At the East Texas Hog Baying Championship — just north of the middle of nowhere — a lean golden-haired dog, with a wagging tail and machine-gun bark, is trying to corner a feral hog probably three times the dog’s size.
Three judges watch from their perches on deer stands on opposite sides of the pen, which is maybe 40 feet in diameter; a handful of spectators sit quietly on two well-worn wooden bleachers, waiting to see if the dog is going to show the hog who’s boss.
The hog’s scissor-sharp tusks have been clipped — “dubbed,” in baying parlance, usually clipped with bolt-cutters or sawed with a wire — but it’s still a powerful beast that can flip the dog like a beanbag if the dog isn’t careful. The dog must maintain a distance of five feet and back the hog against the bay pen wall for a set amount of time.
Entering the ring, the dog — well, really, its owner — has ten points. If the dog loses control and gives ground to the hog, it’s called drifting, and the owner is docked one-tenth of a point. If the dog takes his eyes off the hog, it’s called a look-out, and he’s docked one-tenth of a point. If the dog inconveniently decides to take a dump, that’s just plain nasty, and he’s automatically disqualified.
The dog also can’t bite, or “catch,” the hog — that’s grounds for disqualification. And it’s a flashpoint for the whole sport of hog-baying, which animal welfare advocates say is cruel to both the dog and hog, but which competitors say is misunderstood, mischaracterized and maligned.
Although a 1994 Texas Attorney General’s opinion suggests the sport is illegal and groups like the Humane Society of the United States wish it would disappear, hog-baying is a popular past-time in pockets of south and east Texas, and the organizer of the East Texas Hog Baying Championship wants to help the sport grow.
But the organizer, Jake Loiacano, who owns this bay pen in Village Mills, a blink-and-you-miss-it hamlet about 90 miles northeast of Houston, doesn’t want any reporters and photographers there. So mainstream attention — any coverage outside the world of hog-baying and hog hunting — may be hard to come by. But that’s because, according to these folks, the media twists things. The media has an agenda. The media doesn’t understand the difference between definitely illegal, blood-soaked hog-catching and no-contact hog-baying. The media will snap a thousand pictures and pick the most vicious-looking one.
“Your job is to move the meter,” owner Jake Loiacano tells the Houston Press when we arrive, unannounced, mid-morning on September 29. Although he agreed to answer questions at a later time, he ultimately did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
A six-foot-three former mixed martial arts fighter, he’s a guy you don’t want to argue with. He’s fiercely protective of his sport and the sanctity of his bay pen, which is billed as one of the biggest events outside of the Super Bowl of baying, Uncle Earl’s, in Louisiana.
On day two of the four-day event, about 60 people milled about on the grounds, a spot carved out of the woods, off Gore Store Road, marked only by a small, hand-painted sign. If someone tried real hard, he probably could have chosen a more isolated, difficult-to-find patch of land, but as it is, it’s pretty well hidden. It’s like a good place to get rid of a body.
Campers are lined up and down the narrow, shaded road, with dozens of dogs — some yapping, some lazing — tied to stumps or stakes, waiting their turn in the pen. Pit bulls, black-mouthed curs, lacys, catahoulas. Some of them are already wearing their kevlar “cut vests.”
Kids play with toy trucks and plastic pails in the red dirt, and a cheerful, rotund man named Junior mans the gate from his golf cart, dispensing pink wristbands. He calls everyone “Baby.” When we arrive, it’s “Hi, baby,” and “You can park over there, baby.” When we’re politely but firmly told by Loiacano to leave, it’s a friendly wave and a “Take care, baby.”
From that point on, the world of hog-baying will be nearly impenetrable. And if Loiacano wants his competition to be the Texas equivalent of Uncle Earl’s, he’s got his work cut out for him.
The flyer for the 2017 East Texas Hog Baying Championship features Legend, a catahoula owned by Houstonian Will Seger who lives up to the name.
In 2016, Legend won the one-dog pro entry, beating out more than 100 dogs. Citing the media’s agenda, Seger declined to comment for this story, but in a May 2017 video by the folks behind Uncle Earl’s, Seger discussed how Legend came to be.
Upon buying the dog from a breeder in 2015, and after watching him compete at Uncle Earl’s, Seger “knew he could either be the world champion or have a ‘spin’ to him or whatnot.” So Seger built up the catahoula’s confidence by entering him two or three competitions a month, “letting him understand he’s the baddest athlete in the world.”
He also paid attention to Legend’s joints, giving him supplements, and he picked the brains of old-timers, which Seger suggests all novices do.
There’s video of Legend winning the Hi Point and Best of the Best competitions, which hog baying veteran and blogger Marcus de la Houssaye has watched dozens of times. He’s simply astonished by Legend’s prowess in the pair of matches, how he can read both hogs individually and act accordingly. It’s like watching two different dogs.
It’s the clip from the second contest that really gets de la Houssay, because you can tell that it’s an especially mean hog. It barely moves, just waiting for the right time to lunge and knock the hell out of Legend.
Outsiders may not pick up on the nuance. They might simply see two animals of disparate size, canis familiaris and sus scrofa linnaeas, involuntary pitted together for the primal amusement of a third animal, homo redneckius, But that would be ignorant, in the truest sense. Because once you understand that hog-baying is just one piece of the puzzle — one component of a larger world of hog hunting — you can appreciate the discipline and talent these dogs have.
Take golf, de la Houssaye says. On the surface, to someone who doesn’t know any better, it can look like “the most ridiculous freaking game ever.”
But, he says, “I have friends that explained it to me on a level where I really came to appreciate golf, because what they’re doing with that club and that little ball on that course is incredibly skilled. And there’s even kind of a...sixth sense or something about it that’s hard to describe, and I really respect what they’re doing.”
De la Houssaye describes it like this: “If we run these shows right, there is virtually no contact, there’s no blood, the dogs are not getting hurt….The dog ain’t stupid. He will back up and maintain his distance, but control the pig nonetheless by baying. And frankly, a hog that’s got big ain’t stupid. And he knows that if he turns and he runs, that dog is going to grab a very sensitive scrotum. So the hog backs up to the wall and protects his very vulnerable nutsack and presents his weapons, which are the tusks and his face, and the dog backs up. And the dog basically is saying, ‘Go ahead, punk, run and make my day, so I can make you squeal, and then I’ll turn you around and set you up against this wall again.’”
While de la Houssaye calls this a “fine art,” Texas Senator John Whitmire would disagree.
“What’s the point?” he said when the Press explained the sport.
In 1994, Whitmire and a colleague, the late Senator Bill Sims, sought an opinion from then-Attorney General Dan Morales on two points: Did “publicly staged fights between penned dogs and hogs” violate the state’s animal cruelty law? And what about public events where a dog “is released into a small enclosure with a domesticated living creature or wild living creature, previously captured ostensibly for the purpose of ‘training’ the dog...and a fight ensues.”
Assistant Attorney General Rick Gilpin responded that “staging” alone shows knowledge or intent to cause the fights in question, a clear violation of the law. Gilpin was also clear about events that, at least superficially, were not meant to be fights.
He was equally clear that, even if a person claimed that the event were only for the purposes of training, it would still violate the law.
“We believe it is obvious that such conduct establishes on its face an awareness” that penning a domesticated and wild animal together at a publicly staged event “is reasonably certain” to cause a fight.
Whitmire, who said he wasn’t previously aware of competitive hog-baying, agreed with Gilpin, telling the Press, “I would consider it an abuse to confine a hog and a dog who are not natural friends in a confined area, because everybody’s fooling themselves if they don’t think that it’s going to lead to a fight….Sounds kind of logical.” And, just in case Gilpin’s response was either too murky or too ancient, Whitmire had this to say: “We need to make it illegal.”
At the East Texas Hog Dog Championship, Loiacano told the Press that the event was perfectly legal and was conducted under the complete awareness of the Hardin County Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff Mark Davis did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Ditto Hardin County District Attorney David Sheffield.
But the Humane Society of the United States and PETA would like to see the sport abolished.
Both organizations are frequent targets among hog-bayers and those who breed dogs for baying. At Loiacano’s event, a table was dedicated to anti-HSUS literature, in the form of a printout from the Humanewatch.org website that purports to shatter myths about HSUS. The site is a product of Washington, D.C.-based public relations manager Rick Berman. His company is the force behind the Center for Consumer Freedom, a lobbying group for the food-and-beverage industry that is also critical of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. (Also on the literature table was material from the group Responsible Pet Owners Alliance, a lobbying group for dog breeders noted for opposing a Texas bill criminalizing bestiality).
In an email to the Press, HSUS Texas Director Katie Jarl called hog-baying a “perversion of hog hunting.” And while the danger to the dog is clear, Jarl also pointed out that “the hogs’ tusks are clipped to help decrease the chances of injury to the dogs. Often the tusks crack and [shatter] during the clipping which [leave] the hog in agony.”
Jarl added, “While there are supposed to be rules in place to prevent a hog being used repeatedly in trials, it is common for the same hog to be used repeatedly in the pit. The suffering these animals must endure is inconceivable. Pigs are highly intelligent animals who reason, make best friends, remember their abusers, and, of course, feel pain. In fact, pigs are smarter than dogs and have the IQ of a four-year-old child.”
Stephanie Bell, an animal cruelty investor for PETA says that, even if there is no physical contact between the dog and hog, it’s still torturous to the pig.
“They don’t know they are not going to be mauled and ripped apart,” Bell tells the Press. “Dogs are coming after them and vocalizing, and so it’s a terrifying experience for them, regardless.”
Likewise, she adds, “Even when dogs are not supposed to make contact, obviously that isn’t a rule that the hogs understand, and very often the dogs themselves are injured….[Hogs are] powerful animals, they’re terrified. That, unfortunately, is the point of these events — people are enjoying watching dogs corral and corner terrified animals.”
In the end, Bell says, “These operators will often claim...that it’s simply baying, and because the pigs are not attacked and not injured, that there’s no suffering. But evidence indicates otherwise. It’s common enough for animals to become injured during these competitions that there are official rules often citing what the penalties are if your dog makes contact with a hog. And if that never happened, those penalties wouldn’t exist.”
Of course, the deck is slightly stacked — as both HSUS and PETA note, the hogs’ tusks, a vital and natural defense, have been trimmed.
A 2008 Canadian study on tusk-trimming, published in the Minneapolis-based National Hog Farmer (“the business magazine of the pork industry”) concluded that “the majority of boar tusks have pulp extending above the gum line. The pulp contains nerves. Therefore, trimming may cause pain and leave the tusk open to infection.”
According to the study, “Tusks can be removed using hoof nippers or bolt cutters. Less frequently used — but the recommended method — is orthopedic wire is used as a ‘saw’ to cut off tusks….Tusks are generally trimmed very close to the gum line without the use of painkillers or sedation.”
“One day I heard a voice, and it said, ‘If you were half the servant to me, Marcus, that these dogs are to you, we’d really have something going on,” de la Houssaye says.
A religious man, he assumed it was Jesus Christ talking. So he looked down at his dogs, as if for the first time, and noticed how truly amazing they were.
“They will lay their life down and die for me.” he says. “They will feed me, they will protect me, they will forgive me, they will love me, they will comfort me, they will lick my wounds and heal me.”
They’re also such intelligent animals, de la Houssaye says, that it was simply “beyond our collective ability to understand how smart they are, and I not only had to give them more credit, I had to assess who and what I was.”
So when his dogs went into the ring, it was with the understanding that it was what they were bred to do, and their instincts and intelligence were more than enough to keep them safe. In fact, he says, the best dogs don’t even need to wear a cut vest or a cut collar. It’s never going to get that far.
“I will confess, if you will, it’s a bloodsport,” de la Houssaye says. “But if we put blood on the ground — if our dogs catch and put blood on the ground, they’re disqualified….It’s a bloodsport in that the danger exists. There’s also another side to that, that a well-trained and properly bred dog is not going cause the hog to bleed and the dog will not get cut either. That’s our ultimate goal, is to prove that we can control that hog without damaging the hog or the dog.”
De la Houssaye also says the potential for blood is tied to the quality of the hogs used. For example, he says, Loiacano uses his own hogs, who are well-maintained year round, unlike at some other competitions, which utilize rented hogs.
If by chance a dog does catch a hog, men are at the ready to run in with a piece of wood called a break-stick, jam it behind the dog’s molars and twist, and separate the animals. But the best competitions will have hardly any “catch-outs” — Loiacano’s boasts less than 1 percent.
Still, it may be difficult for an outsider to understand why deliberately putting a dog in harm’s way is not animal cruelty.
The Press reached out to an online hog hunting and hog baying community called East Texas Hog Doggers, looking for honest, intelligent input, but mostly just got called a tree-hugging “libtard” communist.
However, one member skipped the ad hominem attacks and explained it this way:
“There are specific rules in place that are there to keep the hogs from getting tore up. Any dog that catches out is disqualified and who in their right mind is going to waste money entering a dog that is going to go in there and catch the hog and get disqualified? The dogs used in hunting and or bay pen competitions have been bred and used for working for this type of work for well over a hundred years and it is part of what separates them from a regular ole dog that just wants to be a pet.”
The person continued, “Most of the time these dogs will begin working on their own without any help from their human handlers. It is a part of the dog and they choose to do it. There is absolutely no way to make a dog bay or hunt a hog if it doesn’t want to. It is borderline animal cruelty to prevent a dog from doing what they are born to do.”
At the East Texas Hog Baying Championship, Ricky C. sits on one of the bleacher seats and explains that he has hunting dogs and baying dogs, and both eat before him. They are well-loved and cared for. In the ring, they wear cut vests.
On that Friday mid-morning, Ricky C. was friendly, explaining the rules of the game, introducing his wife — “Big Mama” — and proudly speaking of his five-year-old daughter, who has her own baying dog she brings to the pen. He’ll go on to win the one-dog competition with his dog, Trigger.
But when we later asked him via Facebook if he or Big Mama would care to talk more for the story, his demeanor was slightly different, to wit: “Just so you know, if [you] message my wife or any of my friends, I will smash you. We are not interested in your liberal bullshit!! Mind yo business and we mind ours!!! [sic].”
The sentiment seemed widely shared online.
In a warning that seems counterproductive to spreading understanding of, or goodwill toward, hog-baying, one person wrote on Facebook that “a huge anti hog hunting/hog baying group gathering ‘evidence’ and they are going to try to strike soon. This is not a joke. Any pictures or videos of dogs baying, catching, fighting a hog can be used against us….There is a guy from the Houston paper calling big names in the hog baying and hog hunting world and trying to ‘interview’ to gather more ammunition against us.”
One woman responded, “I say we catch him and take him or them to White Oak bottom and leave em [sic].”
It’s difficult to understand how Loiacano will grow the sport when there’s such hostility to outsiders.
He posted online that “We purchased this bay pen with the hopes that we can help to save a sport that I have been very close to for nearly 20 years.”
Beyond bragging rights, winning the championship means money.
On Facebook, Loiacano advertised a nearly $60,000 payout over the course of 600 runs.
Loiacano also posted that he’d like those purses to grow — but it may be a slow climb if he’s not courting the outside world and only trying to grow from inside.
“I remember when the purses where much bigger than today and it is a goal of mine to drive them back up,” Loiacano wrote. “As long as hog dogs are worth ‘good money’ people will always be able to justify driving countless hours to go to a baying and spend a ton of their own time and money in order to compete in bay trials. If there is no reward for all the time you put into your working dogs eventually you do what most people do and that is QUIT.”
At Village Mills, entry fees range from $50-$200, depending on the division, which included single-puppy, two-puppy, hound-class, and terrier-class, among others. There’s also the old-young division, where the hog squares off against an adult and a puppy. Participants and spectators can bet on individual dogs or can pick the “calcutta,” where people bid, auction-style, on a dog, and then collect a pre-determined percentage of the pool if the dog wins.
Since Loiacano wouldn’t talk for the story, it’s unclear how many people attended the event over the four days, but he wrote on Facebook that he was hoping to sell 200 tickets. In late July, he announced that he was raffling off a gold plated Henry Big Boy .357 rifle to help raise money.
“This gun will cost you over $800 retail and is a super sweet shooter, as nice as I’ve seen, that’s why I chose this model,” he wrote.
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As long as hog-baying is considered legal — or at least no one’s ever been arrested for it in Texas — the sport will continue to attract hundreds, if not thousands, of competitors every year. Some of these, like the Texas Baydog Championship, held last year at the Lavaca County Expo fairgrounds in Hallettsville, are clearly open to the public, but others seem to be conducted on a need-to-know basis.
There was the El Perro Muerto contest in Smiley last August; the Huntington Texas Bay Pen, held July 2016 and featuring a concession booth with Dr Pepper and pulled pork in addition to the contest’s “17 big hogs with teeth”; or Callaway’s Bay Pen north of Lufkin, which held its latest event in September 2017.
Loiacano is hoping the East Texas Hog Baying Championship will be bigger than all of those. And he’s apparently hoping to do it without the help of media spreading the word — or perhaps only fully sympathetic media. But he and others may want to consider actually inviting the media, and risking the result, which may include everything from pro-baying articles, to stories of outrage, or dispatches finding the repeated sight of a dog yapping at a hog from five feet away mind-numbly boring. They might want to think of public relations, or at least a way to tamp down on threats of physical violence. Until then, Loiacano and others might want to consider why they insist on holding these events in relative hiding.