Walk on the Wild Side

Americans have a curious and often tongue-in-cheek relationship with pigs. We love them! Northerners because the pot belly ones are fine pets. Southerners because their bellies, and ribs, and just about all of the animal are fine on plates. We loosely teach our kids about pigs as we paint them as adorable pink creatures with curly tails worthy of protection and play.

Take the clinically depressed and angst-filled Wilbur who was saved from the slaughterhouse by the extraordinary web craftsmanship of Charlotte the spider. Or anxiety ridden Piglet of Winnie the Pooh fame whose neuroses made him terrified of almost everything. But let us not forget the piggies who went to market, stayed home, had roast beef or none, and/or cried “oui, oui, oui” all the way home – because that story has its origins in French pig farming and was not about Papa pig picking up dinner, rather becoming it.

With the notable exception of Orwell’s Animal Farm, we see pigs as handsome, docile, domesticated creatures that left to their own devices in the wild would be assaulted and victimized by predators – they need human protection. Take the Three Little Pigs who were stalked, harassed, and traumatized by the Big Bad Wolf who used questionable, if not pedestrian, tactics to con them into opening the door to be eaten. The moral to the story is arguably a subversive nod to durable construction choices i.e. a mid-century modern ranch house was the only way they became safe from the Wolf’s advances.

These stories are ways to protect the innocence of children, but they have become an unwitting accomplice in distancing adults from the origin of our food. Short version of a long story, pigs were introduced to what is now Florida by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto. From a modest 13 pigs in 1539, the pork industry boasts 71.0 million hogs and pigs on US farms in 2017. Almost as impressive is the fact USDA, understandably not confirmed but, estimates 6 million wild boar or feral hogs in 35 states doing $1.5 billion dollars in damage annually.

But before we get into the meat of all this, let’s get some terminology out of the way. The humble pig is the topic of discussion; “swine” is used synonymously. A hog is a pig that is more than 120 pounds in weight. A boar is a, sexually mature male pig that has not been castrated[1], but is also a wild pig of any gender.  And feral means wild.

That said, by all accounts, pigs are resourceful critters that became feral in one of three ways – or a combination thereof:

  1. Escaped domestic swine that went wild
  2. Free-range farmed pigs wandered off and fell in with wild pigs
  3. They were (un)intentionally released swine or wild-trapped feral hogs to establish new populations[2]

However, the term wild boar is not simply a feral pig over 120 pounds. The term “wild boar” is often used to connote a different animal entirely; one that is not necessarily the same thing as a feral hog, although they can have hybridized. So, none of that terminology explains the wild boar, which actually implies Eurasian wild boar.

As the story goes, Eurasian wild boars were introduced as exotic big game animals for sport hunting purposes.[3]  Millionaire Austin Corbin, founder of the Long Island Railroad and Coney Island, was the first to bring pure wild boar to the United States in 1886 and all was well until his  “wild-boar proof” fence was knocked down by felled tree in a 1938 hurricane. Since then, wild boar and feral hogs have been working on their own sort of manifest destiny.

Here in the great state of Louisiana, back in the 1960s, feral hog population was near confined to the Sabine National Wildlife Refuge and Catahoula, LaSalle, and Cameron Parishes and reportedly exceeded 7,500. And curiously, the Sabine Wildlife Management Area was practically free of feral hogs by the late 1970s and there was only one adult feral hog remaining on the Catahoula refuge in 1979. Now Department of Wildlife and Fisheries reports that feral hogs are in all 64 parishes and the population is estimated at 500,000.

How exactly did *that* happen? Well, there are a couple of reasons.

First, extending about twenty years between the 1940s and 1960s, Louisiana feral hogs were more widely used than any other state to develop miniature strains of swine for biomedical research.[4], And as a fun fact, pigs’ hearts and arteries follow the same pattern as humans’. Not coincidentally, Christian Barnard, resident surgeon at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, helped University of Minnesota’s Hormel Institute set up the program to breed a “mini pig” that would weigh about 140 pounds fully grown, intentionally the approximate size of a human. Early 1960s, they had such an animal that supplied fodder for medical research. And as a direct result of experiments with the “mini pig” heart, Barnard performed the world’s first human transplant back at his home hospital in 1967 in South Africa.[5]

But reasonably, once the mini pig was obtained, no additional research and development utilizing feral species was necessary, which was just as well since Boston University asserts federal dollars to university Research and Development dollars as a percentage of the GDP have been on a slow and steady decline since the 1970s.

Next, they reproduce quickly. A female pig reaches puberty between six and eight months of age[6] and can have two litters a year averaging six piglets per litter, but up to 10. And barring any interference, they live around 8 years.

They adapt to any environment from desert to marsh to piney woods and hardwoods and can even survive sub-arctic conditions. And an adult commonly weighs upwards of 200 pounds.

They have virtually no natural predator and eat 3-5% of their body weight daily They consume both plant and animal matter especially acorns, corn, rice, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, watermelons, cantaloupes, invertebrates (insects, snails, earthworms), reptiles, amphibians, and dead animals. But they are also known to catch and consume baby goats, lambs, calves, fawns, rabbits, and turkey nests. To Louisiana the 2016 losses are quantified at over $18 million in soybeans; about $13 million in corn; nearly $9 million in rice, and nearly $6 million in hay. Additionally, more than $21 million non-production related losses (i.e. lost production, replanting, and additional cultivation) statewide were incurred. However, these numbers do not include losses associated with state and federal lands or other public lands.

So what are we doing about it? Well, we are approaching it from both a scientific and legal perspective.

Title 56 of the Louisiana Revised Statute identifies feral hogs as “outlaw quadrupeds” (La. RS §56.8), in the company of coyotes and armadillos. Hunting them is by license and available the entirety of open season (La. RS §56:115). They may be killed by a myriad of weapons, including bow and arrow, crossbow, rifle, shotgun (La. RS §56.116.1), and handgun with or without a sound suppressor (La. RS §56:116.6). This would appear to be an effort to encourage hunting and consumption of the animal, thus making humans the natural predator to the wild boar, and the reason why pork is third in meat consumption behind beef and chicken in the United States.

In point of fact, until 2013, “Hunters for the Hungry” could donate freshly killed feral hog to a processor for food insecure families. However, only monetary donations designated at time of license purchase (La. RS §56:644) and frozen specimen are received by the charity out of considerable caution not to transmit any of the parasites and diseases from carcass to human. And this highlights the mania around the idea of eating wild pork.

Here is the bit to shock the senses: Wild pigs are known carriers of at least 45 different parasites and diseases that pose a threat to livestock, pets, wildlife, and in some cases humans. Now that’s a lot, so let’s unpack that. About 21 of those diseases threaten livestock and other animals and are not unique to wild pigs. More than 24 can be transferred to people and – here is the important bit – when they eat undercooked meat, which truthfully is no different than farmed pigs.

The disease that is notably different is Brucellosis – but it is a disease not unique to pig and is also known to infect sheep, cattle, goats, and even dogs. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries surveillance testing of over 1,000 feral swine statewide revealed that 3.5 percent were positive for Brucella. Note that wild pigs contract it through birthing fluids and semen and it’s transmitted to people through skin wounds or excessive exposure to mucous membranes, which is generally how slaughterhouse workers get it. Prevention includes safe field dressing, washing hands, using clean tools, etc. which are arguably techniques that should be employed regardless. But even if contracted, treatment is through antibiotics.

Sadly, massive overpopulation and the concern of disease transfer has assisted us in shifting our efforts from eating the wild boar to attempts to control its reproduction by toxicants such as sodium nitrite and genetically-based contraception. The problem is that the collective we have done no research on the bioeffects of other animals accidentally consuming the toxicant – or worse, other animals consuming the feral hog that has died from the toxicant.

What concerns me is that we seem not have forgotten in all this, that it is still a pig – wild or not. And a common sense approach could contribute greatly to the control. Consider, a 3-ounce serving of cooked pork loin will contain 242 calories; 27 grams of protein; and 14 grams of fat. Alternatively, a 3-ounce serving of cooked wild boar will contain: 136 calories; 24 grams of protein; 4 grams of fat; 65 milligrams of Cholesterol; 5% of your daily allowance of Iron, 7% of your Riboflavin, 18% of Niacin, 18% of your Thiamin, 18% of your B6, and 10% of your B12 allowance.

And that seems like a real good reason to celebrate the pig.

[1] Swine reproduction, (Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service).

[2] John J. Mayer & I. Lehr Brisbin, Jr., Wild Pigs in the United States: Their History, Comparative Morphology, and Current Status 7 (The University of Georgia Press London, 1991).

[3] Id. at 46

[4] Id. at 32

[5] Lyall Watson, The Whole Hog: Exploring the Extraordinary Potential of Pigs 130, 132 (Library of Congress, 2004).

[6] Swine reproduction, (Louisiana State University Agricultural Center, Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service).