Hog Wild

Feral pigs are ugly, destructive and mean. Some people in Texas just love to trap, stab or shoot them. Or put them in rodeos. With dogs.

State officials depend heavily on hunters such as Schooley, who volunteers countless hours to killing hogs that destroy neighboring farmland. The Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife allows a yearlong hunting season with no bag limits, no possession limits and no weapons restrictions. A license isn't even required when hunting on property damaged by wild hogs. "This time of year my phone rings nonstop because of that grain," Schooley says.

Like many hog hunters, Schooley pursues the animals on horseback. He goes out with several tracking dogs that corner the hog until he arrives. While the hog is preoccupied with the barking dogs, Schooley grabs the hog by its hind leg, flips it on its side and stabs it behind the front quarter with an eight-inch-long double-edged blade. "A knife to the heart is quicker than a gunshot to the head," he says.

It's a dangerous sport. Already this year two of Schooley's dogs were killed on hunts. One dropped from heat exhaustion; the other was gutted by a charging boar. Though Schooley has only been mildly cut up and nipped at, several years ago a friend in Brazoria County was gored in his upper thigh and nearly bled to death. Schooley doesn't worry, though.

During a break in the action, a dozen kids chase after a baby feral hog.
Daniel Kramer
During a break in the action, a dozen kids chase after a baby feral hog.
The dogs mob an 80-pound sow, chewing at its flesh and playing with its innards.
Todd Spivak
The dogs mob an 80-pound sow, chewing at its flesh and playing with its innards.

"It's an adrenaline rush," he says. "It's an addiction."

Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey is no fan of feral hogs. One evening last fall, while on their way to Sugar Land for dinner and a movie, Healey and his wife were cruising in their convertible Toyota MR2 when a 250-pound hog darted out of a creek bottom and into the road. Healey braked and swerved but couldn't avoid smacking into it. The hog was fine: It quietly darted back into the woods. The car wasn't: Repairs ran to $700. And their evening plans were dashed. But it could have been worse. "If I had hit it square-on," Healey says, "it would have been in our laps."

Healey never imagined that just a few months later he'd be defending the animals.

The controversy began with a complaint to the sheriff's department. A county resident saw flyers posted around town announcing the sixth annual Danny Hill Memorial Hog Baying taking place May 13 at the youth rodeo arena in Needville. They included a photo of a man straddling the back of a large tusked hog. Admission was $3. The event included a pig chase for kids. "No catch dogs or cameras allowed," it read. At the bottom was Jason Schooley's cell phone number.

The resident complained to a deputy sheriff and several local media outlets, which tipped off the Houston Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Healey had no clue what hog-baying entailed. So he called Schooley into his office for an explanation.

First thing you need to know, Schooley told him, is there are two kinds of hog-dog rodeos: bay trials and catch trials.

In hog-bay trials, one or two dogs are released into a pen with a wild hog. But they're not supposed to touch it. The dogs' job is to corner the hog, keeping it at bay. The dogs most commonly used are mixed breeds such as Catahoulas and black-mouth curs. Judges for these contests evaluate the following criteria: how close the dog gets to the hog, the constancy of its barking and whether it maintains steady eye contact with the hog.

In hog-catch trials, a pit bull is usually released into a pen with a wild hog. In these typically bloodier events, the dog's job is to catch the hog with its teeth on the ear, snout or chest and wrestle it to the ground for a five-second count. The dog often bites down so hard that several men are needed to step on the animals and pry them apart with what is known as a breakstick. A stopwatch is used to determine which dog catches the hog in the fastest time.

In both bay trials and catch trials, the hogs always lose. Their tusks usually have been removed ahead of time with bolt cutters or a steel pipe and a hammer, rendering them defenseless. But proponents say the purpose is not to get the animals to fight. Rather, they say, the purpose is to train the dogs, which compete against each other. Indeed, in bay trials dogs are docked points or disqualified for biting a hog. Some bay trial enthusiasts condemn catch trials as cruel to animals. Schooley says both events are critical for training dogs to hunt feral hogs.

Animal rights activists dismiss this argument, saying neither bay trials nor catch trials simulate actual hunts. And, they contend, people are unlikely to enter an inexperienced dog in a competition since there's money on the line.

Gambling at a hog-dog rodeo is completely different from what a horse- or dog-racing bettor would expect. In an open auction held before the contests begin, participants and spectators compete to sponsor a dog. Each dog can have just one sponsor, though you can sponsor multiple dogs. A Calcutta is held at the end of every round of 30 or more one-minute-long contests, in which 70 percent of the money in the pot is divvied up among the first- and second-place winners. The remaining 30 percent goes to the organizers to cover costs and make a modest profit. A winning dog can earn its sponsor hundreds, even thousands, of dollars, depending on the number of people betting.

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