhere from golf courses to backyards. They've even savaged soccer fields. And authorities say the situation is only getting worse.
Hogs were first introduced into the Americas with Columbus's venture into the New World, and they have called Texas home since 1689. When they arrived from Europe, their domestication wasn't nearly as rigid as it is today. Bruce Lawhorn, a feral swine specialist at Texas A&M, says that many pigs from the 1800s through 1950s were free-ranging; they were allowed to romp around the land and were gathered only twice a year to be sold. The remainder were brought back to the ranch. With no strict watch over them, some ran off and mated with Russian boars or each other.
After a few generations of living on their own, domesticated animals will return to natural survival tactics, looking in wooded areas for food and water. When those areas are taken over by humans, the next best thing for a feral pig may be a pool, a crop or any piece of land that resembles its natural habitat.
That's what's happening in rural areas surrounding Houston. Inez Tipp, a communications supervisor at Texas Parks and Wildlife, says she can't remember a time when there haven't been calls about pigs. "They're just looking for food and water like every other animal. That's what you get when you build over what used to be wooded area," she says.
The swine have been spotted in Memorial Park and Jesse Jones Park near Humble. Their evidence is unmistakable. After an evening of activity, "it looks like 100 armadillos had gone through leaf litter," says Jones Park director Dennis Johnston.
The parks' pig populations remain uncertain, but they usually travel in small groups (typically two sows and their piglets).
The black, brown or striped animals range in size from 60 to 300 pounds, and burrow holes deep enough to sink a wheel on a tractor-trailer. Their keen sense of smell will lead them to corn and rice crops as well as to bugs, berries, small mammals and their favorite: acorns. For water, they'll make their way to a river or a stream. Because the pigs are nocturnal, humans don't usually come in contact with them. In fact, if there were enough feed in their natural habitat, they would be extremely scarce in populated areas. Development, however, has eliminated that possibility, so residents of rural areas are just as likely to run into wild pigs as deer.
Those who come in contact with the hogs are advised not to panic; usually feral pigs will avoid confrontation if they can. But a sow will do anything to protect its litter; that includes making a charge if it feels its babies are threatened. Feral pigs rarely mount fatal attacks, but a close encounter with a tusk could mean 50 or 60 stitches, Lawhorn says.
Last year an unlikely assortment of authorities assembled in Fort Worth. Drawn together were ranchers from 11 states and Canada along with animal behavior experts and the host, the Texas Animal Health Commission.
Their purpose: to brainstorm some plausible solutions to the increasing numbers of wild hogs in Texas and surrounding states. The attendees at the Feral Swine Symposium went back and forth on the benefits and problems of a large population of these animals.
Each year the feral pig population grows exponentially in Texas, and there's no sign of them slowing down. Their population has doubled from the estimated one million of ten years ago. There aren't many counties without feral pigs, says Randy Smith, a specialist at the Texas Wildlife Damage Management Service. It's not hard to understand why: The gestation period for sows is only 114 days, Lawhorn says, and they have about two litters per year that can range from four to eight piglets each time. Just a year later, the females will bear piglets of their own.