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These pigs are used for baying, which is how hunters train their dogs to bring the pigs down. (Wyatt McSpadden)

A Plague of Pigs in Texas

Now numbering in the millions, these shockingly destructive and invasive wild hogs wreak havoc across the southern United States

And those are just the problems wild hogs cause in rural areas. In suburban and even urban parts of Texas, they’re making themselves at home in parks, on golf courses and on athletic fields. They treat lawns and gardens like a salad bar and tangle with household pets.

Hogs, wild or otherwise, are not native to the United States. Christopher Columbus introduced them to the Caribbean, and Hernando De Soto brought them to Florida. Texas’ early settlers let pigs roam free until needed; some were never recovered. During wars or economic downturns, many settlers abandoned their homesteads and the pigs were left to fend for themselves. In the 1930s, Eurasian wild boars were brought to Texas and released for hunting. They bred with free-ranging domestic animals and escapees that had adapted to the wild.

And yet wild hogs were barely more than a curiosity in the Lone Star State until the 1980s. It’s only since then that the population has exploded, and not entirely because of the animals’ intelligence, adaptability and fertility. Hunters found them challenging prey, so wild hog populations were nurtured on ranches that sold hunting leases; some captured hogs were released in other parts of the state. Game ranchers set out feed to attract deer, but wild hogs pilfered it, growing more fecund. Finally, improved animal husbandry reduced disease among domestic pigs, thereby reducing the incidence among wild hogs.

Few purebred Eurasian wild boars are left today, but they have hybridized with feral domestic hogs and continue to spread. All are interchangeably called wild or feral hogs, pigs or boars; in this context, “boar” can refer to a male or female. (Technically, “feral” refers to animals that can be traced back to escaped domestic pigs, while the more all-encompassing “wild” refers to any non-domestic animals.) Escaped domestic hogs adapt to the wild in just months, and within a couple of generations they transform into scary-looking beasts as mean as can be.

The difference between domestic and wild hogs is a matter of genetics, experience and environment. The animals are “plastic in their physical and behavioral makeup,” says wild hog expert John Mayer of the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina. Most domestic pigs have sparse coats, but descendants of escapees grow thick bristly hair in cold environments. Dark-skinned pigs are more likely than pale ones to survive in the wild and pass along their genes. Wild hogs develop curved “tusks” as long as seven inches that are actually teeth (which are cut from domestics when they’re born). The two teeth on top are called whetters or grinders, and the two on the bottom are called cutters; continual grinding keeps the latter deadly sharp. Males that reach sexual maturity develop “shields” of dense tissue on their shoulders that grow harder and thicker (up to two inches) with age; these protect them during fights.

Wild hogs are rarely as big as pen-bound domestics; they average 150 to 200 pounds as adults, although a few reach more than 400 pounds. Well-fed pigs develop large, wide skulls; those with a limited diet, as in the wild, grow smaller, narrower skulls with longer snouts useful for rooting. Wild pigs have poor eyesight but good hearing and an acute sense of smell; they can detect odors up to seven miles away or 25 feet underground. They can run 30 miles an hour in bursts.

Adult males are solitary, keeping to themselves except when they breed or feed from a common source. Females travel in groups, called sounders, usually of 2 to 20 but up to 50 individuals, including one or more sows, their piglets and maybe a few adoptees. Since the only thing (besides food) they cannot do without is water, they make their homes in bottomlands near rivers, creeks, lakes or ponds. They prefer areas of dense vegetation where they can hide and find shade. Because they have no sweat glands, they wallow in mudholes during the hot months; this not only cools them off but also coats them with mud that keeps insects and the worst of the sun’s rays off their bodies. They are mostly nocturnal, one more reason they’re difficult to hunt.

“Look up there,” exclaims Brad Porter, a natural resource specialist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, as he points up a dirt road cutting across Cow Creek Ranch in south Texas. “That’s hog-hunting 101 right there.” As he speaks, his hunting partner’s three dogs, who’d been trotting alongside Porter’s pickup truck, streak through the twilight toward seven or eight wild hogs breaking for the brush. Porter stops to let his own two dogs out of their pens in the bed of the pickup and they, too, are off in a flash. When the truck reaches the area where the pigs had been, Porter, his partner Andy Garcia and I hear frantic barking and a low-pitched sighing sound. Running into the brush, we find the dogs have surrounded a red and black wild hog in a clearing. Two dogs have clamped onto its ears. Porter jabs his knife just behind the hog’s shoulder, dispatching it instantly. The dogs back off and quiet down as he grabs its rear legs and drags it back to his truck.

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