Modern Plagues November 2009

The Boar War

A wild menace invades Houston.
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Kenneth Nanney

The East Texas sun had passed its zenith by the time Buck’s yap turned insistent. The scent dog had tracked his quarry for several miles that morning without a sound, and his clipped bark now meant only one thing: he had cornered a wild hog in the vine-strewn thicket just behind the subdivision. The other tracking dogs dashed toward him, but Mike Bolen had his doubts: we’d been plying this 2,000-acre swath of land just southwest of Houston for seven hours, and so far we’d seen no sign of wild pigs.

But Buck’s yelp didn’t falter, and soon Bolen readied his “catch dog,” Clifford, a brawny American bulldog mix trained to pin a wild hog by latching on to its ear. We were fast approaching the other dogs when Bolen, hearing the besieged pig, unleashed Clifford and hissed, “Get ’im!”

A lifelong hunter, Bolen discovered the earthy pleasures of “hog doggin’” about 10 years ago. He’s since turned his passion into a bit of profit by contracting with Harris County to exterminate feral pigs in and around Houston. And though Bolen’s tally of several hundred hogs may sound impressive, it’s a small victory in a losing battle.

The conquistador Hernando de Soto introduced hogs to North America in 1539; now more than 4 million run wild in at least 39 states, from California to New Jersey. The fiercely intelligent animals are prodigious breeders (a pig population can triple in a year) and will eat everything from acorns and blackberries to sea-turtle eggs and deer fawns. They also spread brucellosis and pseudorabies; destroy cropland, gardens, and golf courses; and foul rivers and streams with their muddy wallows. All told, Sus scrofa causes an estimated $800 million in property damage each year.

No state is better acquainted with the porcine menace than Texas, where more than 2 million rampaging hogs cost landowners some $52 million in damages annually, and where lawmakers recently debated a bill that would have allowed private hunters to gun down pigs from the air.

“There are two types of landowners in Texas—those that have hogs, and those that are about to have hogs,” says Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist at the Texas AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M. “We’re not going to eradicate them with current technology.”

Researchers are working on pig-specific poisons and immunocontraceptives to sterilize the animals, but such innovations remain on the horizon. In the meantime, officials control the hog population through a strict regimen of trapping and professional aerial-gunning expeditions.

Informally allied with these official efforts are pro-am hog-doggers like Bolen, who insist dogs are the best way to clear pigs from a property. Though the work is unpaid, Bolen’s contract allows him to sell up to half of what he catches to processors—who in turn sell the meat overseas as “wild boar”—provided he donates the rest to charity. (A big boar can fetch upwards of $100.)

Business is brisk, but city hunting has its drawbacks. Many homeowners cringe at the mortal shriek of a captured pig, and Bolen—whose contract requires that he either take hogs live or dispatch them by knife—labors to avoid emerging too bloody from the hunt, a concession to delicate urban sensibilities. Heavy traffic can make it difficult to hear his dogs, and during our first day in the field someone tried to hot-wire an ATV Bolen had left at the truck.

Still, none of that compares with the difficulty of catching pigs grown wise to the ways of hunting dogs—a struggle on full display as Clifford, fresh off the leash, bore down on the beleaguered pig.

As the bulldog descended, his prey—an outsize boar with a wide “three-finger” hoofprint—sensed its imminent demise, and bolted past Clifford and the trailing pack.

The dogs gave chase, but it was too late: their feet were shot from hours of hunting, and the fresh-legged boar dusted them in a nearby cornfield.

Malcolm Gay is a writer living in St. Louis.
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Malcolm Gay is a writer living in St. Louis. He's currently at work on a book about the integration of the brain with machines.

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