Pickup trucks haul yapping mutts in crowded trailers through the woods in a long, tedious procession, taking an hour to travel seven miles of cratered red-dirt road.
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.
Domestic hogs become feral after as few as three generations spent in the wild, during which they undergo a werewolf-like transformation. They grow bristly hair and curling tusks, become almost exclusively nocturnal when hunted hard, and develop a thick plate of gristle on their shoulders and sides tough enough to deflect small-caliber bullets.
Feral hogs multiply faster than rabbits, spawning hundreds of offspring during an average life span of 15 to 25 years. Sows can produce two litters a year, with as many as a dozen piglets per litter, and begin breeding at just six months old. They adapt to most any climate and have no natural predators. Nationwide, since 1990, the wild hog population has more than doubled and spread from 19 to 35 states.
Today, Texas is home to some two million feral hogs -- more than any other state and nearly half the total population in the entire country. They're most densely populated in East, Southeast and South Texas, though their numbers have increased dramatically in recent years in the central and northern parts of the state. They live in nearly all 254 counties but are less prevalent in the more arid sections of West Texas along the New Mexico border.
An average mature feral hog weighs 75 to 150 pounds. A trophy-size hog prized by hunters ranges from 250 to 450 pounds. And then there are the freakishly large hogs, which tend to incite national media frenzies. In 2003 an 800-pound hog was killed near New Waverly, 60 miles north of Houston. That matches the actual weight of the notorious Hogzilla, the giant hog shot in Georgia that became the subject of a popular National Geographic documentary aired last spring. Several months after Hogzilla, a central Florida man gunned down an alleged 1,100-pound beast dubbed Hog Kong.
Feral hogs, regardless of their size, are enormously destructive. In a matter of hours, they can root up several acres of grain crops, destroying fields of corn, maize, rice and sorghum. They kill pets and small livestock, including calves, goats, lambs and fawns, as well as ground-nesting birds such as turkey and quail. They're also major disease carriers, capable of destroying entire herds of cattle with pseudo-rabies virus and swine brucellosis, which causes abortions and infertility. Every year they cause more than $50 million in damages across Texas, according to a 2004 landowner survey conducted by the Texas Cooperative Extension Service, a division of Texas A&M University.
Locally, in just the last few months, feral hogs have excavated soccer fields at George Bush Park in west Harris County; destroyed wetlands created in northeast Harris County to offset new development; and cost homeowners in Clear Lake, Conroe, Humble, Katy, Magnolia and The Woodlands thousands of dollars in landscaping fees. They run rampant in Brazos Bend State Park, according to Wes Masur, director of law enforcement for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife. A couple years ago in Fairfield Lake State Park, 90 miles southeast of Dallas, a 150-pound sow attacked a little girl riding her bicycle in the camping loop. The girl, who escaped unscathed, initially thought she was being chased by a bear.
While nobody believes Texas will ever get rid of feral hogs, state officials and several individual counties have taken some creative measures to control the population. Earlier this year the Texas Department of Agriculture gave $500,000 to Texas A&M and Texas Tech universities to assess feral hog damage to crops and to research reproductive control methods. In 2003, officials in Van Zandt County, set 60 miles east of Dallas, instituted a bounty, paying trappers $7 for every pair of matched hog ears. In 14 months, the county doled out more than $14,000 for 2,062 sets of ears, according to Brian Cummins, who oversaw the program.
The state employs three techniques for killing feral hogs. They're baited into steel traps with shelled corn, then shot; lured into neck snares that can tighten and asphyxiate them when they squirm; and, most extravagantly, shot down from low-flying helicopters with 12-gauge semiautomatic shotguns. The state operates two helicopters and two small planes for predatory animal control. Historically these were used solely to kill coyotes in West Texas and in the Hill Country. About ten years ago the state began employing the aircraft to hunt wild hogs.
Just last month state workers gunned down 320 hogs during a four-day hunt in Matagorda County along the Gulf Coast. In 2005 the state killed more than 11,000 hogs. One-third of these were caught in neck snares; half were taken in aerial gunning missions. A ground crew often coordinates with the pilots, scaring packs of hogs out of heavy cover and into open fields. The carcasses are left in the field to rot. "We try to finish 'em off," says Texas Wildlife Services district supervisor Gary McEwen, "and let 'em lie for the vultures."
The state also hosts workshops in which landowners are taught how to trap feral hogs and sell them to USDA-approved slaughterhouses, where the hogs are killed using the captive-bolt method, essentially a pistol shot to the skull. These plants pay as much as 25 cents per pound plus a $5 head bonus. A 200-pound hog brings $55. Feral hogs are said to have a lean, mildly gamy flavor and are considered a delicacy in high-end restaurants on the east and west coasts as well as overseas. "They end up on white-clothed tables across Europe," says Dick Koehler, vice president of Frontier Meats in Fort Worth, which sells the wild hog meat to distribution centers in Italy and Switzerland.
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.
"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.
Schooley shot straight with the D.A. Yes, it's true, there would be gambling, he admitted. But last year's contest, he said, also raised $11,000, which was donated to the Future Farmers of America program at B.F. Terry High School in Rosenberg, the Texas Dog Hunters Association and the American Cancer Society. He also admitted that although the Needville event was a bay trial, occasional biting was inevitable. After all, the dogs are trained to attack. In past years, Schooley said, it was not uncommon for a dog to shred a hog's ears, scrotum or snout. But, in such cases, the dogs are pried off as quickly as possible.
Healey prosecutes a handful of dogfighting and cockfighting cases every year. He pointed Schooley to Section 42.09 of the Texas Penal Code, which explicitly forbids causing one animal to fight with another. Both forms of hog-dog rodeos, he figured, broke the state's animal protection laws. "When an injury's inflicted, that's fighting," Healey told him. "It's a violation of the law waiting to happen."
The Office of the Attorney General of Texas upheld this view 12 years ago. State Senator John Whitmire, a 32-year veteran Democratic lawmaker who represents northern Harris County, requested the attorney general opinion after being sent a videotape of "dogs brutalizing hogs in a closed facility about the size of a garage."
Rick Gilpin, assistant attorney general under Dan Morales, concluded in response: "...We believe it is obvious that such conduct establishes on its face an awareness by the defendant that his 'conduct is reasonably certain to cause'...a 'fight' between the dog or dogs and the other animal. Thus, we can state with confidence that the scenario...describes an offense."
Hog-dog rodeos are still held every weekend in counties across Texas despite the apparent consensus by the attorney general's office and some district attorneys that both bay trials and catch trials are illegal. Many, including the event held last month in Fred, are advertised in Bayed Solid, a Louisiana-based monthly magazine named for the expression hunters use when a dog properly corners a hog. These advertisements include the names and phone numbers of the organizers and directions to the event. The August edition features ads for bay trials in Centerville, Lufkin and Village Mills.
In 1999, former Houston state representative Ron Wilson sponsored legislation to specifically ban hog-dog rodeos. Like Whitmire, Wilson had seen footage of an event held in East Texas. "They say they're training the dogs, but that's bullshit," says Wilson, an attorney who hunts wild hogs in Central Texas. "It's just a hedonistic, barbaric form of cheap entertainment."
Wilson received several death threats for carrying the bill, which died in committee after some 200 people attended a hearing to oppose it. "You'd be surprised how many supporters there are for practices like that in Texas," says Wilson. "They acted like I was trying to take the red off the flag."
Legislator Whitmire suspects law enforcement officials know that hog-dog rodeos are taking place but choose to ignore them.
"In many counties it's very difficult to get a prosecution, in part because of apathy of law enforcement," says Skip Trimble, a Dallas resident and member of the Texas Humane Legislation Network. "Some just don't think animal cruelty is a big deal."
Brazoria County District Attorney Jeri Yenne says she has heard that such events occur in her area but has never received a specific complaint. Even so, she's not entirely convinced they're illegal.
"What one person perceives as cruel, another does not," Yenne says. "Some people are raised with belts and switches; others think that's a felony."
In early May, less than two weeks before the hog-dog rodeo was set to take place in Needville, Healey "strongly urged" Schooley to cancel it.
The Fort Bend/Southwest Sun ran a front-page story on the controversy. Relatives of Danny Hill -- the event's namesake, a childhood friend of Schooley's who died in a car wreck at age 31 -- no longer wanted his name attached to the event if it was going to be denigrated.
Schooley called off the event, but he doesn't get what the fuss is about. The hog-bay trial, he says, offered good, clean family entertainment that raised money for the community.
He goes on to condemn the well-publicized raid earlier this month of a pit bull breeding operation in Liberty County, in which authorities seized more than 300 of the aggressive terriers used for illegal dogfighting. Ninety-five percent of these dogs will be euthanized, according to lead investigator Mark Timmers, a sergeant for Harris County Precinct 6.
"Why are these so-called animal rights folks considered humane when all they did is round up and kill the dogs?" Schooley asks. "Those dogs are amazing athletes bred to fight. They love it."
Once, Schooley says, while on a hunt, his dogs caught a hog several miles away. By the time he got to the scene, the dogs had eaten so much of the hog, they were passed out next to it. The hog was still breathing, though its face was completely chewed off from behind its ears to the tip of its snout.
"It was the most grotesque fucking thing I've ever seen," he says. "But putting a hog in a pen, where it's not gonna get killed, where it's probably not even gonna get hurt, that's against the law. Come on!"
Even Healey is sympathetic to this argument. Referring to the state's aggressive tactics for getting rid of feral hogs, he says, "Some would probably find aerial shootings to be more offensive."
In deep woods after midnight, under an enormous Texas sky aglow with constellations, Scott Trammell steps into a stirrup and sits atop his horse. One hand balances a flashlight with the reins; the other shields his face as he spurs the steed forward through heavy brush thick with cacti and tangled tree limbs. He pauses in a clearing. A thin line of blood streaks the left side of his face like war paint.
Crickets chirp; a merciful breeze whistles through the leaves; ten collared curs rustle the tall grasses on all sides. More than three hours have passed. Trammell, a construction worker in San Antonio, wonders aloud to his friend -- Jason Fairchild, who rides alongside on a mule and knows these 1,000 acres 50 miles southeast of the Alamo City like the back of his hand -- if they're going to come up empty.
Just then, the dogs disappear. The two men stop, cock their heads and strain to listen. A couple of minutes pass. Silence.
Faintly, in the distance, a dog barks. Another minute passes. More barking. A hog squeals. The men take off, breaking into a short gallop for a half-mile or so along an open trail. As they ride closer, the dogs rally, barking like mad. The hog's cries are like a woman's hysterical screams interspersed with deep guttural snorts and growls.
The men leap from their animals, tie them to trees and crawl through the dense brush. Trammell clicks his flashlight off, knowing a hog will charge at the light.
All ten dogs are mobbing the 80-pound sow, which lies motionless, though it continues to shriek and squeal. The dogs' powerful jaws are clamped to every side of the hog, tearing at its limbs, ears and snout. They rip a hole in the sow's stomach, unravel its long, slimy intestines and drag them through the dirt.
The hog dies a few minutes later, but the dogs go on chewing at its flesh and playing with its innards. Trammell grabs a couple of dogs by their collars and yanks them off. He slaps the others on their noses with the back of a knife. "Dead hog," he tells them. "Dead hog; dead hog; dead hog; dead hog."
Trammell runs his knife along the sow's stomach and chest, then plunges a hand inside, searching for piglets. There are none. Even so, he says to his friend, triumphantly, "Killing that one little baby sow saved us hundreds of hogs."
John Goodwin has one word for the way most hunters kill wild hogs: obscene.
"Scaring a wild boar with a dog, then jumping on it, stabbing it with a knife, while the animal bleeds in agony -- of course we're against that," says Goodwin, deputy manager for animal fighting issues with The Humane Society of America in Washington, D.C.
According to Goodwin, hunters "should be sharpshooters able to put a single bullet through a vital organ."
Many critics consider the Humane Society an anti-hunting group bent on outlawing the use of dogs for hunting any animals, including squirrels, doves, ducks, pheasants, quails and, yes, wild hogs. Goodwin doesn't deny this. But he says it's not an issue the group is currently working on.
By lobbying for legislation and assisting law enforcement in raiding events, the Humane Society has played a central role in efforts to crack down on hog-dog rodeos across the South.
Louisiana, one of just two states that still allow cockfighting, in 2004 became the first to ban hog-catch trials. Leading up to the vote, legislators engaged in "a boisterous hourlong House debate in which one lawmaker wore a hog nose and scores of others squealed and clucked animal noises," according to the Times-Picayune.
"I'm sure they still go on," says Republican state Representative Warren Triche Jr., who wrote the legislation. "Once we made it illegal, they started going underground with it."
The Louisiana law exempts the popular Uncle Earl's Hog Dog Trials, which draws hundreds of Texans every year. The event was started in 1995 to celebrate former governor and well-known hog hunter Earl K. (brother of Huey) Long's 100th birthday.
Also in 2004, law enforcement in Alabama, Arizona and South Carolina joined forces in what was the first major interstate crackdown on hog-dogging. The raids led to at least a dozen arrests and the confiscation of several dozen catch dogs and feral hogs. Many cases are still pending, including the forthcoming trial of Vicky Stultz Land, the top animal-control official for Chester County in North Carolina, who is charged with animal fighting and baiting by the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division.
Mary Luther, president of the South Carolina-based International Catchdog Association, was arrested in the raids and charged with animal fighting, though a jury later found her not guilty. Cases are pending against her longtime boyfriend and her son, who is autistic. "They have taken this to phenomenally ridiculous heights," Luther says, adding that her family owes $80,000 in legal fees.
Unrepentant, Luther says she continues to organize hog-dog rodeos across the South. Luther can't understand why hogs are being singled out for sympathy. She also organizes fights that pit dogs against raccoons and foxes in pens. "The dogs shred the foxes to pieces, but nobody cares about that," she says. "It's silly to care about hogs but not foxes and coons."
After Luther was acquitted, the South Carolina legislature responded by passing a bill that amends its animal fighting laws to include pitting dogs against wild hogs with the intent of causing them to fight. It also raised penalties for blood sports, which includes hog-dogging. It is now a felony-level offense to attend a hog-catch trial as a spectator, to supply the animals or to own the pit where it is staged. The bill was signed into law this summer.
Alabama, Mississippi and North Carolina also passed laws this summer banning the contests. Similar bills failed in Georgia and Tennessee. Goodwin says the issue will be raised again in each of these states during the next legislative session.
The Texas legislature has not broached the issue of hog-dog rodeos since Wilson's bill was quashed in committee seven years ago. There is no record of any prosecution or conviction in Texas against people who stage such events, despite the attorney general's 1994 opinion that they violate animal cruelty laws.
At the time of the raids two years ago, Goodwin says, the Humane Society was also investigating several Texans known for promoting hog-catch trials over the Internet. "We just didn't get to these guys," he says. "But we shook that world up and forced them into the catacombs."
One of the organization's prime suspects was 45-year-old Steve Johnson, a carpenter and East Texas native who lives in Spring. For Johnson, hunting with dogs is a family tradition that began with his grandfather, an avid bird hunter.
Since being diagnosed with epilepsy four years ago, Johnson no longer hunts hogs on a weekly basis. Instead of hunting on horseback, he now goes out with friends every couple of months on an all-terrain vehicle. An American bulldog, used as a catch dog, rides along, perched on the hood of the four-wheeler.
Johnson admits he helped organize several hog-catch competitions in the Huntsville area but claims he's no longer involved. He says he knows many of the people who were arrested, as well as other organizers in states across the South.
Johnson isn't surprised that the Humane Society targeted him for prosecution.
"Apparently they take me as some cruel animal treater," he says. Pointing to the bulldog lying on his kitchen floor with a litter of two-week-old pups, he says: "It's bullshit; I'm an animal lover."
According to Goodwin, hogs are used repeatedly until they're severely mauled or killed by the dogs. Apple vinegar is often poured on the hogs' wounds to help them heal faster so they can return to the ring. Goodwin went undercover to a hog-catch trial in South Carolina and saw hogs with their ears completely torn off. One hog's face was bitten so severely, he says, that when it ate, pieces of corn fell through the wound.
Johnson says he has never seen a hog or a dog killed at a contest. People at the events take care of the animals, he says. After all, a good catch dog can fetch as much as $2,000. And processing plants won't buy hogs that are badly wounded.
He adds that a hog doesn't feel pain. A squeal, he says, is "an alarm signal sent out to other hogs." But this, he says, is something animal rights activists and city slickers in general don't understand.
"They think we're all uneducated, stupid poor people on welfare and food stamps thirsty to see gore and blood and guts," Johnson says. "We don't want to see gore. We want to see a dog perform. It's like a gymnast scoring a ten on the uneven bars. When a dog makes a great catch, people go, 'Beautiful! That dog is awesome!' "
Pass a watermelon stand, a one-lane bridge and a tiny cemetery, then turn left onto a winding dirt road across from a barely legible homemade sign that reads El Perro Muerto.
Translation: The Dead Dog.
Disregard the morbid name. This popular all-night hog-bay trial, held on August 12 some 25 miles south of Seguin, has the feel of a town fair.
At the center of all the activity is a lit pen, 80 steps across. A pair of judges take their seats high above the pen on old barbershop chairs welded to garbage cans.
Hundreds of people come and go throughout the night. Some hail from as far away as Katy or even Louisiana.
A few miles down the road are exotic game ranches, where hunters pay top dollar to shoot animals such as elk, rhinos and zebras.
Nearby Nixon is home to Dan Moody, a commercial hunter who claims his Texas Dogs on Hogs video series -- which depicts actual feral hog hunts edited with slow-motion effects and classic-guitar riffs -- has sold 20,000 copies worldwide.
Two men stand along the inside of the pen holding plywood used to protect themselves and to break up any fights that may occur between the animals. Each dog has one minute to bay the hog. If a dog bites, it's disqualified.
In the first contest, the dog freezes, cowers just outside the gate and never even approaches the hog.
In the next contest, the dog boldly runs up to the hog and stops a few feet away, barking at it. The hog takes one step forward and the dog flinches, doubling back to the gate as the crowd roars in laughter.
A few matches later produces the only injury of the night. A black-mouth cur, just 11 months old and weighing less than 50 pounds, takes on a 225-pound boar. The puppy holds its own. But when the contest ends, the guys with the plywood have some trouble getting the hog back into the chute. It's then that the hog suddenly charges at the dog and slashes its neck, cutting into muscle.
"The dog was at fault because he quit baying," says Bill Seger, the dog's owner, who also organizes a hog-bay trial held every other month in Waelder. "He took his eyes off the hog and started sniffing the ground."
Seger cleans the dog's wound with povidone-iodine and hydrogen peroxide, administers a shot of penicillin and clamps the skin back together with a surgical stapling gun.
Many hog hunters are self-taught field veterinarians. A South Texas man at the event sells puncture-proof vests for dogs as well as suture kits and blood-stop powder. He travels to hog-dog rodeos every weekend plying his wares.
A couple of hours pass. No more scrapes or mishaps occur. The audience is generally good-natured, cheering on the dogs. Some put on spectacular performances. They get in front of the hog, bark incessantly and maintain a laserlike focus, keeping the hog completely still. When the hog takes a step the dog shadows it, cutting off its path and holding it captive.
"This is a way to make money off the sport," says 22-year-old Harry White, an avid hog hunter from Waelder. "If you show you have badass dogs, people want your puppies."
During a break, a pig chase is held. A baby feral hog, just a couple of months old, its mouth taped shut, is dragged by its hind leg and dropped into the pen. A dozen or so kids run after it, screaming and laughing. "I pushed it down and jumped on it!" says ecstatic eight-year-old Deven Spurlock, describing his victory. "I want a hog-dog for my birthday!"
White and others say these events are especially fun for kids. But what about experts who say kids are more prone to commit violence after witnessing them?
"Then get rid of the cartoons," White says. "Take the video games away; take the TV away."
Nichole Trammell, whose seven-year-old daughter loves watching the hogs and dogs square off, agrees.
"To me, it's not violent," she says. "All the kids grow up with this. It's part of their lives."
Nichole's husband, Scott, who runs El Perro Muerto, puts it simply: "A lot of people would call this cruelty to animals. We don't."
So where do these folks draw the line?
"I've seen guys gut-shoot a hog in the woods and let it run off," says Seger. "That's way more cruel than anything that goes on here."
Jason Schooley is fine with all of it.
"The hogs don't even get hurt," he insists. "People don't realize how tough those bastards are."
Texas has some of the weakest animal protection laws in the country
Queso the cat, known to lap up cheese outside a Taco Cabana in Waco, was well known to students at Baylor University. The scrawny stray later went on to gain national attention when two students brutally killed it, then got off scot-free.
Texas has some of the weakest animal protection laws in the nation, according to a first-of-its-kind survey released in February by the California-based Animal Legal Defense Fund. The fund used 30 different criteria to measure how states compare. Texas ranked in the bottom tier.
"The laws in Texas have loopholes big enough to drive a truck through," agrees state Representative Toby Goodman, a Republican from Arlington and longtime animal rights proponent who has successfully sponsored bills to outlaw horse tripping and canned hunts.
For instance, say Goodman and other statewide advocates, Texas law defines an animal as a "domestic living creature." As a result, abusers can successfully argue that a stray cat or dog is not an animal.
This defense was employed five years ago in the Queso case, in which two Baylor baseball players shot the cat with a pellet gun, beat it in the head with a golf club, decapitated and skinned it. Both young men were acquitted since no one had proper ownership papers for Queso.
Also, according to Texas law, it is illegal to kill an animal "belonging to another." But the law says nothing about killing your own animal.
Therefore, law enforcement could not successfully prosecute a Brazoria County man who drowned two puppies in a bucket because he was mad at his girlfriend, a Bell County man who rode over his puppy with a lawn mower because its barking irritated him and countless other similar cases.
And while it is illegal to cause one animal to fight with another, in Texas it is perfectly okay to train or condition animals for fighting.
"I know of at least 25 locations in Houston where roosters are raised for fighting," says Mark Timmers, a Harris County Precinct 6 investigator. "But I have to catch them in the act of fighting the animal to make a case -- and that's not easy."
In the last legislative session, dozens of district and county attorneys and police chiefs from across the state rallied behind legislation written by Goodman that intended to address these issues. But House Bill 326 died in committee, along with a separate bill sponsored by state Representative Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, which would have strengthened penalties against dogfighting and made it illegal to organize or attend cockfights.
In other states across the South, lawmakers have used the controversy surrounding hog-dog rodeos -- in which dogs and feral hogs are pitted against each other in a pen -- to close the loopholes in their own animal cruelty laws. The Texas legislature has not considered the issue for many years.
Even after the negative publicity spawned by Queso's death, there are still many ways to torture animals in Texas and get away with it. -- Todd Spivak
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