Feral pigs become scapegoats–in the U.S. & around the world
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, January/February 2007:
SANTA BARBARA, California– Pigs were blamed for people
killing turkeys in the name of defending foxes against eagles.
The Nature Conservancy ended 2006 by hiring professional
hunters to kill about 250 of the estimated 300 wild turkeys on Santa
Cruz Island, within Channel Islands National Park. Nature
Conservancy spokes-person Julie Benson told Associated Press that the
killing was needed to protect endangered Channel Islands foxes,
after an 18-month, $5 million pig purge, also touted as essential
to protect the foxes, ended earlier in the year.
“Scientists said the kills are necessary because turkeys and
pigs provide prey for golden eagles,” summarized Associated Press.
“The eagles are attracted to the island, where they also kill the
endangered foxes. The island pigs kept the turkeys in check by
eating their eggs and competing with them for food. With nearly all
of the pigs gone, the turkey population boomed.”
The problem actually started, retired Channel Islands
National Park superintendent Tim J. Setnicka admitted in a March 2005
denunciation of “systematic biologic genocide” published by the Santa
Barbara News Press, when The Nature Conservancy and National Park
Service decided in 1972 to try to exterminate all non-native species
who inhabited the islands. The turkeys had just been introduced that
“In the late 1980s,” Setnicka wrote, “seeing an island fox
was a daily occurrence, easier than seeing a pig on Santa Rosa
Feasting on the carcasses of pigs, sheep, goats, horses,
burros, deer, and bison, shot by the thousands over more than 25
years in the name of protecting biodiversity, the fox population
soared to a probable all-time high.
“But their numbers mysteriously declined,” Setnicka
recounted. “In the mid-1990s it was learned their decline was due to
an influx of golden eagles.”
The golden eagles were almost certainly drawn to the islands
by the stench of the carrion that fed the foxes. When the carrion
ran out, they attacked the pigs and foxes.
“To help sell fox restoration, for which we had no money,
we came up with the media spin that one of the main reasons golden
eagles reside on park islands was because of pigs,” Setnicka
admitted. “This would help vilify the pigs and help support the pig
With both pigs and turkeys now almost hunted out, the
Channel Islands fox population should explode, if The Nature
Conservancy and National Park Service analysis holds up. On the
other hand, they may find that the golden eagles now hunt foxes more
than ever, while the foxes have less food than ever, without the
pig and turkey carrion.
Pigs vs. spinach
On the California mainland, feral pigs meanwhile took the
rap for allegedly causing an outbreak of E. coli bacterial poisoning
that spread from a single contaminated spinach field to 26 states and
one Canadian province in August and September 2006. At least 204
people fell ill, three of whom died, Kevin Reilly, M.D. of the
California Department of Health Services told Juliana Barbassa of
“Boar trampled fences that hemmed in the spinach field,”
Barbassa wrote. “Samples taken from a wild pig, as well as from
stream water and cattle on the ranch, tested positive for the same
strain of E. coli implicated in the outbreak. The pigs could have
tracked the bacteria into the field or spread it through their
droppings, Reilly said.”
The E. coli outbreak “may hurt farm programs aimed at
restoring wildlife habitat and cutting water pollution,” San
Francisco Chronicle environment writer Glen Martin warned. “Such
environmental programs could be at odds with ‘clean farming
techniques’ promoted by food processors. Those techniques encourage
growers to remove grassy areas that are planted to reduce erosion and
trap pesticides before they reach waterways. The practices also
discourage habitat zones that might attract animals who carry
bacteria like E. coli or salmonella.”
Added Martin, “A Salinas Valley grower who requested
anonymity because of contract negotiations with processors said that
even if processors allow some wildlife habitat near cropland, they
now require farmers to put out large quantities of poisoned bait to
kill rodents. ‘When we plant hedgerows now, we have to use the bait
stations or we lose our contracts,’ he said. ‘Later, you see birds
of prey perched over the bait. They eat mice sluggish from the
poison and get poisoned themselves. It kind of defeats the whole
purpose of putting in the habitat.'”
But, Martin noted, “Preliminary research indicates concerns
about wildlife as vectors for pathogens may be misdirected. An
analysis from U.C. Santa Cruz concludes that the strain of bacterium
associated with the spinach poisonings–E. coli 0157:H7–is rare in
wild birds and mammals,” including feral pigs, “and resides most
abundantly in the digestive tracts of grain-fed cattle.”
Whether or not feral pigs really are to blame for everything
they are accused of, they are increasingly abundant and widely
distributed–and their rooting makes messes.
Pigs dig the forest
“Hogs are devastating to habitat, devastating to
groundnesting birds,” recently fumed Ohio Wildlife Division program
administrator of wildlife management and research Carolyn Caldwell,
to Dave Golowenski of the Columbus Dispatch. “They eat amphibians,
from frogs to salamanders. They do lots of rooting, and they eat
everything they root up.”
This is not necessarily problematic at all, from an
ecological perspective. Pigs and other pig-like mammals have evolved
together with forests since before the time of the dinosaurs. Feral
pigs in North America today may compete for food and habitat with
species as different as skunks, raccoons, opossums, javelinas,
black bears, deer, and badgers, but despite some overlapping
tastes and traits, pigs are no threat to displace any of them.
Feral pigs are also part of the prey base for bears, pumas, wolves,
Overall, feral pigs fit easily into the North American
wildlife ecology. But they do not fit neatly into management schemes
that never took them into account. Yet they may now be seen as bonus
targets to help keep dwindling numbers of hunters in the field, and
perhaps to attract new hunters from among immigrants whose
old-country cultures included pig hunting.
Many states actively pushed pig hunting in fall 2006,
usually for the first time.
“Boars have been subject to hunting for years, but they have
now become such a problem that the state is encouraging hunters to
shoot them,” Golowenski of the Dispatch noted. “Ohio Division of
Wildlife officials want them gone.”
“The Michigan Department of Agriculture and the Michigan
Department of Natural Resources have given permission to licensed
hunters to fire at will at feral pigs in 23 Michigan counties where
the swine have been spotted,” wrote Tom Greenwood of the Detroit
News. “While the pigs are not a serious threat in Michigan,”
Greenwood admitted, “they have caused huge damage to crops,
wildlife and the ecosystems in a number of states, especially
Florida and Texas.”
Or so Jacqui Goddard reported on November 26 for the London
“Wild pigs are tearing up Texas in unprecedented numbers,”
wrote God-dard, “menacing its residents, killing livestock, and
gorging on crops. At least 20 other states have also reported
problems,” Goddard said, “because of the creatures’ big appetites
and bad manners. Across the country, damage to agriculture is
estimated to be as high as $800 million a year.”
That might sound like a lot–until compared to the
environmental costs of, for example, the $80 billion a year cattle
and hog feedlot industry.
In truth, proliferating feral pigs are for the most part
themselves an environmental consequence of pork production.
“Scientists say that the blame lies partly with the
16th-century Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto, who landed in Florida
in 1539 with 600 troops and a herd of swine. The animals, which were
bred as food, have spread across the Southeastern states,” Goddard
De Soto probably was the first pig farmer whose escaped stock
contributed to the present population, but more than 450 years of
pig farming elsewhere in North America contributed to the gene pool.
Pigs wandered alongside wagons wherever European settlers
went. Though most were slaughtered, and most who escaped were
quickly hunted down, enough got away that by the mid-20th century
there were feral pigs in most states south of the snow belt.
Yet feral pigs did not proliferate at anything like the
recent pace until the advent of factory farming and long-haul
trucking to move pigs to market. Even when pig predators and food
rivals including acorn-eating deer had been hunted into extreme
scarcity in the mid-20th century, feral pigs did not approach their
Scavenging competition from much larger numbers of
free-roaming dogs helped to control urban pig numbers. But what kept
pigs from going “hog-wild” in the boondocks?
The answer may be simple economics. But the economic factors
require more than just a quick look.
USDA data shows that the numbers of pigs on U.S. farms at any
given time now is not significantly different from the numbers on
farms in 1900: 50-odd million then, 50-odd million now.
There were actually more pigs on farms in 1940: just over
61 million. How-ever, since 1940 the total number of farms has
dropped by two-thirds, the farm labor force has dropped by more
than 80%, and total number of pigs slaughtered has almost doubled,
because the average time taken to raise a pig to slaughter weight has
been cut in half.
In addition, in inflation-adjusted dollars, a pig now sells
for a third less than in 1940. As the value of each pig has fallen,
the number of workers available to try to recover each escaped pig
has plummeted, and the number of pigs in transit at any given time
With more pigs on the road at all times, hauled in much
larger trailers than a generation ago, the opportunities for pigs to
get loose and introduce themselves to new habitat have never been
Trucking accidents from which pigs might escape occur at a
reported rate of about 60 per year, involving as many as 10,000 pigs
altogether, according to data included in U.S. Highway Accidents
Involving Farm Animals, a compilation taken from news reports,
published by Farm Sanctuary in June 2006.
But most pig-hauling accidents don’t make news, Richmond
Times-Dispatch staff writer Bill Geroux discovered in April 2005,
while investigating an incident in which about 180 pigs spilled from
a toppled trailer.
“The confused animals rooted in the grass or scrambled into
nearby woods,” Giroux reported. “Some of them lay squealing in the
wreck. One hog set off down the narrow two-lane blacktop, where
morning commuter traffic came to a halt. About 30 hogs lay down for
a nap in the sunshine between two houses.
“Every day,” Giroux continued, “dozens of trucks packed
with 150 or more hogs converge on Smithfield’s two large
slaughterhouses from hog farms in Southside Virginia and North
Carolina. And every year, a few of those trucks plunge off the rural
highways near the plants.”
Said Smithfield spokesperson Jerry Hostetter, “I hate to
admit it, but it happens all the time.”
“As Smithfield’s production has grown,” Giroux recounted,
“the company has established a rapid-response team to recapture hogs.”
Most pigs who escape from wrecked trucks are soon caught.
Most of the pigs aboard the trucks have little or no experience of
freedom, and no idea how to feed themselves as wild animals.
Still, if even 3.5% of all the pigs involved in documented
transport accidents get away and survive long enough to raise
litters, their net contribution to the feral population would be the
equivalent of de Soto’s pigs escaping to breed each and every year.
More important than the number, however, is the breadth of
distribution. De Soto’s pigs could only expand into habitat adjacent
to the habitat they already occupied. Until the advent of
transporting pigs by railway, in the late 19th century, there was
no faster way than walking for a pig to colonize new territory.
Natural boundaries such as waterways and high mountains were rarely
Even in the railway era, large numbers of pigs were moved
only along a handful of routes. Pigs were raised mainly in the South
and the grainbelt states, close to food sources.
Today, pigs by the tens of thousands are raised in
confinement barns in the Dakota badlands and the Rocky Mountains.
Pigs are trucked throughout most of the continental U.S., across all
former barriers to pig travel.
As accidents occur more or less randomly, the result is a
continent-wide experiment in releasing a few pigs here and a few
there. The optimum feral pig habitats are being found and populated,
if only by chance. Instead of feral pig populations marching
predictably from one regional stronghold to the next, they are
capturing territory like paratroopers who secure wherever they land.
But if feral pigs are all descended from factory-farmed pigs,
why do they look like European wild boars? And how are they
reproducing, when most factory-farmed males are castrated?
Indeed, most factory-farmed male pigs could not contribute
to a growing feral population–but domestic pigs readily hybridize
with European boars, now abundant on hunting ranches and also
inclined to escape occasionally. Common domestic pigs also hybridize
with Arkansas razorbacks, existing feral pig populations, and even
with dumped or escaped ex-pet Vietnamese potbellied pigs.
Among the many different pig strains at large now, feral
pigs are also conducting a vast uncontrolled experiment in adaptation
to North American habitat. Over time, the result may be regionally
distinct feral pig varieties.
For the moment, European boar characteristics seem to be
dominant. This is no surprise. Hunting ranch operators learned more
than 30 years ago that hybridizing imported European boar stock with
common domestic pigs would produce animals of European boar
appearance but domestic pig temperament.
Further, most common domestic pigs are slaughtered so young
that people who are not pig experts seldom realize how much they will
resemble their European boar ancestors if allowed to reach maturity.
The combination of the appearance of a traditional trophy
species with the familiar flavor of pork has created a growing
commercial pig hunting industry in Texas, whose feral pig population
officially exceeds two million.
“In Texas, most land is privately owned,” explained Goddard
of the Daily Telegraph, “so there are no state eradication
programs, and farmers are free to take matters into their own hands.
This allows them to run hunts and sell the meat, to make back some
of the profits the animals have cost them.”
“Hogs are putting farmers out of business,” Texas pig
trapper Kevin Ryer told Goddard, “but at the same time hog hunting
has turned into a big business.”
There is not actually much sign of feral pigs putting farmers
out of business, in Texas or anywhere else, but New York Times
reporter Tim Eaton a month earlier observed that pig hunting has
“become lucrative, as Europeans and an increasing number of
Americans clamor for wild boar.”
Eaton followed a hunter who “said he made $28,000 last year
selling live feral hogs.” Eaton described how the hunter released
four scent hounds who located and cornered a feral pig. The hunter
then released a pit bull terrier, who captured the pig with a face
bite. The hunter “pounced on the snorting beast and tied his feet
together.” The hunter then tossed the pig into the back of his
“It is ironic that the wild hog market is growing with the
organic market, as many people turn toward organic meat to avoid
supporting the cruelty of factory farming,” commented Karen Dawn of
DawnWatch. “Indeed wild hunted animals, at least those few lucky
enough to die from a clean shot, suffer incomparably less than those
raised in tiny cages and trucked in unconscionable conditions to
under-regulated slaughterhouses. But hunted hogs suffer horribly for
Elsewhere, even in Hawaii, where pigs have traditionally
been hunted, they continue to be demonized by officials who would
like more hunters to kill them, and some journalists who
uncritically report what they hear.
“Stealthy and sometimes nearly invisible, unwelcome species
such as hybrid Polynesian pigs” are “pillaging native forests,
screeching through the night in suburban neighborhoods and rooting
around in rural taro patches,” recently asserted Associated Press
writer Tara Godvin.
“I think semantics plays a big role in this. The term
‘invasive species’ makes one think that the hordes are at our gates
and threatening to destroy life as we know it,” responded Animal
Rights Hawaii director Cathy Goeggel.
In Florida, where de Soto released the first pigs to reach
North America, an off-duty state Fish & Wildlife officer and several
of his hunting buddies in October 2006 apparently fancied themselves
to be holding off an alien menace when they reportedly massacred
several dozen Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs.
According to Richard Hoyle of the Coalition of Pig
Sanctuaries, about 70 pot-bellied pigs were either released or
escaped from the Barberville property of David Mowerly, whose wife
bred pot-bellied pigs. Mowerly and his wife were in the process of
“The domesticated pets had been in the area for months,”
reported Channel 9 Eye-witness News. “Recently four pigs were found
dead with their throats cut along a local road, and that’s when some
residents had enough.”
Members of the Fort Myers-based Pigs as Pets Association,
led by founder Lana Hollenbeck, captured 39 pigs and piglets, but
the Florida Fish & Wildlife Commission authorized hunters to kill
At dusk on October 20, 2006, Hoyle said, “hunters with
bows and guns began arriving and the slaughter began. Many terrified
little pigs were killed on the roadside. Others were baited with
corn and shot when they came to eat. The hunters even attempted to
shoot pigs who had been captured and penned while awaiting rescue,”
“At least 15-20 pigs have been killed so far and at least 10
are thought to be wounded but still alive in the area,” Hoyle said
on October 22. “Many of these wounded pigs have been savaged by
local dogs or have had their throats cut and were left on the side of
the road to die,” Hoyle added.
Following the Channel 9 coverage, “There has been a lot of
back-peddling on the part of animal control and the Florida Fish &
Wildlife Commission,” Rooterville pig sanctuary founder Elaine West
told ANIMAL PEOPLE. “They had maintained that these semi-tame
little pigs were feral. Anyone who has ever seen a feral pig would
realize that these were not ferals,” West contended.
Now that they have been taught to fear humans, however, any
who were not either killed or rescued may augment the Florida feral
pig population. Smaller feral pigs may be able to compete with
armadillos for more limited habitat niches than the purported
descendants of de Soto’s pigs require.
“We will probably end up with about 4-5 times as many animals
to deal with than they started out with,” West predicted.