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.
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.
"They will come in and tear up anything that's in front of them," says Joey Kennedy, whose family farms in Matagorda County. "The only thing I haven't seen them mess with is cotton."
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."
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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.