They’re really ugly. They destroy crops, spread disease, tear up land, and run off deer. So what’s to like? Their meat, which has a deep, beefy flavor.
“LOOKS LIKE THEY’VE GOT SOMETHING RIGHT NOW,” drawls John Huff, a wildlife technician at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s office in Three Rivers. We’ve been driving down a dirt road on the Rehm Ranch outside Sabinal for about ten minutes, following Huff’s hunting dogs, when they veer off into the brush, barking. Huff grabs his .22 magnum rifle, and we chase after the dogs on foot, followed by Rick Taylor, a biologist with Parks and Wildlife’s Uvalde office, and Pete Denney, who owns the ranch and its hunting outfitter, Brushy Hill. Huff darts ahead of me, and I am just negotiating a patch of high guajillo and black brush when I hear his rifle shot. As I come around the patch, with Taylor right behind me, Huff’s three dogs are on a fallen wild hog, chewing at his midsection and ears and pulling at his legs. The hog, which I had heard squealing moments ago, is now heaving deep, phlegmy sighs.
You really need to see a wild hog, also known as a feral hog, up close to comprehend just how ugly it is. This one is wide at the shoulders and narrow at the hips, about 210 pounds, with coarse, bristly black fur that’s sharp to the touch. The three-inch-long upper and lower tusks at each side of his mouth are honed to vicious points from constant grinding. Fighting in the wild, he has grown hard, protective scar tissue around his shoulders that slows bullets and arrows alike; his ears are short and erect, his tail is straight.
In all, it takes three more shots to the head to put him away for good. Huff pulls his dogs off and quickly begins to field-dress his conquest; dressing it immediately after it is killed is crucial to ensuring that the meat won’t spoil before it’s refrigerated. As I hold the feet straight up to keep it on its back, he cuts off the genitalia, then slits the belly lengthwise and pulls out the innards. “And there you have it,” he says. “Here comes the hard part, pulling him out.” We’ve run much farther into the brush than I had realized, and the truck can’t get near us.
Wild hogs have become a major nuisance in rural Texas; most landowners hate them, though some ranchers appreciate the hunting revenues they can bring. Members of the Suidae family, wild hogs (Sus scrofa) are often confused with the collared peccary, or javelina, a smaller animal belonging to a different family, with straight tusks and no tail. Wild hogs have roamed Texas almost since the early Spanish explorers introduced domestic hogs to the region more than three hundred years ago. During the Texas Revolution and the Civil War, settlers fleeing their land often released their hogs; when they restocked their property after the hostilities ended, many of them let their hogs range freely, allowing them to escape into the feral population. Domestic hogs that escape their pens turn wild quickly, and the longer they are free, the wilder they get. In the 1930’s European wild boars (also known as Russian boars) were brought to rural Texas for sport hunting. Thus the state’s current population includes feral hogs, European wild boars, and European-feral crossbreeds. Over many generations of interbreeding, the wild boar genes predominate, so that wild hogs eventually come to resemble their European ancestors. The average male wild hog, or boar, is 150 to 175 pounds, and the sow is usually 100 to 150, though hunters have brought in kills weighing more than 600 pounds.
In the past three decades wild hogs have multiplied rapidly in Texas and 22 other states, mostly in the Sunbelt, though they’re also making inroads into the Midwest. Parks and Wildlife’s Taylor estimates that there are probably up to two million of the beasts in Texas, but notes that they’re harder to count than other wildlife because they’re nocturnal and don’t stick to a home range. In short, there may be many more than we think. Though strongest in South Texas, they can be found all over the state except in parts of the Panhandle and the Trans-Pecos. The situation here isn’t as bad as it is in California, where the animals are ripping up suburban golf courses that border on rural areas, but Taylor figures that’ll happen in Texas soon enough. And there’s very little that can be done to control the population.
“The feral hog seems to be an animal that nobody wants,” he points out. “They’re not classified as wildlife, though they’re free-ranging animals. They’re classified as livestock, but that industry doesn’t want anything to do with them. They’re a non-native animal, an exotic species that doesn’t belong with natural native fauna. We used to believe the climate would limit their spread, that they’d stop moving into new areas that are too cold or dry. But that’s turning out to be not true.” Taylor became the state expert on wild hogs “by default,” he says. When he moved to the Uvalde Parks and Wildlife station eleven years ago, he thought the beasts might be a threat to the area’s deer and wild turkey populations and began studying them. He compares them with fire ants, another non-native creature that has made itself at home here.
“Eventually, they’ll be everywhere they can be, and the population will slow down,” Taylor says. “But we don’t know yet where they won’t go.” They prefer bottomlands, such as the areas around rivers or creeks, but will go anywhere that offers dense, protective cover. The population grows quickly because the female can have two litters (usually four to six piglets, though sometimes as many as twelve) over an eighteen-month period. Also, recent advances in raising domestic livestock—disease eradication and improved pastures and feeding practices—have inadvertently benefited wild hogs. And, until the Texas Animal Health Commission prohibited it in 1992, ranchers and hunters had been buying hogs in stock auctions and setting them free to increase the odds of bagging one.
Farmers have numerous reasons to dislike them. Whether wallowing in the mud or rooting for food, wild hogs tear up the land; they destroy ranch roads and muddy other animals’ drinking water. In much of South Texas you can follow the path of their rooting right up to the edge of the highway; Taylor once drove his truck into a hog-made hole three feet deep, and it had to be winched out. Though they eat all kinds of grasses, roots, insects, snails, reptiles, and worms, 90 percent of their diet is made up of vegetation, often agricultural crops—from corn to peanuts to potatoes to melons—and they can wipe out whole fields overnight. In the Hill Country they’re the number two predator (after coyotes) of lambs and kid goats. They spread diseases, especially pseudorabies and swine brucellosis, when they force their way into the domestic hog population to breed. And they run off the deer around hunters’ feeding stands.
Though wild hogs won’t win any popularity contests, they are somewhat redeemed by a couple of positive attributes, which Sabinal rancher Maurice Chambers was one of the first to recognize: They are a challenge to hunt and a pleasure to eat. In 1967 Chambers “fenced a pasture, threw them hogs in there, and put out our shingle for bow hunters,” he says. Because feral hogs aren’t classified as wildlife, they’re fair game year-round and thus can provide steady revenues for ranchers or outfitters, who can also charge hunters more during deer season if a wild hog or two might be bagged as well. Bow hunting is an increasingly popular method of hunting wild hogs, and some outfitters won’t allow rifle-bearing deer hunters to shoot them. After letting their dogs bay a hog, a few hardy souls kill it with a knife, while trappers catch them in cages, usually baited with corn or milo, and then take them to a slaughterhouse. Boars are more desirable to hunters than sows because they are larger.
Today Chambers offers a variety of hunting packages, ranging from $75 a day (for wild hog alone) to $150 a day (for one blackbuck or aoudad sheep and one wild hog) to the four-day, $550 Safari Package (with a five-animal limit). He attracts hunters from as far away as Australia and Europe (where the boar figures in several national mythologies). As an outfitter, he sets out 20,000 pounds of corn a month as bait and provides hunters with lodging and, sometimes, guiding services and a vehicle. He figures he makes about $500 for each wild hog shot, far more than he could make raising calves. He has helped Pete Denney at the nearby Rehm Ranch and Phil Lyne at the Lyne and Baylor ranches near Cotulla establish similar outfitting operations. When he’s not leading a hunt, Lyne, who was the all-around national rodeo champ in 1971 and 1972, likes to lasso hogs from his horse and wrestle them to the ground.
Taylor considers the increasingly organized hunting industry to be the only thing that keeps the animals from getting completely out of control. “Financially and ecologically, it’s a win-win-win business,” he declares. Says Chambers: “I’ve booked $20,000 a month for wild hogs, and I’m just a little guy compared to all of Texas. I don’t think anybody realizes how much money comes into this state from wild hogs.”
They are a challenge for hunters because they are smart and dangerous. “They’re probably the most intelligent animal in the woods right now,” says Taylor. “You can train them to do anything, just like a dog, and they know how to stay out of people’s way.” Able to hit up to 30 miles per hour in quick bursts, they can easily outrun humans. They won’t attack people, Taylor says, but “they aren’t one bit afraid of you. If you wound or corner one, he’ll do to you whatever it takes to get loose.” They “read” hunters’ patterns and change their own habits accordingly; for each one caught in a trap, several more learn by its example to evade traps.
The successful hunter will be rewarded with meat that has a deep, resonant, almost beefy flavor. Texas is home to several wild hog cookoffs, including two every March—one in Sabinal, as part of the Wild Hog Festival, and one in Cotulla, as part of the LaSalle County Fair. As a frequent judge of the latter, I’ve had my share of tough, jaw-wearying meat—the animals have sinewy muscle and almost no fat—but the cooks who do it right do it so right that I’ve lost my taste for most domestic pork. In addition to dressing, skinning, and cleaning the hog quickly, Taylor says the key is to hang it where it can cool for a couple of days before cutting it into large shoulders, hams, and loins and smaller chops and ribs. Because wild hog meat has little fat, it tends to dry out more than domestic pork; the more slowly the big pieces are cooked, in a Crock-Pot or a smoker, the more juicy and tender they’ll be. In addition to barbecue, the Cotulla cookoff has an “exotic dish” category, and I’ve enjoyed delicious wild hog tamales, stroganoff, carne guisada, and morsels wrapped in bacon and cheese. Allan Schulte of Agua Dulce, who has won the exotic category twice and the overall prize once, grills shish kebabs that have been marinated in a teriyaki-style sauce.
Three exotic-game slaughterhouses and processing plants in Texas—Frontier Game Company in Morton, Diamond K Game Meats in Ingram, and Southern Wild Game in Devine—accept live wild hogs from trappers and also handle other specialty meats, including deer, antelope, and emu. Southern, the largest, has 65 buying stations around the state. Most of the meat, marketed as wild boar, goes to Europe and Asia. The rest is shipped to distributors who supply a few gourmet delis and restaurants in the United States, including the Mansion on Turtle Creek in Dallas, the Hyatt Regency Hill Country Resort in San Antonio, and Hudson’s on the Bend in Austin.
By the time an entire, average-sized hog has been sold, it has earned the processor about $350—on top of the $500 that an outfitter like Maurice Chambers makes. Not bad for an animal that nobody wants.T