|As part of the war to keep the number of feral hogs in check, professional removers go on the hunt to help landowners save their crops from the destructive, invasive creatures.|
It's a little more than three hours before sunset on a late June day at the Schexnayder & Sons farm near New Roads. Dark clouds and a passing shower have knocked a few degrees off the temperature, leaving gnats and mosquitoes buzzing with renewed vigor through the warm, moist air.
David Braun and Obie Semmes stand alongside a white, Japanese-made mini-truck emblazoned with a fierce-looking, tusky cartoon boar and the words "Professional Wild Hog Removal."
Braun, 42, sports a buzz cut and stubble, rubber boots, camouflaged shorts and a camo T-shirt, with "There's a place for all God's creatures: right next to the rice and gravy" printed on the back. Semmes, who's "like 40," is bearded; he's wearing baggy camo pants, a black T-shirt, a faded LSU baseball cap and weathered, black Chuck Taylors. They don't have guns, but they carry large hunting knives.
"Professional" or not, the two men typically aren't paid for ridding landowners of feral hogs, but not because the owners aren't eager to be rid of the destructive, invasive creatures. As Braun admits, it's hard to charge for something when you're never sure you'll be able to deliver. It usually takes a few hunts to figure out the hog patterns at a given site. Even then, there are no guarantees.
Braun thought the hog problem here was under control last year. And Braun and Semmes love hunting with their dogs, so it doesn't seem right to demand payment for the privilege of using someone else's land.
Four Catahoulas, trained to track and corner hogs, are in three cages in the back of the truck. Stan, the "bay dog," has the "most hunt" of the lot; the others are his "help dogs." Stan needed five staples after a recent run-in with a hog on this property. A pitbull terrier named Sarge, more of a "catch dog," is tied up alongside the cages. The dogs wear GPS devices so they can be found once they've been let loose.
Semmes works his way along the soft, muddy dirt roads that run next to the rows of corn and sugar cane, looking for fresh tracks. Braun stays near the truck and tries to keep the dogs relatively quiet. Suddenly, about 100 yards ahead, a black, four-legged figure brazenly trots by and disappears into the cane.
"Did you see that?" Semmes asks. "A hog just crossed the road to the left. A big, black hog."
"C'mon," Braun says.
"I swear to freakin' God, bruh."
The good news, is they've spotted a hog. The bad news is, the hog knows they're here. Braun doesn't let the dogs out immediately. Instead, he decides to give the hog a little time to become complacent, then he'll circle around to where the wild swine here have been known to wallow.
"Let's cut him off," Braun says, "and see what happens."
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto introduced swine into what would become the United States in 1539 in Florida, according to the LSU AgCenter. Until the 1930s, domestic swine often were allowed to range freely on public or common lands.
Sport hunters introduced the European boar to America, although most swine in Louisiana are thought to be descended from domestic stocks. Hogs can be found in habitats ranging from tidal marshes to wooded areas. And while they prefer to avoid humans, some have colonized parks in major cities, including Dallas and New Orleans, AgCenter researchers say.
Feral hogs are omnivorous and seek areas with access to water, cover and a dependable food supply. They can reproduce as early as six months old, and given adequate nutrition, populations can double in only four months. They trample and destroy crops, and are known to displace and kill other animals. When rooting and wallowing, they can destabilize the ground and disturb the soil; and they carry a number of diseases, some of which can infect humans.
Nationwide, feral hogs annually cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage. Eighty percent of respondents to an AgCenter survey reported hogs on their land, and 95% of those respondents reported damage. In 2008, surveyed landowners said a combination of daytime shooting and trapping was the most effective strategy, but 25% reported no success with any method. As part of the state's war to keep the hogs' numbers in check, the Legislature last year legalized nighttime hunting with lights from March 1 to Sept. 1.
"You're not going to eradicate them," says Don Reed, a professor with the AgCenter's Bob R. Jones-Idlewild Research Station in Clinton. "They're just too adaptable."
Put pressure on hogs during the day, he says, and they go nocturnal. Start chasing them at night, and they become even more wily and wary.
Reed says the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries tried using a "Judas pig." Workers tagged and tracked a female, hoping she would lead them to a large group [known as a "sounder"] of wild hogs.
"They would track her to an area of maybe 15 or 20 feet within her location, but they could never find her," he says. "[The pigs] would hole up in vegetation so thick, people were literally walking right next to these animals."
If a landowner is going to try traps, Reed advises a corral-style mechanism that can handle 15 or 20 animals at a time, because you might only get one shot before the hogs catch on to the ruse. On the Schexnayder property, several small box traps sit open with piles of untouched corn inside.
"You can catch young ones easier than the older ones," farmer Ray Schexnayder Jr. says. "I think the older ones figure it out."
He says the animals last year caused at least $14,000 in damage on his land, primarily to his corn, and he expects a higher total this year. He rotates his crops to different areas for different growing seasons, but hogs always find the corn. Often they knock down a stalk and eat only half an ear before moving on to the next one. Some hogs have enough sense to leave the first few rows of corn untouched, Semmes says, remaining undetected while decimating the crops inside the perimeter.
Schexnayder says he started seeing hogs on his property about five years ago. He says the animals seem to be moving downriver from Angola, and their numbers are increasing. He's heard scientists are working on a poison that would only kill the pigs, not other animals that might eat a pig carcass.
"You hate to just run them [off] with the dogs, but that's the only thing we can do right now, is get them away from your field," he says. "You're going to run them to somebody else's field. It's like, how many dog people can you get out there?"
Stephanie Boyles, a wildlife scientist with The Humane Society of the United States, says cracking down on the owners of hunting grounds that bring in feral pigs would help prevent the animals from getting into the wild in the first place. She says The Humane Society is encouraging development of oral contraceptives that would prevent the hogs from reproducing, but she doesn't expect that option to be feasible for some time.
Boyles says her organization supports nonviolent methods of hog control. If such methods are not practical, she says, the animals should be trapped and killed in the quickest, least painful manner possible, such as a lethal injection or gunshot, as part of an organized control plan.
"Hunting is not an effective way to control large, dense populations," Boyles says. "Obviously, we think letting a group of dogs tear any animal apart, whether the animal is native or not native to the United States, is cruel and unnecessary."
Thrill of the hunt
It's nearly dusk. Sarge strains against his leash in the back of the mini-truck, whining about being left out of the action while the other dogs are on the hunt. Semmes wonders if they're tracking the same hog that hurt Stan.
"There's a good chance that hog has already felt Stan's teeth on his hide," he says. "He knows the deal."
Since neither man carries a gun, they're exposed to possible injury as well, and they depend on the dogs to secure the hog's head. Stan can find a hog on his own, but he needs the other dogs to secure the prey.
"That hog can still break and run with just Stan," Semmes explained after the hunt. "One wrong turn, and that dog's 10 feet behind, and it's pretty much over with. … Once [Sarge] gets there, it's pretty much a sealed deal."
Semmes pauses for a moment, thinking he hears the dogs bark; nothing but cicadas and Sarge's panting. Then, a little later, there it is again, louder this time: barking coming from the woods.
Now Braun and Semmes are running behind Sarge, between trees, over logs, through thorny branches and into a tiny, muddy clearing where the dogs have cornered a black, 200-plus-pound boar.
The dogs have the bigger animal under control. Braun arrives on the scene, lifts one of the boar's front legs, and plunges a blade into its heart.
comments powered by Disqus
Real estate recap: DPW reorganization recommendations coming … Capital Region home sales post 5% gain in February … WWII bombing range near Hammond at center of new lawsuit
The case for coming home
Office Parks Get a Makeover
What Families Are Spending on Prom Night