Feral hogs are prolific breeders that spread disease, ruin farms, and eat everything from garbage to their own offspring, and they’re quickly becoming more prevalent in most of the southern United States. Hogs have even been known to kill dogs and small children, to the extent that municipal governments in places like Texas and Arkansas have set up “pork chopper” laws allowing hunters to shoot down feral hogs from helicopters.
According to the Discovery Channel, feral hogs can grow up to 2.5 metres long and 1.20 metres at the shoulder (Google Hogzilla for a better sense of these nightmarish proportions). I love animals. But feral hog infestations make me think that some animals deserve to die. I decided to sign up for a guided hog hunt in Okeechobee, Florida, so I could do my part ridding the nation of these beasts.
Before I left for the hunt, I called up Stephen Dubinksi, a seasoned feral hog hunter, to get a better understanding of America’s hog problem.
“The rate of reproduction is unbelievable,” Dubinski explained. “More people are getting involved in harvesting them. But it just seems like a losing battle. It’s just crazy and worrisome, especially when they’re near little kids. It’s dangerous. I don’t have any idea of how to deal with it except more killing.”
I asked him what feral hog overpopulation looks like up close.
“I haven’t seen any type of wildlife explode the way these hogs have,” he responded. “From one tree stand, one afternoon, I saw over 70 piglets, all sizes. All the ones I’ve shot over the years have been pregnant.”
“What do you do with the fetuses?”
“We let them lay in the grass,” he said. “Other pigs will come and eat them. Nothing’s there in the morning.”
When I told him that I’d signed up for a guided hunt in Okeechobee and planned to kill a feral hog as a Mitzvah to the world, Dubinski said he didn’t know what a Mitzvah was, but that he hoped I’d get out unscathed.
“Aim for the shoulders,” he told me. “Kill as many as possible.”
I flew into West Palm Beach airport on a day in early June with my friend Sarah McKetta – whom I call McKetta, because otherwise, when I address her in public, every woman’s head turns. McKetta is, incidentally, a vegan. But here we were, gearing up to slay some hogs.
The streets leading from West Palm Beach airport to Okeechobee are named after citrus fruits, brands of alcohol, dead presidents, and politically incorrect terms for Native Americans. Moss hangs from the trees and power lines alike. Roads are lined with huge, toothy plants that look like monsters. Most of the storefronts are abandoned or for sale.
We settled into our hotel room and then set out for dinner at a local Applebee’s.
“Is there anything fun to do around here?” I asked our waitress as she seated us.
“I been here since 2003,” she said pleasantly. “There’s nothing.”
“We’re going hunting tomorrow,” I said.
She nodded. “People around here are always hunting something.”
On the ride over to the hunting grounds the next morning, we passed a sign that said, “BE A MAN: BUY LAND.” The radio told us that Tracy Morgan had gotten into a car accident and was in critical condition. Most of the storefronts we passed were abandoned, and despite the air-conditioning blasting in our faces, we couldn’t stop sweating.
Entering the dirt road leading to the 800 acres surrounding Ron’s Guide Service felt like entering Jurassic Park. There were multiple gates and warning signs with terrifying beasts on them. Dust blew in our eyes as we ducked out of the car. It was time.
“You my ten o’clock?” a man in jeans called to us. He was standing under a metal lean-to, surrounded by meat hooks, wiping off his hands. I wouldn’t call him a handsome man. His skin looked like beef jerky, but he seemed healthy. I felt safe around him, like he would save me, even though later he would have me sign a waiver that made it very clear he would not.
“Is Big Mama here?” I asked.
I had spoken to Big Mama on the phone a few days prior about appropriate hunting gear. “Wear anything except booty shorts,” Big Mama had said. “It’s Florida, so the bugs get in.” She kept calling me Honey Child and asking me to speak up. “I’m deaf from all the crossbows, Honey Child,” she explained. I liked her.
“Big Mama’s not here.” The guy said, shaking his head. The look on his face suggested that Big Mama might be dead. “But I’m Joe.”
Joe led us to a locker full of guns and asked which ones we wanted. McKetta explained that she wouldn’t be hunting, just watching. She said that if we needed her she’d be taking pictures of the alligator heads scattered on the ground. Joe had her sign a waiver before she left.
“We also have crossbows and knives,” Joe told me. “But sign that waiver first.” It said that I could die that day and it would be nobody’s fault but mine. I signed it.
“Is a knife too crazy?” I asked.
Stephen Dubinski had gotten weird on the phone when I’d asked him about knife slaughters. He said that knife kills were too up-close and personal, even for him. At the same time, I’m the kind of person who regularly leaves the stove on and falls over while putting on shoes. Carrying a crossbow or a gun seemed like a good way to accidentally kill McKetta.
“No way,” Joe said, handing me a ten-inch blade. “Stabbing’s the most fun.”
I told him that I’d never hunted before. I explained that in Wisconsin, where I’m from, lots of people hunt – deer mostly. Back home, part of me had wanted to go hunting, but the other part of me regarded deer as too humanoid to kill – like majestic centaurs, or like Bambi, who spoke English in the movie.
Joe looked at me like I was speaking in a foreign language.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
“25 years,” he said. “My entire life.”
He dragged two dogs out of their kennels and put them in separate cages on the back of the truck we’d be driving. One of the dogs hooked its hind legs around the outside of the cage, not wanting to get stuffed inside.
“Can I pet them?” I asked.
“Pet Sadie,” Joe said, indicating the dog who did not seem to have truck-related PTSD. “Spoon’s demented.”
I pet Sadie and then followed McKetta into the truck. The terrain was so rocky that I had to squat a little over my chair and clutch the bottom of the seat so as not to get tossed overboard. There were no seatbelts.
“So that sign back at the meat hook place,” I yelled to Joe over the engine. “There was a sign on the wall with various animals and amounts of money.”
“The price list?” Joe asked.
“Yeah. What was the thing about ‘Dogs: $2000’?’ Is that if people want to buy the dogs?”
Joe laughed. “That’s if people kill the dogs. Sometimes guys stab them by accident.”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. But then we get $2000.”
“I heard some places, they put the dogs in Kevlar vests,” I said.
Joe laughed again. “Not here. Scars are beauty marks.”
I felt like passing out. It was hot, the gigantic truck was lurching over giant holes, and I was worried about stabbing myself with the knife clutched in my hand.
“There’s one,” Joe yelled. “Do you see?”
McKetta and I shook our heads. Joe stopped the truck, climbed down, and unlatched Sadie’s cage. She leapt out, bounding through the tall grass like a happy dog from a dog food commercial – only skinnier, and probably abused.
“How does this work, exactly?” I asked, when he had settled back into the driver’s seat.
“You mean stabbing?” Joe steered the truck to follow Sadie down the dirt road as she followed the scent of some unseen hog. “You go through the armpit and hit the heart.” Without stopping the truck, Joe took my knife and mimed stabbing on himself.
“Do humans get hurt on these things a lot, or just dogs?” I said.
“That’s why we had you sign the waiver.”
“But it’s not bad or anything, right?”
“Sometimes it’s real bad.”
“Don’t worry,” Joe added, seeing the look on my face. “The guys who get hurt are the crazy ones. They jump off the truck onto the hog’s back or whatever. It’s insane.”
“You’re going to shoot it before I stab it, right?”
“Nah, I’ll just hold its legs.”
“But what about it’s tusks?”
“You need to be careful. That’s why you signed the waiver.” Why did he keep bringing up the waiver?
“Sometimes people get thrown off the truck and break a bunch of bones,” he added. “And if you fall, the hogs’ll get you, especially now that Sadie has them riled.” His professionalism was terrifying.
Sadie barked and we slammed to a stop. Joe hustled off the truck to unlatch Spoon, who burst from his cage, frothing at the mouth. I clutched my knife and followed, McKetta at my tail.
“Joe?” we called in unison. We couldn’t see him through the jungle of leaves.
In the distance, the foliage was starting to rustle. Wiry hair poked through the top and then something charged us.
“Hog!” I yelled, throwing an elbow over a low branch and swinging my leg up like a monkey, trying not to stab myself in the process. By the time McKetta looked up and saw the feral pig coming, and before Joe even yelled, “Watch out,” I was fully in the tree.
McKetta shrieked and hurled herself into a ditch. The hog flew by and I jumped down to chase it. Only in its wake did I realize it had no tusks. The hog was a sow.
“C’mon,” Joe said. I pushed aside high brush and saw that he had the hog by her legs. Spoon had her by the face. The hog was screaming—not the high-pitched squeal that I would have expected, but a desperate, drawn-out, grunt. She must have weighed 200 pounds.
“Do it!” Joe said.
I threw a leg over her and lined up the tip of my knife with her armpit. Spoon was struggling to keep her head still and, even though I could see the sow’s fangs glistening in the melee, I could tell she was in pain.
For a second I didn’t think I could do it. I considered that God had made her and me in His image, and that she didn’t deserve this unnatural death.
But then I stabbed the shit out of her.
I hit the heart on the third try. Then I stabbed her three more times. Later, when we took the heart out of her body, I saw that I had nailed it. Twice.
McKetta whooped, wiping sweat off her face. She’d watched the whole thing. “That thing was a monster.”
“Fuck off,” Joe yelled. It took us a second to realise he wasn’t talking to us, but to Spoon, who wouldn’t let go of the sow’s face.
“Spoon, get!” Joe swatted at him with a stick but Spoon wouldn’t let go.
“I said, ‘Get!’” Joe said, kicking Spoon in the head with his steel-toed boots. McKetta and I held our breath as he kicked him again and again.
In retrospect, I think Joe hoped that I would buy the sow’s head, have it stuffed and mounted and pay extra, or whatever. He needed Spoon to let go – to stop destroying what he could potentially sell.
Just when I thought Spoon might die, he growled and backed away from the corpse.
“You want the meat?” Joe asked me.
I shook my head. I’m sure she tasted great but I didn’t have room for a whole hog in my freezer. I’d read online that you could donate feral hog meat if you want, so McKetta found a nearby church that took all sorts of animal meat donations – even raccoons and armadillos. When we’d called earlier, they said they’re absolutely crazy for feral hog. “Hog wild,” the person on the phone said, laughing. “Praise the lord.”
Back at the meat hooks, the next group of would-be hunters waited for their turn with Joe. They were from a nearby Baptist church.
When they learned I’d stabbed the sow that Joe was gutting, they nearly lost it, hooting and hollering.
“Let me take your picture,” the preacher said. “I want to show my wife so she knows literallyanyone can do this!”
The preacher wanted to see the knife. He wanted to know if it was hard for a girl like me to find a date.
I realized that the only females in our vicinity were McKetta, me, the dead sow, and Sadie, who was now passed out from exhaustion in her cage.
“She probably hunts her boyfriends!” a man with a pregnant-looking belly yelled. “They don’t got any say in it.”
“Oh come on, Larry,” another guy said. “Those two girls are gay as gay gets.”
“Huh?” I said.
“You and your friend.” He grinned. “Your girlfriend.”
I looked at McKetta, who was busy snapping photos of the entrails. At the time I was annoyed – what business of this was his? But later, looking back through the photos, I sort of see where he was coming from.
“Is there anything here I can pet?” I asked. There was blood on my hands and I needed to hug something, like a therapy dog or potentially a social worker.
“Here’s a puppy,” the preacher said, handing me their hunting dog. She was small and soft and licked my face.
“You want the hog head?” Joe asked, hosing blood down a drain. “I got Spoon off it in time. There’s hardly a nick on either ear. We can do it up for you nice.”
“Let me get you the head as a present,” McKetta offered. “I’m proud of you.”
“Yeah, that was scary. I thought it would bother me but it didn’t.”
Joe grabbed another knife and skinned the sow so that her hide dangled inside out around her face. Then he snapped the skull from the spine and dropped the whole thing into a large brown paper bag. Blood seeped through the thin paper.
“We’ll write your name on the head bag,” he said. “That way they’ll know to call you.”
“But when I get it in the mail, how will I know if it’s the right head?”
“Who cares?” he said.
He was right. Feral hogs are a bunch of monsters, and they all deserve to die.
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