Editorial: Developing compassion for feral pigs
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2007:
Here come the pigs! See page one and the constellation of
related sidebars beginning on page 12 for particulars.
Nobody expected feral pigs and street pigs to become a
ubiquitous humane concern in the early 21st century–but not because
of indifference toward pigs. Most people just didn’t think of pigs
as a free-roaming species who might turn up almost anywhere, capable
of thriving without human help. But the timing is right for feral
pigs and street pigs to claim humane attention. More pigs may be at
large today, worldwide, than ever before. Certainly more pigs are
at large in North America.
Pig hunters are all but exempt from most of the laws that
govern other forms of hunting, since pigs are considered a
non-native invasive nuisance. So-called hog/dog rodeo, in which
packs of pit bull terriers are set upon captive feral pigs, has only
been illegal in many Southern states for under two years, and–like
dogfighting and cockfighting–still has a substantial following.
The technology exists to control and perhaps eliminate
unwanted feral pig populations without bloodshed. The leading
immunocontraceptive approach to animal birth control is based on
porcine zona pellucida, PZP for short, a slaughterhouse byproduct.
Though PZP proved ineffective and impractical for use with dogs and
cats, it is now widely used to control wild horse herds, zoo animal
fecundity, and–experimentally–urban deer. Zona pellucida cells
from another species would be needed to achieve immunocontraception
among pigs, but at this point there are few animals, including
humans, whose reproductive biochemistry is better understood than
that of pigs.
Most important, while pigs are institutionally mistreated by
the pork industry at the rate of 60 million per year in the U.S.
alone, almost entirely out of public view, the climate of public
opinion has never been more favorable to individual pigs, with names
and familiar faces, like many of the “problem pigs” now patrolling
The classic children’s story Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White,
has raised compassion for pigs since 1952-first as a book, then as a
1973 animated film, now in 2006 as a computer-generated live action
film, endorsed and promoted by the Humane Society of the U.S.
Increasing humane awareness of pigs was already an integral
if indirect aspect of producing the newest version of Charlotte’s
Web, after Paramount Pictures donated a substantial but undisclosed
sum to Animals Australia in exchange for help in adopting out the 40
trained pigs used to make the film. In early November 2006, Animals
Australia and allied organizations reportedly invested $500,000
Australian dollars in billboard and women’s magazine advertising
against factory pig farming. Eight magazines and one billboard
company rejected the ads, which were then published in newspapers
instead–and the fracas attracted newspaper coverage.
Three other films featuring pigs who evade slaughter have
become recent hits: Babe (1995), Gordy (1995), and Babe: Pig In
The City (1998). Actor James Cromwell, who starred in the Babe
films as Farmer Hoggett, became a vegetarian and animal advocate.
Such pro-pig popular literature has a long pedigree.
Twenty-five years before E.B. White produced Charlotte’s Web, Walter
R. Brooks from 1927 to 1958 raised consciousness about pigs in his
28-volume series about the adventures of Freddy the Pig and his
upstate New York farmyard friends, who evaded slaughter time and
again by acting as human-like as possible. Meat-eaters in the early
stories, Freddy and the farm owners, Mr. and Mrs. Bean, eventually
became somewhat reluctant and inconsistent quasi-vegetarians. Soon
afterward, the Freddy books lapsed from favor as longtime staples of
Humane literature evolved into addressing how real-life pigs
are raised and slaughtered after the 1964 publication of Animal
Factories, by Ruth Harrison, and the 1967 formation of Compassion
In World Farming by the late Peter Roberts. Banning gestation
crates, in which pregnant and nursing sows are imprisoned, was for
Roberts an enduring focus.
Pet pigs splashed into humane awareness after the Vietnam
War, when the pampered potbellied pigs carried to safety by some of
the Vietnamese “boat people” fleeing the Communist regime attracted
media coverage, caught the fancy of pet breeders, and became a
heavily promoted fad animal. A network of mostly overwhelmed and
underfunded pig sanctuaries formed in response to frequent pig
The sanctuaries that survived the inevitable shakeout are now
“finding an increased number of rescued farm pigs needing sanctuary
space,” explained Pig Preserve founders Richard and Laura Hoyle in
an October 2006 letter to ANIMAL PEOPLE. “As the public becomes more
attuned to the plight of the factory farmed pigs,” the Hoyles wrote,
“many more are being rescued by animal rights groups and private
citizens. So now, in addition to rescuing and caring for the
thousands of “dumped” miniature pigs, we are asked to take in a
steadily increasing number of full-sized farm pigs.”
Feral pigs emerged as an early concern of the Fund for
Animals, during the 25-year effort of the U.S. Navy, Nature
Conservancy, and National Park Service to extirpate pigs from San
Clemente Island and the Channel Islands, off the southern California
coast. Some rescued pigs from the California coastal islands were
transported to the Black Beauty Ranch in northeastern Texas during
the 1970s and 1980s, but their rescues attracted far less attention
than the Fund’s earlier rescues of burros from San Clemente and the
Later, in 1991-1993, PETA cofounder Alex Pacheco tried to
drum up opposition to Nature Conservancy tactics against feral pigs
in Hawaii, including aerial shooting and setting snares in which
caught pigs died slowly, over many days. In Defense of Animals
protested against cruel methods of pig extermination in the hills
surrounding San Francisco Bay. The Suwanna Ranch sanctuary operated
by the Humane Farming Association took in several pigs who went feral
after escaping from human custody or being abandoned.
Yet feral pigs as a nationally spreading ecological issue and
animal welfare problem largely eluded the humane community–and
largely eluded wildlife managers, as well, whose first recognition
of the presence of feral pigs has usually come several pig
generations after they became established, when they emerge as a
widely distributed public nuisance.
No set of institutions enthusiastically claims responsibility
for feral pigs in the U.S., as in most of the world. While licensed
pig hunting may generate some revenue, feral pig activities tend to
be more problematic than lucrative. Agricultural agencies see feral
pigs as an uncontrolled and unpredictable disease vector. Public
health and safety agencies want someone to respond to pig complaints,
as to dog and cat complaints, but even when animal control is under
their umbrella, animal control agencies mostly lack experienced pig
catchers and handlers, holding facilities suitable for pigs, and
vehicles that can haul them.
The advent of central garbage collection and enclosed sewage
systems eliminated free-roaming pigs from most U.S. and European
cities many decades ago. Until recently, feral pigs were found only
in remote rural regions, like the hills of Arkansas, whose wild
razorbacks were considered a quaint artifact.
But that was before long-haul pig trucking and frequent
highway accidents gave thousands of pigs the opportunity to bolt from
ruptured trailers in habitat of every sort, before raising European
boars for confined hunting operations became commonplace, and before
hints emerged that some ardent pig-hunters might be deliberately
translocating feral pigs to try to expand pig hunting opportunities.
That was also before free-roaming dogs declined from 30% of
the U.S. dog population circa 1950 to about 25% in the mid-1970s, to
under 5% today.
Dogs, rats, & pigs
Nature abhors a void, so when dogs no longer roam at large,
their habitat niches are claimed by other species.
Usually the first replacements are cats, already present and
relatively abundant. Where free-roaming dogs dominate the habitat by
day, consuming most of the edible refuse, catching many of the rats
and mice, cats tend to be nocturnal, inclined to live on roofs and
balconies, rarely descending to risk canine pursuit. As soon as the
dogs disappear, however, many cats become diurnal, replacing dogs
at a typical ratio of three cats for each dog who is no longer
there–about the body mass ratio of average cats to typical street
Communities that never before noticed cats may suddenly
discover that they have enough feral cats to be problematic.
Examples include Hong Kong, the developed parts of Costa Rica, much
of the U.S. during the past 20 years, and the many Indian cities
where Animal Birth Control programs have sharply reduced the
abundance of street dogs.
But cats are not quite a perfect replacement for dogs. The
very attributes that enable cats to coexist among street dogs tend to
leave significant habitat niches vacant. For example, as pure
predators, cats rarely scavenge. When dogs are removed from urban
habitat, most of the scavenging role may be left to mice and rats,
who formerly were among the dogs’ prey.
Mice and rats quickly breed up to the newly expanded carrying
capacity of any habitat from which dogs have been removed–especially
if dogs are no longer eating them. However, even if humans
refrained from poisoning mice and rats in response to any visible
abundance, mice and rats are not well-adapted to holding habitat.
Instead, they attract other predators such as jackals, coyotes,
foxes, and birds of prey in place of dogs, while accessible refuse
draws in larger or more evasive scavengers–such as pigs, monkeys,
and gulls–who can fend off or escape the predators.
In effect, the previous role of dogs as scavengers and
rodent predators is replaced by mice-plus-cats-plus-rats-plus
whatever else comes. The simple scavenging habitat niche becomes a
complex food chain, in which the especially complex role of rats
tends to be overlooked because it mostly occurs beyond human view.
Like dogs, rats will eat almost anything. Also like dogs,
rats can become predators if conditions favor predation. Where mice
are abundant, rats tend to become voracious nest predators of
Further, the rat population may be virtually unchecked by
cats, no matter how many cats there are, because while cats are
probably the most efficient of all predators of adult mice, few cats
will risk pouncing on a full-grown rat if other food is available.
Rats could in theory totally replace the roles of street
dogs, and in cities with modern sanitation, where the scavenging
niche is reduced and scattered to the point that roving dogs have a
hard time making a living, this is what tends to happen. Where dogs
once roamed the streets, rats patrol inside the walls of high-rise
buildings. Though feral cats are more visible, rats outnumber them,
thousands to one.
Until the scavenging niche is reduced and diminished,
however, removing dogs from the habitat has a different outcome.
In Asian, African, and Latin American cities, especially
those without closed sewage systems and frequent trash collection,
where refuse remains sufficiently accessible to support street dogs,
pigs and monkeys tend to be the ultimate beneficiaries of reducing
the dog population. Though both pigs and monkeys can kill dogs in
fights which could go either way, pigs and monkeys tend to run from
dogs rather than take chances. Otherwise, the major threats to pigs
and monkeys in most urban habitat are motor vehicles. Neither pigs
nor monkeys have anything to fear from cats, or rats.
Neither do pigs and monkeys tend to be very afraid of people,
unless the people are armed. Then, both pigs and monkeys tend to
learn how to distinguish armed people from unarmed people, just as
they learn to distinguish vulnerable humans carrying groceries from
those who have nothing edible to drop, who may fight back if menaced.
In U.S. cities, where closed sewage systems and frequent
refuse collection prevail, the food sources most accessible to urban
wildlife tend to be yard vegetation. While dogs do not eat yard
plants, they do chase other animals out of yards and out of the
neighborhood, if they can. Removing free-roaming dogs from the
habitat typically allows urban wildlife to exploit the vegetation
undisturbed, if they just stay out of the fenced yards where dogs
Raccoons, occupying approximately the same habitat niche in
North America that monkeys hold in India, are among the most
ubiquitous beneficiaries. Nowhere in the wild are raccoons as
abundant as they have become in U.S. suburbs, at population
densities as great as 300 per square mile in parts of New England.
Other species who are now more abundant in U.S. suburbs than
in the wild include both whitetailed and blacktailed deer, and
opossums, whose expansion of range into the northern half of the
U.S. closely followed the construction of the interstate highway
system in the 1950s and 1960s. Occupying a relatively limited
habitat niche at first, opossums have proliferated during the past
several decades in approximate inverse to the frequency with which
dogs are picked up for running at large.
The conditions conducive to pig proliferation in the U.S.,
Britain, and other developed nations where fast-expanding feral pig
populations have become troublesome are not quite the same as the
conditions that enable pigs to take over vacated dog habitat in much
of Asia. Yet there are similarities.
To a pig, a marketplace full of discarded fruits and
vegetables differs little from a yard full of windfallen fruit from
ornamental trees and hedges. Muddy roadside ditches are wonderful
Pigs make themselves equally at home among cornfields,
orchards, refuse piles, and forests full of fallen acorns and
fungi. Almost anywhere suits a pig, if the pig has food, mud, and
companions. A combination of high intelligence, easy satisfaction,
and litter sizes averaging more than twice the average dog litter
size make pigs at least as potentially ubiquitous as dogs.
If tolerated, pigs will sleep in the sunshine, in full view
of all. If responded to with humane consideration, pigs can become
good neighbors, occupying their present limited ecological niche,
potentially controlled by immunocontraceptive baits.
If pigs are hunted, on the other hand, they will spend
daytime in deep dens, foraging and traveling only at night. The
cleverness and reproductive potential that enabled pigs to evade
extermination on small rocky islands for 25 years will ensure that
even the most aggressive and ruthless efforts to kill them all will
fail–indeed, pigs have never been lastingly extirpated from any
habitat other than small islands–and will ensure, as well, that
the plight of feral pigs will attract increasing humane attention in
Beyond practical considerations, demonstrating concern for
feral pigs could help to set a persuasive example to the public and
to agribusiness of how pigs ought to be treated–and perhaps hasten
the day when pig-eating is looked upon with the same revulsion that
most of the world now feels toward dog and cat eating.