By Chris Lane
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By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
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By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Homemade signs posted on trees point the way to a large grassy field where a woman wearing high-waisted Wranglers, scuffed cowboy boots and a long, frizzy mullet approaches the driver's-side window and demands a $5 entrance fee.
On this sweltering July afternoon in Fred, a tiny Texas town set 40 miles north of Beaumont, dozens of mixed breeds and pit bulls are collared and chained to trees and fence posts. Many are battle-scarred and lean, their rib cages exposed. Their forceful, incessant barking pounds the air.
At a pavilion men sip beer, kids sell barbecue and a lady hunches over a picnic table taking cash and placing bets. A few yards further lies the pen where the hogs are kept.
If you've never seen a feral hog, you need to expel from your mind the image of cuddly barnyard swine. Forget Wilbur, Porky and Babe. Feral hogs have neither soft pink bellies nor coiled tails. There's nothing cute or cartoonish about them.
These are swarthy, mud-colored beasts with large powerful heads and snouts. Wiry hair sprouts in clumps along their backbones. Spiked fangs and scissors-sharp tusks protrude several inches past their lips.
Just outside the pen, women recline in folding chairs with infants tottering on their laps. Men lean forward against the rusted metal enclosure, their hands dangling listlessly into the arena.
Standing on a plank where the hogs are huddled, a teenage boy in a dirty T-shirt and jeans uses a long wooden staff to prod a 200-pound boar through a caged chute. The hog swiftly and silently circles the pen, then stands motionless.
The dogs outside the pen are barking more rapidly now. Some are howling. The contest has begun.
Two curs are set loose in the pen. They race to within three feet of the hog, settle low on their haunches and bark steadily at it.
The dogs hold their ground. They never turn their heads or back away. The hog is four times their size, but they are the aggressors.
The hog does not resist. It just stands there, cowering.
Then, suddenly, the hog breaks, darting between them.
In the woods, the hog might have a chance at freedom. It could thunder through thick brush and cacti, causing the dogs to retreat. But in the pen there's no place to hide.
The dogs quickly catch up. One lunges and sinks its teeth into the hog's right ear. The hog, still running, shakes its head, trying to free itself. It's squealing and grunting loudly now.
The hog momentarily escapes. It leaps several feet into the air and crashes snout-first into the pen. But the moment it bounces back to the ground in a cloud of dust a dog latches onto its side, clamping down hard enough to draw blood, and the hog's high-pitched squeal becomes a deep-throated roar.
To an animal rights activist, this is the money shot: the image held up to convince juries and lawmakers that hog-dog rodeos -- a little-known rural Southern tradition that pits dogs against wild hogs -- are a vicious blood sport that should be outlawed.
In the last couple of years, several states across the South have taken this position. Long debates and impassioned editorials led to a tightening of animal cruelty laws and jail time for organizers and participants in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi and the Carolinas.
In Texas, where hog-dog rodeos are held every weekend in rural communities throughout the state, there hasn't even been a conversation. (See the sidebar "Play Dead," at the end of this article.)
Jason Schooley is a self-described hawg-dawg fanatic.
"I love those frickin' hogs," he says. "I don't know what I'd do without 'em."
A 250-pound feral hog's head adorns Schooley's living room wall in Beasley, a farming town 40 miles southwest of downtown Houston. A tall gilded trophy stands in the corner from a recent hog-hunting contest. Framed photographs show him crouching with his dogs next to fresh kills.
The 31-year-old Fort Bend County equipment operator has hunted hogs with dogs for more than half his life. He trains hunting dogs and organizes an annual hog-dog rodeo, held at a public park in Needville, which became a point of controversy earlier this year. The event, billed as family entertainment, attracts hundreds of people from across the state.
"My daughter was five when she stuck her first hog," he says, beaming.
As a teenager, Schooley trapped feral hogs in neighboring counties and set them free in the woods behind his family's property, earning him the nickname "Catch-And-Release." These days, to the dismay of farmers whose crops and livestock are frequently ravaged by wild hogs, Schooley and other avid hunters throughout Texas have no problem finding them in their own backyards.
Feral hogs have roamed Texas for centuries. The first domestic swine escaped from Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto during his expedition across the southeast in the mid-1500s. Their survival was later fostered by wealthy American sportsmen who imported European wild hogs to stock hunting preserves and, in eastern Texas, by the herds of domestic hogs once allowed to wander freely.