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It's a war on boars, but pork's winning

Wild, wily pigs are wreaking havoc throughout Texas. Joe Paddock and other lonely soldiers test their mettle against the often surly creatures.

November 19, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

Edom, Texas

It was a cool Saturday night in East Texas, and many men were surely someplace warm, swilling beer and watching football. That was not Joe Paddock's idea of good times.

Covered in camouflage and carrying an AR-10 assault rifle, night-vision goggles and enough ammo to outfit a small battalion, Paddock was wading through weedy bottomlands, eager to "get up on some hogs," as he excitedly put it.

Two packs of wild boars on a retired fire marshal's ranch had eluded his scope for weeks. This time, he promised, the clever pigs would pay.

"It's become like a vendetta to me," Paddock whispered. "These hogs have got my number. It's like they're tracking me."

Paddock, who looks like long-haired rocker Ted Nugent, is a pig-killing hit man who calls himself "The Dehoganator" and advertises his services.

If a band of feral swine is laying waste to your land -- an increasingly pervasive problem in the Lone Star State -- The Dehoganator and his fellow riflemen will happily shoot 'em up to hog heaven, as long as you help cover the cost of the bullets.

California and other states struggle to rein in feral swine, but nowhere are the pigs more populous than in Texas. It's home to about 2 million wild hogs -- and they're multiplying.

Of the 254 counties in Texas, about 90% have a wild hog problem. Surly pigs have been spotted in urban parks in Dallas and San Antonio, startling joggers. Mobs of ravenous porkers are munching crops and tearing up hayfields, causing $52 million a year in damage, state officials estimate. They also are eating the eggs of endangered sea turtles on coastal barrier islands, forcing biologists to scurry nests to safety.

"The feral hog population in Texas is completely out of control," said Kevin Ryer, founder of a website called Texasboars, where hunters and trappers share photos and bravado-filled tales. "There's not a big city in Texas that doesn't have a hog in it somewhere."

Texas' plague might be a menace to landowners, but for Paddock, who makes his living trimming trees, it's a chance to have a little fun. He's spent more than $20,000 amassing a stockpile of swine-killing weapons, and admits that playing The Dehoganator is a money loser. But that hardly matters to him.

To many country-bred men like Paddock, 47, hunting wild hogs is the ultimate blood sport: a battle of wits against an ugly, wise and unpredictable foe. Anybody can shoot Bambi in the woods, they argue, but bringing down an angry 300-pound boar takes bravery. Wounded hogs can turn vengeful. Men have been gored to death by their "cutters," or razor-like tusks.

"The hog is the poor man's grizzly," said Tommy Stroud, 45, one of Paddock's riflemen. "If you shoot at a hog, you'd better shoot straight, because if you don't kill it, he might try and kill you."

Still, despite an increase in part-time swine hunters like Paddock -- and a thriving culture of trappers who earn thousands sating gourmet appetites for wild boar in the United States and Europe -- the consensus among scholars and government officials is that the hogs are winning.

Federal agriculture officials have resorted to gunning down pigs from helicopters. State officials have declared open season on them: Hunters can shoot as many as they want, any time. Here in Van Zandt County (pop. 48,140), leaders put out a bounty four years ago, promising $7 for every pair of hog ears brought in. They got more than 2,000 and ended the offer a year later.

Experts say there is a simple reason for the expanding number of boars: They are smarter than people think. As one meat buyer put it, "Ain't nothing easy about trying to outsmart a pig."

Paddock was painfully learning that lesson once again. This night, he scoured the ranch for signs of porcine life and saw them everywhere: cloven hoofprints on the shore of a pond, hair bristles on tree trunks where fat hogs scratched themselves, and full body prints on puddles where they wallowed in the mud.

But as he slunk along the bottomlands, beneath a black, moonless sky, the sole sound Paddock heard was the soft thump of acorns falling. There were no hogs in sight.

"It's going to be a long night," Paddock said, and crept on.

Hernando de Soto, the Spanish conquistador, brought the first pigs from Europe to what is now the mainland United States in 1539. Some later ran loose after escaping their colonial masters. But it was not until the 1930s, when sportsmen began releasing Russian boars into the wild, that the true trouble started in Texas.

The hunters underestimated the boars' intelligence, as well as their rabbit-like reproductive tendencies. Soon the mongrel offspring of fierce Russian boars and fat domesticated pigs were as common in Texas as mesquite.

Officials in Oregon and Kansas still believe they can eradicate wild pigs. But in Texas, it's too late. The only hope, according to those who study the problem, is to contain the destruction they wreak when rooting up fields in search of grubs, and the diseases they spread to livestock and house pets.

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