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These animals have become such a nuisance that the damage management agency has labeled them pests, putting them in the class with mice and other varmints. One 300-pound pig can destroy an acre in an evening, and where there's food, there's more than one pig. In just one night's sleep, days of farmwork can be undone. If the animals get to the crop early enough, it's ruined and the farmer can lose an entire year's harvest.
Last year's swine symposium attendees debated some solutions that included the possibility of oral contraceptives for the pigs. Smith argues that there's not anything, really, that can be done to get rid of them. "All you can do is control local hog populations on an individual basis; the hog numbers are just constantly increasing."
Managing the feral hog population is not high on the priority list for the management service, and that keeps the pigs in, well, hog heaven. They don't have many natural predators -- just coyotes, mountain lions and humans. Smith says the only practical way to control them on private property is through hunting. And the explosion of the hog population has made that method more popular than ever.
Ten years ago Karankawa Plains Hunting Company opened its doors to the public, specializing in guided hunts for deer, quail and dove. Four years ago its staff discovered that customers had acquired an appetite for another prey: wild hogs.
Mark Biggerstaff, hunting coordinator of the Wharton County-based company, decided that hog hunting would work commercially; it was a transition that made financial sense. "There were just so many of them, and people enjoy hunting them," Biggerstaff explains. For $125, anyone can come for a day to hunt and kill as many pigs as they'd like.
It's an attractive offer because there's no bag limit and there's no season; all that's needed is a valid hunting license. It's a year-round revenue maker.
Kennedy, of the agriculture family in Matagorda, will hunt on certain properties as a favor to ranchers and farmers. During the regular hunting season, he and Schoppe advertise with flyers, the ranchers call them, and by Friday they have a list of places to hit for the weekend.
Some people charge for that service, but for them it's fun, they provide a benefit, and they give away a lot of food to families who may need it, in addition to keeping their own freezers full.
Some hunters will capture the pigs, put them in pens and sell them to companies that distribute the meat on the wholesale market. Others will keep pigs alive to help in training their hunting dogs, usually curs or pit bulls. Other hunters will take them to a live market to sell to upscale restaurants for 55 cents to $2 per pound. In some countries, such as France, wild pig is considered a delicacy. Those who have indulged say that the meat is leaner and tastier than domesticated pork.
But whether the hog is captured or killed, the hunting disturbs some animal rights activists. Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife biologist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, says humans have no business killing the animals if it is not solving the overpopulation problem.
"The feral pig situation began with human irresponsibility, and a decision needs to be made," she says. "If this is a problem that needs to be controlled, then are they coming up with methods that are effective? Obviously they aren't."
Boyles, in an interview from PETA's headquarters in Virginia, says that, aside from the animal cruelty aspect, the hunting's "not doing anything to solve the problem, which we think is outrageous."
PETA's position hardly affects the attitudes in the Houston region, where Schoppe and Kennedy were hunting hogs on a recent night, at the request of a farmer. They say that after they've conducted a kill in the area, pigs won't return for at least two weeks -- and it's easy to see why.
In their pursuit of pork on the hoof in the heavy darkness, they've occasionally tripped on and landed atop a 400-pound sleeping boar. There are none of those on this night, but their hunting dogs have taken them to success, leading the two to 30 pigs rooting in one spot.
The dogs back off the pig they've selected. In a matter of seconds, Schoppe grabs the forelegs of the hog, an animal at least twice his weight, flips it over and straddles it. Reaching for his ten-inch knife, Schoppe stabs once directly into the heart.
Amid wild squealing, the pig dies almost instantly. On a typical night, the hunters will haul in three or four more hogs before the predawn end of the hunt.
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