The young hog appears bewildered, terrified. Running through the grass along Buckner Boulevard, near White Rock Lake, the desperate animal barrels across two lanes of speeding traffic, then wheels around and darts back in front of drivers who seem as confused as the hog. Some cars slow down. Others stop and wait. A few swerve and speed away.
It was a rare sighting only in that it happened in broad daylight, and one driver was able to whip out his phone to record a video. But that 2013 hog encounter in Lake Highlands is a sign of where North Texas is headed, if we don’t change our ways. Both human and hog populations are expanding, and where our territories overlap, trouble happens. “We’re invading them, and they’re invading us,” says Rick Maxwell, who for 12 years served as a Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service agent in Collin County (now stationed in Lamar County). “It’s been a problem all across the county, even in the urban areas, with homeowners.”
It didn’t end well for the Lake Highlands hog. Ben Sandifer, a master naturalist who lives in the area, wrote on his blog that a cop later showed him a picture on his phone of the pig after it had been hit and killed. “The Lake Highlands feral pigs are solitary and juveniles of small size,” Sandifer wrote. “Pigs like that never leave their family unit, called a ‘sounder.’ I have discussed this with a few wildlife biologists, and they all think independently that someone is catching pigs elsewhere and releasing one or two at a time … . They need to be caught and thrown in jail.”
How many of those animals are roaming Dallas proper is, again, hard to say. The number could be as low as a few hundred, or it could be a few thousand.
If that’s what happened, then the blame is being placed squarely where it belongs—with us.
It also would mean that what’s happening in Lake Highlands has been going on in Texas for nearly 500 years. European pigs were first brought to what is now the United States in 1539 by the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto. After looking for gold in the Southeast, in 1542, his exploration party brought 700 pigs to the territory that would become Texas. The men would release the pigs to scavenge for food, then later hunt them.
But left to their own devices, the pigs changed into almost unrecognizable feral creatures, a metamorphosis that wildlife biologists say our domestic pigs are still capable of. If you take a pig from the State Fair of Texas and release it into the wild—and if it survives—the pig will not look the same in a year. By the second generation, that animal’s offspring will have gone “hog wild,” having been transformed in the same way European hogs were when they were set free centuries ago.
The landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted traveled through Texas in the mid-1800s. At one camp near Crockett, about 150 miles south of Dallas, he had a particularly tough time with the hogs. “At this camp we were annoyed by hogs beyond all description,” he wrote. “At almost every camp we were surrounded by them; but here they seemed perfectly frantic and delirious with hunger. These animals proved, indeed, throughout Texas, a disgusting annoyance.”
Today, the hogs tearing up land in the Trinity Forest and bedeviling suburban homeowners are evolutionary marvels. They are one of the smartest species found in the United States. A 200-pound male can run 30 mph, and it can pick up certain scents from up to 7 miles away—and 25 feet underground. It has continuously growing tusks, two on top and two on bottom, that scrape against each other, keeping them sharp. They eat everything and anything. In fact, in a pinch, they’ll eat each other. In Australia, where wild hogs are also a problem and the environment offers less to eat than we have in Texas, the most successful bait for hog traps is the corpse of another hog.
They breed like bunnies, beginning early, at less than a year old. With plentiful food, they breed even more frequently. Two litters a year of 10 piglets each is not unusual for a well-fed sow in the wild. They breed so fast that just to keep the population in check, we would have to kill between 60 and 80 percent of the hogs in Texas. Hunters here take out less than 24 percent. It’s hard to know exactly how much damage they do. A 2004 survey conducted by Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service put the annual agricultural damage in the state at $52 million. There could be 4 million wild hogs in Texas.
How many of those animals are roaming Dallas proper is, again, hard to say. The number could be as low as a few hundred, or it could be a few thousand. We rarely see them—just the destruction left in their path. We know they are tearing up the Trinity Forest, chewing up land in South Dallas, and hoofing it to the L.B. Houston Nature Area. They’ve filled traps at Keeton Park Golf Course. They move from location to location on the city’s hog superhighway, our creek bottoms and green belts. They’ve been reported basking in the beauty of Turtle Creek and have broken the hearts of conservationists who have spent hundreds of hours planting native prairie flora at Big Spring, the only natural feature in the city to have been designated a historic landmark.
It turns out the hogs like Dallas as much as we do. Right now, as you read this, Dallas’ feral hogs are out there—rooting and running, ripping things up, grunting and eating and breeding—and their numbers are growing rapidly.
Only one man stands between us and them. Thank God he’s an Eagle Scout.
Brett Johnson is a quiet urban wildlife biologist who was hired by the Dallas Park and Recreation Department to push back on our porcine invasion. He is so at home outdoors that he prefers to do interviews under the trees outside his South Dallas office, even when it’s spitting rain.
“I take animal welfare to heart. I really do,” Johnson says. “When they are in the hands of this city, they will be treated humanely. That is very important to me.”
The Boy Scouts led the Irving native to love nature. During his years in the program, he became a self-proclaimed “knot nerd,” so skilled that he was eventually banned from competing in annual Scout knot-tying contests. “I can still tie about 100 knots off the top of my head,” he says. “I learned to do them one-handed, behind my back, and blindfolded. I can still do it. The secret to knot tying is knowing how to untie them.”
A number of years with Texas Parks and Wildlife gave him the background he needed to tackle the Dallas dilemma, how the city can get rid of its hogs without firing a shot. Though Councilman Philip Kingston wondered last summer about conducting guided hog hunts, it is illegal to fire a gun in Dallas city limits, so that option is off the table. In any case, though, Johnson insists on treating the animals, no matter how undesirable they are, with care. “I take animal welfare to heart. I really do,” he says. “When they are in the hands of this city, they will be treated humanely. That is very important to me.”
So far, he has set up five traps in secret locations on and around Dallas parkland, and he is pulling in hogs on a regular basis. He doesn’t like to talk numbers, preferring instead to focus on how much he can reduce hog-related damage, but in August the Dallas Morning News reported that in the five preceding months, 40 hogs had been trapped. Johnson hopes to someday have 15 to 18 traps citywide. He loves to talk for hours about hog psychology and their humbling intelligence.
“Our ultimate goal is not to educate the pigs,” he says. “They’re incredibly smart. Really, really smart. We have live cameras on our traps, and we have to watch and wait until we get all the pigs in there. If we trigger the door and a couple of pigs are outside and they see that happen—well, then, we now have two smart pigs.”
Johnson says those smart pigs will change other pigs’ behavior. “Basically, if those smart pigs have piglets, and those piglets watch and see that Mama won’t go in that trap and eat the corn we put out, then they won’t go in there either. That is exactly what we are trying to avoid.”
The traps are engineered to keep children and dogs from getting injured and to keep the hogs themselves calm and safe. They may be headed for a processing plant, but Johnson wants them to arrive healthy and unharmed. This is harder than it sounds. He keeps his trap locations secret, because he worries that curious people will upset the hogs. Johnson patiently explains all the steps he has had to take to keep the trapped hogs tranquil. “I had to remind the people we hire to pick them up from the traps not to take selfies with them,” he says. “Hogs don’t like that. It gets them all riled up.”
And they’re not just camera-shy. Johnson says too much agitation can trigger a total hog meltdown. Each trap has a thermometer so he can make sure the hogs don’t overheat, which can trigger a hog riot or worse. “If it is hot and they get riled and real excited,” he says, “they can actually just stroke out. Just drop dead. And we don’t want that.”
Johnson’s approach stands in stark contrast to state policy. Texas, eager to get rid of as many hogs as possible, allows year-round hunting, using almost any weapon imaginable. The state rules for taking out a hog can be, let’s say, flexible. There are places not far from Dallas where a hunter can pay for the chance to kill a hog in a small pen with a big knife. There are ranches that welcome hunting with spears. (They are not eager to publicize this fact, however, and asked that their names be withheld.) Assault weapons and high-powered bow hunting are standard operating procedure. One Texas rancher bragged to me about luring pigs into a ravine on his property with a special concoction of corn mash and Jell-O, and then blowing the hogs up by throwing sticks of dynamite on them.
Johnson diplomatically calls practices like that “rural solutions.” Not only are they not possible in the city, but, he says, in the long run, they just don’t work. As a lifelong hunter himself, Johnson worries that some of the choices Texas has made about wild hogs have led to more of them rather than fewer. And he wants people to know that in wildlife management, everything is interconnected.
“In South Carolina, a ranch that specializes in novel kinds of hog hunting had to finally draw the line when a hunter called up and said he wanted to kill a hog with a chainsaw.”
“In the ’90s, it became popular to feed deer year-round,” he says. “But they weren’t just feeding deer. They were feeding pigs. That is when we suddenly saw a surge in pigs. Supplemental feeding causes so many more problems than it helps. It just changes things so much.”
A while back, Johnson brought a man named Dr. John Mayer to see the hog problem in Dallas. He’s a research scientist and manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory in Aiken, South Carolina. He’s also arguably the country’s top feral hog scholar, a biologist who has studied the beasts for more than 40 years. Mayer says urban areas are the next frontier of feral hog issues, and the free-wheeling approach to deer feeding in Texas drives him crazy. “Texas A&M researchers found that even a short fence, about 36 inches high, will keep the pigs out but let the deer in,” he says. “The problem is that when you are feeding these pigs and there is no fence, everything gets worse.”
But those fences are not the norm in rural areas outside Dallas, where hog hunting reigns and there are few rules. He says hogs’ popularity with hunters is the No. 1 reason hogs have spread nationwide. “When hunters in other states found out how much fun they were to hunt, they’d come down south and fill up a trailer with hogs and head north to stock their local population,” he says. “That is illegal in all 50 states, but it sure happened a lot in the past, and that is the catalyst for the problems we have now.”
Mayer is pretty disdainful of how some hog hunting operations in Texas and across the country do business. “Some of this stuff gets pretty wild,” he says. “In South Carolina, a ranch that specializes in novel kinds of hog hunting had to finally draw the line when a hunter called up and said he wanted to kill a hog with a chainsaw.”
Mayer was part of a National Geographic investigation that looked into the legendary Hogzilla, an allegedly 1,000-pound pig that was killed in Georgia more than a decade ago. He determined that it was a hybrid, part domestic and part European, like most of our feral hogs. He estimated that it actually weighed closer to 800 pounds, the size of some hogs that have been killed in Texas. But he says hogs that size aren’t really wild. Truly wild hogs top out at about 400 pounds—still massive and still meaner than hell but not the size of a Ford F-150. Wild hogs have to stay on the move, looking for food. He says those XXL hogs are “fed hogs,” feral pets that fatten up because they have ready access to food that is replenished on a regular basis.
“Sometimes a mom-and-pop outfit will buy a large domesticated boar that is past peak breeding age. That animal is not edible.” He points out that an uncastrated male hog has what’s called “boar taint,” a condition that amounts to pig testosterone poisoning. He says hog hormones make the meat taste rancid. “But people still like to take down those big ones. And a rancher can stick that old giant hog in a pasture, fatten it up, let it get more feral-looking, and then charge someone $1,000 to come in and kill what many uninformed hunters think is a dangerous, trophy-size wild boar. But anything that size is not truly wild, and that is not hunting. That is essentially a canned hunt. I think if there is a fence around the property, then that is a canned hunt. That is not sport hunting at all. It’s just not.”
Mayer believes the best answer to the hog problem may be the hardest to sell to the public: banning hog hunting outright. “North Dakota, Kansas, Delaware, Nebraska, and other states are close to being pig-free now because they took the money out of hog hunting. There are no more guided hog hunts. They are treated like vermin. Ranchers can’t charge people money to hunt hogs on their property. They cannot possess hogs or feed hogs or brag about the size of their feral hogs. But the fact is that wild pig hunting in the South is so deeply ingrained in the culture that I don’t know that a ban could ever work in Texas.” In fact, Mayer says, when one Tennessee wildlife biologist suggested a ban on hog hunting at a public meeting, he had to be escorted out of the building for his own safety.
Ennis Rancher and auctioneer Craig Meier doesn’t see things Mayer’s way. For about two months each year, he flies a helicopter low, over the flat open scrub outside Dallas, with hunters who pay big money to fire tactical weapons at feral hogs as the sounders run for cover. His company is called Heli-Hunter. Tagline: “High on the hog has a whole new meaning.” But Meier bristles at people who think he and his team are “bloodthirsty idiot rednecks. We are actually entrepreneurs,” he says.
When he was 25, Meier bought 600 acres of ranch land outside Ennis, near where he grew up. He planted grass to feed cattle—and then quickly lost most of it to hogs. He was enraged. “So I set my alarm clock for midnight most nights and headed out into the field looking for them,” he says. “Sometimes I’d find them and sometimes not. I’d have go back in, sleep for an hour, and come out again. And at the end of a good night, I maybe had killed two or three. It was cat-and-mouse. It wasn’t really hunting, and it sure wasn’t fun. And it didn’t make any difference at all.”
Meier and other nearby ranchers began to pay the state to fly over in a helicopter and systematically take out pigs, maybe bagging 100 to 200 hogs over a weekend. One day, as he watched the state chopper fly over, he had an idea. He bought a helicopter and began patrolling land for nearby ranchers who paid him a dollar an acre to hunt pigs on their property. In 2011, when the state passed its “pork chopper” bill, allowing hunters to pay Meier for the privilege of shooting hogs from the air, things really took off.
By 2014, Meier had his own TV show on the Sportsman Channel, and he was flying around with hunting celebrities like Ted Nugent and Brian “Pigman” Quaca, who teamed up to kill hundreds of hogs in an afternoon with automatic weapons. “Now people come here from all over the world—from China and Japan, from everywhere—just to shoot hogs from our chopper,” he says. “And the hunters love it almost as much as the farmers whose land we fly over. We are making a huge difference.”
Johnson’s hardest work may be with city people who listen to everything he says about the danger and destructiveness of wild hogs—and then ask if they can keep one as a pet.
He believes his operation is helping Dallas with its hog problem, too. “I’ve killed probably close to 20,000 hogs in my life, and a lot of them were right up there by the Trinity, just south of Interstate 20. There is a crazy population of hogs there. If we hadn’t been doing this for the past six years, Dallas would have a problem that was 10 times worse.”
He acknowledges that his business model is controversial. “Some people hate it and some people love it. It’s kind of like our recent election. But I tell you what. I book my entire season in just seven days. I think what I am doing is a very Texas thing. We found our own unique solution, and it’s not using tax money and it is working.”
He is very proud of another element of his business. Most of the meat goes to charity through a Christian group called Hogs for the Cause. He estimates that his operation donated 27,000 pounds of pork sausage to the poor in one season.
Meier quips, “I always say I am killing pigs for Jesus.”
His season in the chopper is short, lasting only from January into spring, depending on when the foliage comes back and blocks hunters’ views. He says the people who think hunting hogs from choppers is cruel are not living in reality. They simply haven’t seen what he has seen. “I challenge anybody to get in my shoes,” Meier says. “I raise cattle. I am an auctioneer and a regular guy who just happened to have the balls to put $300,000 into a helicopter when nobody else would. And it worked. I make money now, and I deserve to.”
The helicopter hunts are not cheap. A six-hour hunt for up to eight gunners runs $15,000. There is an additional charge for lodging and a $200 charge for an edited video of the hunt.
Even though he feels he has found financial success, he is sensitive about criticism. “Look, my kids show pigs,” he says. “I am building a pig barn for that right now. I don’t hate pigs. But they don’t belong in the wild. They’re not supposed to be here. And I have seen grown men cry when hogs took out the entire crop that they borrowed money to plant. We have to control these things. We have no choice.”
Back in Dallas, Brett Johnson is not just trying to control the city’s pigs. His hardest work may be with city people who listen to everything he says about the danger and destructiveness of wild hogs—and then ask if they can keep one as a pet.
He shakes his head and says, “I tell them that is not a good idea at all, that in a year or two, their little friend is not going to be as cute and cuddly as he was when he was a piglet. But it does happen. People take them in and then let them loose when things get out of hand. I’m also starting to see potbelly pig genes in some of the feral hogs we have here, because folks are letting those pet pigs loose, too. This whole thing is just crazy.”
It is crazy indeed how our complicated relationship with this iconic Texas animal mirrors the growing rural-urban divide. But, in this instance at least, the division may be more in the perception than the reality. If people who live off the land are fighting to protect a way of life, and people who live in cities are fighting to protect the land and native fauna—and to keep these beasts out of their backyards—it may turn out that these different ends may be best achieved through similar means. If mass hunting leads to greater destruction of both farmland and wild lands, then it’s not a solution for anyone. Least of all the wild hogs. Who may turn out to be smarter than us all.