Even in our carefully ordered world, there remain avenues for chaos to thrive in its purest form: the wild pig. Groups of them, called sounders, cavort across golf courses at night like drunken teenagers. Security cameras catch them careering through suburban neighborhoods, where they dig up gardens and lawns. They create shambolic crop circles in fields—Texas’s agriculture industry alone suffers $118.8 million in damages annually. The most recent estimates suggest that tens of thousands of them are involved in car accidents each year. They affront us even in death, vandalizing graves as they barrel through cemeteries.
Like giant, pungent bedbugs, wild pigs provide little value to the ecosystem. Though they have been in North America since the sixteenth century, the population began compounding itself in recent decades and reached a tipping point, rendering the limited control efforts—including trapping, fencing, and hunting—cartoonishly insufficient. A 2003 publication by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department estimated that there were 1.5 million wild pigs in Texas. In 2012 a group of scientists estimated that the population had swelled to between 1.8 and 3.4 million. John Tomeček, an associate professor at Texas A&M University and a wildlife specialist with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service, recently put the number at 3 or 4 million. “Probably more,” Tomeček said, “but that’s a conservative number.” (For perspective, the combined human population of Houston and Dallas is about 3.6 million.)
Pigs reproduce uncommonly fast, and Tomeček attributes the population spike in part to the animal’s natural growth rate. “Think of it like getting a large vehicle up to speed on the highway,” he said. “It takes a while and a lot of energy at first, but once you’re cruising, it’s easy to keep going.” Pigs also have spread across much broader swaths of the state and country thanks to humans transporting them for hunting purposes.
As the pigs have proliferated, so has the damage. Sid Miller, the Texas agriculture commissioner, had, even prior to taking office in 2015, been waging a vendetta against the pigs. As a member of the state House of Representatives, Miller authored the “pork chopper” bill, passed in 2011, which famously allowed licensed Texans to snipe at pigs from helicopters. Hunters, emboldened further by 2019’s Senate Bill 317, which waived the need for a license to kill wild pigs, now stalk them year round, on land and aerially. Miller also has championed a toxicant and a contraceptive bait marketed to landowners. But these attempts have mostly been futile—the pig population continues to grow.
Over the years federal and state governments have shuffled more resources into efforts to control the pigs, to no avail. “We got half the wild pigs in the whole country, just in Texas, but I don’t get half of the federal funds,” said Mike Bodenchuk, the director of Texas Wildlife Services, a program that leads the state in managing wildlife damage. “We got a lot of pig problems. Way more than we can say grace over.”
In mid-December I met Bodenchuk, Tomeček, and two other generals in the war against wild swine in the parking lot of a U.S. Corps of Engineers office on the northeast shore of Somerville Lake, seventy miles east of Austin. Bodenchuk led the group; biologists in the field speak of him with some reverence. Now 65 years old, and having spent much of his career in wildlife management, he has seen feral pigs grow from a novelty to a menace. He remembers how in the eighties, when he was working as a hunting outfitter, Texans were excited about wild pigs, then regarded as a trophy game species.
Bodenchuk, who has a booming voice, is the type of guy who’s frequently tapped to play Santa Claus at neighborhood functions. He has white hair and a white goatee, and he wore a navy hat embroidered with a pig and “National Feral Swine Damage Management Program.” He laughs often, but his amiable demeanor belies his tenacity. He recalled a day early in his wildlife-control career when he went out to shoot wild pigs from a helicopter with a team he hadn’t worked with before. “They were all waiting for me to call uncle, and I wasn’t gonna give ’em the satisfaction. Everybody just kept working and working. We killed—and I remember the number because it was the number of days in a year—we killed three hundred and sixty-five pigs in a day. That’s a lot of shooting for a guy to do.”
He told me he harbors some respect for wild pigs’ cockroach-like adaptability and intelligence. He has nothing against them “on an individual basis.” But he has more respect for the “natural”—for what nature is inclined to do without human intervention. “If I saw a pig on my way home today, I would swerve outta my way not to hit it. But it doesn’t belong,” he said. “I would like to see things as natural as possible. And feral pigs don’t have a place on this continent.”
Tomeček stood to Bodenchuk’s left. Tomeček has a talent for dun-dun-dunn moments, delivering his predictions for pig control with a dramatic gravity, like Paul Giamatti registering a massive earthquake in a disaster movie. He’s quick to vault a simple explanation into a more philosophical commentary on humanity. “Every ecological issue we deal with turns into a people issue,” he told me. He compared wildlife control to a Japanese pachinko game, in which metal balls fall through a smattering of pins, each representing the beliefs communities hold close. Tomeček is like an ecological mediator, working to convince landowners to take seriously a problem that may not directly affect them—yet (dun-dun-dunn).
Texas Wildlife Services is a cooperative program, under which private institutions, state agencies, and federal entities (the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, which is an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA) have come together in an anti-pig alliance. This yields some crowded titles. Also gathered in the parking lot were Linda Tschirhart-Hejl, an unflappable district supervisor with Texas A&M AgriLife Extension–Texas Wildlife Services, and Jacob Hetzel, a tall and quiet wildlife damage biologist with USDA-APHIS Texas Wildlife Services. After I arrived, Bodenchuk allowed several seconds of small talk before he began to explain why, of all the wild pig strongholds in the state—of all the torn-up ranches and farms—we’d come here, to Somerville Lake, for a tour de damage.
While agricultural destruction is conspicuous, and while it is costly, wild pigs also inflict damage that is much more insidious and less often discussed. We climbed into two trucks and soon arrived at the derriere of a nearby dam, whose steep, grassy slope, several stories high, was heavily pockmarked from the rooting of wild pigs. Most of the blemishes were months old. Wildlife Services had already blitzed the area, installing traps on government-owned land, lending traps to nearby landowners, using night vision goggles and scopes to hunt pigs, and conducting aerial control—picking off sounders from helicopters with semiautomatic weapons, the most cost-effective method.
Bodenchuk explained that in places like Somerville Lake, where flooding periodically smooths out all the rooting done by pigs, the land has a good chance at recovery. In drier regions such as West Texas, high-damage areas have a much longer convalescence. “Jeff Davis County might not recover in my lifetime,” Tomeček inserted darkly.
But even many months and many rainstorms after the rooting occurred, it was difficult to picture the land bouncing back. The pigs’ excavating, which comprised holes six inches deep, many joined by shallower channels made by snouts prospecting for nosh such as roots, was so total that it appeared to have been human-made, as if for aeration. (Some Texans believe the pigs’ disturbance of the ground is somehow beneficial; in fact, the pigs’ disruption of soil’s layers—called, elegantly, “soil horizons”—causes erosion and hinders flora.) Even as grass had started to regrow, the destruction was a blight. But Bodenchuk’s concerns were not aesthetic. He speculated that if Texas Wildlife Services hadn’t intervened in the area, and if the agency didn’t keep intervening, the damage to the hillside could destabilize the dam decades down the line, potentially causing a chain reaction that could destabilize other structures such as roads and bridges and ultimately cost millions.
It seems that any infrastructure pigs can reach is vulnerable to subversion. Their feces pollute water supplies: several years ago, a creek just south of Buda failed to meet U.S. Clean Water Act standards because its E. coli load from pig poop was so high. They can even complicate forensics investigations, often enough that Tomeček is helping plan a project at Texas State University’s “body farm” to determine how wild pigs might disperse a corpse. (In one well-publicized incident, in November 2019, a 59-year-old woman was found dead on a lawn in Anahuac, a town forty miles east of Houston. Local authorities attributed her death to “exsanguination due to feral hog assault.” The woman’s family has since posited that she may have been killed by a dog at the home she was about to visit, but nobody denies that wild pigs discovered her: her body was punctured in several places.) At one point, Hetzel drew my attention to a wooden telephone pole with a three-foot-high koozie of mud at its base; the pigs have learned that the creosote used to protect the poles against termites and rot is also an effective insecticide for their fur. Over time, he said, the pigs’ rough hides and their size—between 75 and 250 pounds, on average, though some can be twice as big—can wear down such poles.
Rallying the public to see urgency in far-off possibilities like this is a cardinal challenge for many biologists. (I, for instance, suppress any anxieties about eventualities more than three days out, such as the compounding effects of climate change or all the weddings I have to attend in the next six months.) How, Bodenchuk asked, do you create a sense of urgency around a dam that might fail, one day?
Besides providing traps and conducting hunts using night vision and helicopters, Texas Wildlife Services places a high priority on education. Because 95 percent of the state’s land is privately held, enlisting the help of landowners is essential. For Texas to have any shot at population control, ranchers and farmers must be proactive and vigilant, reporting any rooting, tracks, and pigs they might spot, even after the worst of an invasion is over. It can be a tough sell.
The paucity of resources scaffolds every conversation I have with Texas Wildlife Services operatives, who can undertake control efforts in only 5 percent of the state each year. Those concentrated efforts have been successful, but Bodenchuk feels that without funding for wider control—without recognition of an ecological emergency—Texas Wildlife Services is merely playing whack-a-hog.
In those parts of the state with more rainfall and plentiful fresh water, Tomeček said, pig populations are so dense and well established that getting rid of them in our lifetimes is unlikely, even with significant investment. But, Tomeček added brightly, in the toasted western reaches of the state, where conditions are drier and pigs have not been around long enough to create population strongholds, it may still be possible to reduce their numbers and “redraw the line.”
Many Texans falsely assume that pigs are a native species. In fact, the pioneer pigs of North America arrived on the supply ships of European explorers. Columbus had eight domestic pigs aboard his second voyage to the Caribbean, in 1493, and more swine followed. Some either escaped or were released into the wild, then went forth and multiplied, which is what they do best. In 1514 a letter from Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar to the king of Spain described some 30,000 wild pigs already roaming the Antilles islands. The predicament on the North American mainland began in 1539, when Hernando de Soto landed in Florida with pigs aboard his flotilla. At some point, several of them or their descendants escaped—I imagine a coordinated effort involving a Spaniard in breeches caught unawares while taking a smoke break—and went feral, multiplying quickly.
There are now at least 35 states with wild pig communities: California recently relaxed restrictions around hunting its growing population, and in Florida, where pigs have been spotted in every county, panthers feast upon them. Humans have, as yet, found no way to kill feral pigs fast enough to keep up with their profound fecundity. It’s a problem of our own making. Over thousands of years, humans in Europe and beyond bred pigs to achieve fertility younger and to have more piglets every year. “We created an animal that was capable of doing exactly what it’s doing,” Tomeček said. A sow as young as five or six months old can conceive, on average, four to six piglets, and Texas Wildlife Services typically observes sows delivering a litter every seven months for the duration of their reproductive life spans—a volume of piglets that inspires an involuntary Kegel. DNA tests show that litters often reflect multiple paternity, in which different piglets in the same litter have been fathered by different boars. Like a virus that is infectious well before symptoms appear, pig populations explode so quickly that landowners often fail to recognize they have a problem in time to swiftly contain it.
Though there are significant variations, the DNA of wild pigs in the United States most commonly points to European domestic pigs and Eurasian wild boars, though it can also contain DNA from domestic pigs in Asia. Spikes in other species can often be traced back to specific events: a warthog population in South Texas was likely catalyzed when twenty of them pulled off a jailbreak (or, as one expert I spoke to speculated, were intentionally released) from a private exotic-game ranch in 2013; pigs in Bexar County have a high percentage of European wild boar genes because of a documented direct release of boars there in the 1940s.
Wild pigs haven’t always been regarded as a nuisance. The shift toward militancy seems to have occurred only in recent decades. “As they became more and more and more abundant, people got more and more tired of them,” Bodenchuk told me.
Though wild pig populations are densest in Texas’s wettest regions, they exist just about everywhere. A map showing pig proliferation in Texas looks like someone’s crayon ran down before they could get to the very edges. Wild pigs roam every county in Texas except (as far as anyone knows) for two: El Paso, the westernmost in the state, and Dallam, in the northwestern corner of the Panhandle. Dallam County represents a recent success in feral pig control, and the triumph there can partly be attributed to the federal Farm Bill of 2018, which bookmarked $75 million for the militant-sounding Feral Swine Eradication and Control Pilot Program. Multiyear pig-removal projects were established in parts of twelve states, including fifteen counties in Texas, of which Dallam was one. Bodenchuk, though, called Dallam “low-hanging fruit” because the county’s pigs were largely migrating from Oklahoma, which was already working on control.
Hogs Gone Wild
Though wild pigs have roamed North America since the sixteenth century, the population has surged in the past four decades, spreading across much broader swaths of the state and country. The maps below show the counties in which pigs have resided over the years.
In February of this year, Texas congresswoman Monica De La Cruz announced the Feral Swine Act, which proposes to extend the Feral Swine Eradication program. “There are not a lot of things we can agree on, but feral swine seem to be one of them,” De La Cruz said of the bill’s bipartisan support. She and I spoke after she’d spent the weekend in Fort Worth discussing the Feral Swine Act with the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association, but she stressed that wild pigs are not just an agricultural issue. “Feral swine degrade and pollute water quality. They displace and kill native wildlife. These are things that maybe city folk don’t see right away but that do have an impact on our cities and communities.” She also emphasized the risk pigs pose to drivers, noting that her son killed a 360-pound pig on a recent hunt. “They’re very large animals,” she said.
Because the pigs reproduce so rapidly, wildlife contraceptives are frequently touted as a solution to overpopulation, particularly as immunocontraception and vasectomy have proved partially effective among deer in some regions. In June 2021, Sid Miller announced, like Churchill heralding a turn in World War II, a contraceptive bait called HogStop. This was a much more palatable offering than the previous solution Miller publicized, a warfarin-based product called Kaput, which he touted in 2017, promising a “hog apocalypse.” Hunters and animal rights activists questioned the deployment of warfarin—used in rat poison—on such a scale, particularly when targeting a species sometimes consumed by people and pets and which might be eaten by other wildlife. Kaput was soon kaput.
HogStop, on the other hand, is all natural, using cottonseed oil to suppress fertility in boars. Several biologists have expressed doubt that a product like HogStop could have a meaningful effect on pig populations. Pig dynamics pose particular problems for a contraceptive targeting males. While sounders comprise mostly females and their young, males roam far and wide, appearing among different sounders like mysterious strangers in the night. It’s unlikely that a boar would remain in the same place long enough for the number of feedings required to experience the effects of HogStop.
Many look hopefully, or at least curiously, to a research team at Auburn University, which is working to develop immunocontraception for pigs. That team faces the same strictures of any contraceptive targeting an invasive species, however: either it must be engineered to affect only wild pigs or it must be delivered using a method that ensures no other wildlife is likely to consume it. Pigs could be caught and hand-injected with a contraceptive, Tomeček said. “The argument is then: Why would I let them go?”
Several toxicants are in consideration, too, but are being evaluated for their humaneness. Bodenchuk described significant interest in sodium nitrite, which is used in Australia and is effective both as a preservative for humans’ food and as a euthanizing agent for pigs. “We need more tools landowners can use,” Bodenchuk said, “but we don’t want to give ’em tools that could be misused or would result in inhumane treatment of the animals.”
Of course, there is a vast web of cause and effect connected to any environmental event and to any decision made on behalf of the environment. When I asked Bodenchuk if he thought humane and effective contraception would ever be viable for wild pigs, he said he was optimistic but then posed a volley of if-thens that never would have occurred to me. If a sow isn’t regularly giving birth, will she live twice as long, thus doing twice as much damage? If a contraceptive causes sows to have smaller litters, will that yield even quicker cycles between litters and therefore more pigs? Do smaller litters mean more resources per piglet, ensuring a higher survival rate, larger pigs, and, again, more damage? And if less breeding means sows are more often in heat—sows that aren’t bred come back into heat after about twenty days—will that mean more randy boars charging madly across roads, causing more vehicular accidents?
For now, without the hoped-for silver bullet, the most effective approach to pig control is a combination of trapping, fencing, and, when done systematically, hunting.
“Anyone who kills a pig is a friend of mine,” Bodenchuk likes to say. For the most part, he holds no resentment toward hunters, but there are exceptions. After we left the dam, we off-roaded for several minutes before arriving next at a dense thicket, through which a tidy and very narrow trail had been carved. Tschirhart-Hejl explained that it had been made by pigs. We used the wider, messier, human-made pathway next to it to enter the woods.
We soon came to a large, octagonal trap that Hetzel had assembled weeks earlier. Inside its steel walls, he’d scattered whole kernel corn. Hetzel said he had set the trap far from the road because of the public. I assumed he meant that passing humans might spook the pigs. “They’ll turn ’em loose,” Bodenchuk corrected. “The hog hunters will turn ’em loose.”
These saboteurs are in the minority. Pig control is for the most part a bipartisan issue—those unmoved by the plight of farmers are likely to be aghast at the pigs’ ritual devastation of sea turtle eggs on the coast and by the extent of their omnivorousness. “They’ll eat an old leather shoe, they’ll eat an acorn,” Bodenchuk said. “They’ll eat a baby fawn.” But even still, the state is home to a wide range of opinions on and approaches to wild pig control. And not everyone wants them gone. Many pig hunters feel a sense of satisfaction knowing they’re doing something positive for the environment, but Texas Wildlife Services is often at odds with those who care little about population control and are instead focused on sport. Hunters have occasionally tampered with trapping equipment, Hetzel said, or stolen it. “We’ve also had traps where you know pigs have been in it because you see the blood, but there’s no pigs in it,” Tschirhart-Hejl said. “So somebody comes along, kills them, and takes them.”
Bodenchuk would rather a pig leave a trap dead than alive, however, because a pig that has been freed from a trap knows to avoid the panels in the future. Pigs are famously intelligent, considered smarter than any land mammal save primates. In a 2021 study, researchers at Purdue University taught pigs how to use a joystick to move a cursor on a screen—essentially, to play a video game. While monitoring cameras for manual-release traps, Bodenchuk has seen groups of pigs knock down traps’ panels or climb over one another to get out. Once, Hetzel watched several sows lift up the seventy-pound panels, allowing an entire group of trapped pigs to escape. “Sows lay down in front of the gate and don’t allow their litter to go in the trap, because they know what’s going on,” Hetzel said, a little admiringly.
There are, of course, different styles of pig hunter. With their semiautomatic and automatic weapons and their godlike vantage point, aerial hunters are by far the most lethal. The practice of hunting pigs from helicopters has been enthusiastically taken up by recreational hunters since Sid Miller’s “pork chopper” bill became law. Two hours of flight time with Bryan-based company HeliBacon will run you $2,995 per person, including a safety course and a semiautomatic firearm with unlimited ammunition. One upgrade gets you a fully automatic machine gun; another buys you a video recording of your special day.
Helicopter pig hunting has found a not-at-all-unlikely spokeshuntsman in rock star Ted Nugent, whose enthusiasm for pig eradication is renowned. Videos of him helicopter hunting on Facebook and YouTube have an arcade game quality: hard-driving music plays in the background as targets are corralled and felled. “I’m ready to rock,” Nugent says in one 2020 video from a hunting trip with hog-hunting on-screen personality Brian “Pigman” Quaca. A large pig is spotted running alone through scrubby grass, frantic. The pilot orients the helicopter so that the pig is on the left side, where Nugent, shooting an automatic (“I don’t need to go full auto, but I like it,” he tells Quaca in the video), makes fast work of it. “When in doubt, pig out!” Nugent says. The men have the runaway enthusiasm of a group of boys who have just invented a new playground game: whenever a shot causes a running pig to fall in particularly dramatic fashion—heels over head, for instance—the helicopter erupts in cheers.
Nugent has long been an impassioned advocate for relaxing—eliminating, he emphasized—regulations around hunting pigs. “Think of me as Mother Teresa the ultimate pig farmer,” he wrote to me in an email, “with a real assault weapon doing God’s work.” He described one hunting day with Quaca during which they shot 469 pigs. Texas, he wrote, is “ahead of the curve” on pig control. “The only missing link,” he qualified—what the state needs to make real progress—“is a gung-ho, gonzo if you will, promotional campaign to promote the recreational thrill and environmental and economic benefits to killing pigs en masse from helicopters. It’s the ultimate win-win-win on all counts.”
Except when it’s not. A recreational hunter, particularly one spending thousands of dollars for a few hours of aerial hunting, might be more focused on securing a large boar as a trophy or gathering good footage for Instagram than on eliminating an entire sounder. The equipment used in government aerial efforts differs as well. Texas Wildlife Services deploys jet-powered helicopters, which can fly slowly and even hover, to get a sounder moving and then follow along. Then a marksman does what’s called “climbing the ladder,” shooting the last pig, then the next one, then the next one, and so on. (When pigs survive a heli-hunting blitz, they become smarter about evading future hunts, learning to take cover under trees and shrubs when they hear helicopters in the distance.) “There’s folks that have a tremendous amount of experience and are tremendously qualified,” Tomeček said. “They spend enough time and effort, they really know what they’re doing. But then on the flip side, there’s also folks that go out and they’re paying for an afternoon and they’re having fun.”
The industry that has grown around pig hunting is a lucrative one and has motivated all kinds of behaviors that are counterproductive to Texas Wildlife Services’ mission. A rancher might blithely transport wild pigs onto his property to kick-start a private hunting operation, for instance. It’s illegal to transport them, Bodenchuk explained, and those who do so are unlikely to fess up, particularly after they and their neighbors are mired in never-ending chaos and expenses. Like dandelion seeds clinging to the hood of a sweatshirt, wild pigs travel with humans, and they become more adaptable with each new climate and terrain they experience.
Bodenchuk acknowledged that wild pigs are an economic resource for Texas; he is a former outfitter, and his wife is a taxidermist. “They’re trying to make a figurative silk purse from a literal sow’s ear,” Bodenchuk said of pig-hunting entrepreneurs, chuckling and then sobering. “That’s what they got, so that’s what they’re going to take advantage of. But man, the damage far outweighs the benefit of pigs. We’ve tried to quantify the value of pigs to the Texas economy. We’ve got over five hundred million dollars’ worth of damage and maybe twenty million dollars’ worth of benefits.”
Last summer, when HogStop arrived in Hawaii, another state overrun with wild pigs, it was met with outrage from local hunters. The Pig Hunters Association of O‘ahu raised concerns about safety, because many hunters eat the pigs they kill. (HogStop’s creators have said the meat from affected pigs poses no health risks.) Many Hawaii residents argued that the pig populations can and should be controlled only by residents subsisting on their meat. But the more potent argument was a cultural one: wild pigs are central to Polynesian customs. In 2016 an international group of researchers found that wild pigs had first arrived in Hawaii not with explorer James Cook, in the eighteenth century, as some previously thought, but with the seafaring Polynesians themselves, hundreds of years earlier. Eradication would upend age-old traditions. “It’d be like telling Texans we’re going to get rid of barbecue,” Tomeček said.
In parts of Texas, pigs have achieved their own cultural cachet. In October, I attended the Fall Feral Hog Festival, in Ben Wheeler, a town seventy miles southeast of Dallas that was declared “the feral hog capital of Texas” by Brooks Gremmels, the late Dallas entrepreneur who in 2003 set about revamping it according to his vision of a perfect small town. By then the place already had a daunting pig problem. The following year, Van Zandt County, which is home to Ben Wheeler, began offering hunters a $7 bounty per pair of pig ears. The program was soon discontinued when too many ears were offered up and the budget ran out. Gremmels, though, spotted an opportunity. “You have bluebird festivals and bluebonnet festivals, but there wasn’t a wild hog festival,” he told KERA News in 2013. “We just decided to make some lemonade out of the lemons we were given.” Last year’s Hog Fest was circus themed (“Cirque du Sooie”) and featured a wild-pig cookoff and the crowning of a “hog queen”—this year, a local woman in metallic spandex, her young daughter looking on excitedly, clinched the competition with an impressive aerial-silks performance.
But perhaps nowhere is the cultural import of Texas pigs more pronounced than among the vast communities of hog hunters on Instagram, YouTube, and beyond, particularly when it comes to “hog dogging.” Humans have been hunting boars with dogs for centuries. The practice involves a group of dogs tracking down a pig and “baying” it, i.e., surrounding it and barking to alert the hunter. Dogs keep the pig in place until the hunter arrives and kills it, often by hand with a knife. On Instagram, hog doggers share advice and compare their kills, flaunting the boars’ tusks. They even have their own etiquette, particularly around relationships with the owners of the land on which they hunt.
One popular member of this group is 38-year-old Jonathan Dempsey, who has been hunting since he was a kid and hog dogging for ten years. I became aware of Dempsey through the podcast Song of the Hounds and appreciated how emphatic he was about his dogs’ safety. On Instagram, his followers marvel at how many of his kills have large tusks. Dempsey told me that while bigger tusks signal greater valor on the part of the hunter, pigs with shorter ones, which haven’t curlicued back in on themselves, are actually more dangerous for the dogs. His pups wear thick protective vests and collars.
The costs involved in keeping and training a pack of pups makes hog dogging expensive. Dempsey does it because he loves training the dogs, transforming them from romping puppies into, effectively, colleagues. “They keep us safe and doing what we like to do, so guys like myself, we like to take care of them and return the favor,” he said. “Other than that, it’s just good old country boys out there, drinking some beer, killing some pigs, being productive.”
On a drizzly morning in January, I met Dempsey at a Valero in Rocksprings, a Hill Country town two hours northwest of San Antonio, and we headed for a ranch nearby. Dempsey had sculpted the tips of his mustache into tight curls, as if in a nod to the pigs’ prized tusks. He wore a black fleece zip-up, jeans, and boots so broken in they slapped his calves when he walked. He’d made the band of his white hat from the skin of the first rattlesnake he killed, when he was a teenager.
As we drove, nine dogs’ snouts poked out curiously from several kennels in the bed of his truck. It was cool and foggy, ideal for hog dogging, because the moisture helps plants and soil retain the scent of pigs. Once Dempsey parked and dressed the dogs in protective gear—“be careful, my son,” he whispered to one; “be careful out there today, old man,” to another—he released them from their kennels, and they flew off the bed of the truck like marbles on a freeway. “I’m just their chauffeur,” he said, as they took off.
For the most part the dogs worked independently of Dempsey, who followed them using a handheld tracker (their protective collars each had an antenna). Periodically each would return to check in, trotting next to him for a moment before setting off again. At the beginning of the day, the dogs stayed close to one another, moving as a pack, and Dempsey took particular delight when they ran single file. Occasionally they would appear through a foggy break in the trees up ahead, one by one, their spacing as exact as that of the Beatles on Abbey Road.
The team didn’t rustle up any pigs at the first location, so Dempsey kenneled everyone and moved on. At the next stop, the dogs began to trawl the landscape once more, Dempsey occasionally guiding them to areas better positioned for picking up smells in the wind. Again, no luck, and he began to shepherd them back to the truck.
Then one dog began to bark, followed by another. Dempsey checked his tracker and took off. Previously he had held back branches for me as we moved through thickets, pointing out trouble spots. Now he charged toward the sound of the barking, sending branches slingshotting back at me. When he got too far ahead, I started following a new sound, of a pig in distress. When I caught up to him, Dempsey was standing over a tangle of dogs and pig. When he saw an opportunity, he dove into the fray with his hunting knife and killed the pig with a series of swift jabs to its heart.
By that point I’d gotten particularly attached to Rusty, a rotund yellow Lab–like mix who preferred to waddle close to Dempsey for much of the hunt, rallying only when the other dogs had already secured a pig. “He’s only mean when he needs to be,” Dempsey had said earlier. Now, as the other dogs ran off, Rusty walked happily between Dempsey and me, a splash of pig blood across his snout.
Dempsey and his dogs managed to kill one more pig that day. His method wasn’t nearly as efficient as gunning down pigs from a helicopter, but that’s beside the point. Hog dogging is no more about population control than is fly-fishing for invasive carp. “You want to be productive and be out there making something happen,” Dempsey said. “But sometimes you’re just out there drinking beer and getting out there in God’s country.” When I asked how he’d feel if something—a contraceptive or other force—did eradicate the pigs, he said he’d be okay with that. He and the dogs would retire. “But,” he said, “I know that’ll never happen.”
A few weeks later, on a brilliant sunny afternoon, I pulled up to a metal gate bearing a yield sign with a pig at its center. Beyond it was a house, a large barn, and acres of pens. An ancient boar studied me from twenty feet away, with the tired wariness of an old man watching the world from his porch. He urinated serenely. This was Atlasta Home Sanctuary, in Ennis, about thirty miles south of Dallas.
The land belongs to Christy Hinterman, and it’s one of very few sanctuaries in the country able to take in wild pigs. After parking and wading through a licky gauntlet of several of her 23 dogs, bequeathed to her by shelters nearby, I was able to greet Hinterman, who has short, gray-blond hair and a warm, crinkled face. She wore a smudged black sweatshirt, jeans, and yellow rubber slides with roosters printed on them.
Hinterman began taking in pigs after her eighteen-year-old daughter was killed in a car accident, in 1994. A group of pig owners and rescuers in the area thought she could use something to “keep her mind,” so they asked for her help rescuing domestic pigs whose owners wanted to be rid of them. She filled a trailer and found new homes for all of them. “And that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made,” she said, laughing. The experience kicked off a passion that would gradually take over Hinterman’s life and land. She began taking in cast-off potbellies, a species that is particularly popular as a pet—until owners are mired in the realities of raising a full-sized pig. She received her first wild pigs, Amber and Arnold, in 1996, when they were just twelve hours old. They lived to be 21 years old (though domestic pigs can live for as long as 20 years, the lifespan of ferals in the wild is 4 to 5 years, on average). Word spread that Hinterman would accept ferals.
Hinterman takes in domestic pigs that have been abandoned or whose owners can no longer care for them, in addition to feral piglets and adult feral pigs that have been raised domestically since piglethood. “The feral people are better sponsors,” she said—they send her much more “child support.” Many of the feral piglets she receives are newborns or were discovered while still in utero by hunters gutting pigs they’d just killed. If a piglet is that young, Hinterman typically won’t take it in until its rescuer has kept it alive for ten days, delivering through a dropper doses of the vital colostrum it would typically get from its mother.
We passed a pen of potbellies, who were uninterested in Hinterman and me—she had told me they were not as social as the wild pigs—as well as a pen of feral piglets. Then we slipped through a gate into a large pen where the adult pigs were gathered, rooting in the well-turned ground with businesslike determination. The sound of so many pigs scuffling in the dirt was pleasant, like a babbling brook. Beyond the pen, down a gentle slope, was a large pond where several pigs meandered. It looked idyllic, but beyond her acreage, Hinterman said, is land frequented by helicopter hunters. The pigs are used to the occasional bang, living in the country, she told me, but they hate the sound of the helicopter hunters’ aircraft and extended gunfire.
For her part, Hinterman is not so devoted to the animals that she doesn’t understand why people hunt. She grew up on a ranch, and deer hunting was a major food source. But she disapproves of hunters leaving deceased pigs where they fall. Bodenchuk had told me that the government doesn’t retrieve pig corpses because an environmental impact assessment showed that the cost of recovery exceeds the value of the meat they might provide. Besides which, Bodenchuk added, he knows too much about wild pig pathogens to eat them. They can carry more than thirty viral and bacterial diseases and nearly forty parasites. Humans can get brucellosis, for instance, if a pig’s fluids or tissues come in contact with a cut during field dressing. “I could dress a deer and eat a sandwich at the same time. When I handle pigs, I put on rubber gloves,” Bodenchuk said. Hinterman pointed out that the nonprofit Hogs for a Cause Texas has been able to coordinate the safe dressing and charitable distribution of wild pig meat, which can be consumed if cooked safely, in the Fort Hood area. “Give them a reason,” she said. “Give them a purpose.”
Hinterman speaks to the pigs in the same register one might use with an infant. “Hey, Supper,” she said, calling out to a sturdy porker ambling her way. Pigs were approaching her one by one, flopping down at her feet to receive belly rubs. “Her dad raised her,” Hinterman said of Supper, “and she had to come here because she loved her dad so much, but she didn’t like the rest of the family.”
One sow repeatedly pressed her snout against the back of my legs—smelling me, Hinterman explained, before shooing her away sharply. The pigs draw most of their data from scent, she explained, and can pick up some smells from as far as seven miles away. I studied the pig’s snout. It was tough and rubbery but sentient and animated like an elephant’s trunk.
When a boar lay down at her feet, Hinterman bent to show me the trajectory of his tusk—actually a long bone driving way back into the skull—with one finger. The insides of the boar’s ears were thick and stony, and his fur was coarse like porcupine quills and dirty. Beneath it was an undercoat of sheeplike down and a layer of dead grass, hay, and dirt that had become trapped under the fur. To properly deliver a belly rub, Hinterman had to kneel and dig her hands deep into the pig’s coat, moving her whole body like a CrossFit bro pushing a tire across the gym parking lot.
At one point I was caught in the middle of a brief tussle between boars, and a little tusk must have caught me, because later I found a perfectly round hole in my yoga pants and a long scratch on my calf. (Gored!) Otherwise the pigs were docile and curious, and as charismatic as Hinterman had warned me they’d be.
Hinterman often invites the curious to her property to meet her pigs and to see how gentle they can be. She dislikes the extent to which the pigs have been anonymized and sees them as symbols of the way in which humans have encroached upon nature. The tensions between feral pigs and humans isn’t only about the swelling numbers of swine, after all. Humans are sprawling into previously untamed land, making encounters between wild pigs and urban and suburban denizens inevitable. As a wildlife damage–management biologist named Adam Henry pointed out to me, the state’s massive population growth encourages more well-tended, lush green expanses, such as lawns and golf courses. And golf courses, he said, sustain some of the most expensive damages from pigs because maintaining their grass is so costly. “How much more land are we going to take as people?” Hinterman asked. “Where are animals supposed to go?”
It reminded me of something Bodenchuk once said. He nodded to a contradiction within his work by pointing out that most of the environments he strives to preserve have already been heavily influenced by humans. Certainly wild pigs have devastated sea turtle populations on the coast by eating their eggs, but humans inflict similar damage by crowding beaches and installing artificial lights that disorient the turtles. Rooting might unsettle the engineered earth behind a dam, but a dam is a forceful disruption of nature. If the sin lies in pillaging our habitat, humans might peer through the fog of boar to consider our tendinous highway systems and manicured lawns.
Even Hinterman, protector of wild pigs, can only function as such by estranging her charges from their environment. Her pigs survive because, though born feral, they’ve allowed themselves to be redomesticated. Maybe the ones that refuse to step in line are the adversary we deserve.
Lauren Larson is a writer based in Austin and a former Texas Monthly editor. This story was supported by the 11th Hour Food and Farming Journalism Fellowship.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Swine Country.” Subscribe today.
Maps: The 1988 and 2004 distribution maps were created using data compiled by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, drawn from state fish and wildlife agencies, agriculture agencies, and universities; the 2022 distribution map was created using data compiled by the Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study and the USDA.