July 31, 2018

Hog Heaven To Hell

'400-pound rats' leave courses wallowing in devastation
Wild boars on golf course
Illustration by Tavis Coburn

The pigs attacked at midnight.

Entranced by the delicious mingled aroma of pecans on the ground and beetle larvae (grubs) beneath it, and sensing no danger from their chief predator (men with guns), a score or so of feral hogs trotted on comically short legs out of the Trinity River bottom and onto lush, delicious Waterchase Golf Club in Fort Worth. The hungry porkers plunged their spade-like snouts into the soft turf; they can go three feet deep if the digging is good. Within moments, a swath of green had been ripped to pieces, as if by a drunk with a rototiller. When the pigs wallow, it's even worse.

Waterchase superintendent Hud Haas, a frequent victim of the nocturnal army, struck back. He filled a five-gallon plastic bucket almost to the brim with corn, then poured in a pint or so of milk, and then a 40-ounce bottle of Olde English 800, a high-alcohol beer. Haas allowed the ghastly mixture to ferment in the maintenance barn for a few days, then he spread it on the floor of his three-by-15-foot trap. One lucky night the super's trap filled up like a Tokyo subway car, with 10 anxious oinkers, but much more often, the cautious pigs take a whiff and take a pass; prey who observe the capture of fellow pigs seldom make the same mistake.

Turns out that Sus scrofa are in the top four in animal intelligence, up there with chimps, dolphins and elephants. Feral hogs scrape up against telephone poles because, it is thought, they're trying to transfer insect-repelling creosote onto their hides. They don't see well, but they can smell odors seven miles away and 25 feet underground.

Haas has worked at Waterchase for 20 years.

He has trapped hundreds of hogs, and he's shot more than a few, but he sounds discouraged. "I guess they've destroyed four or five acres of my course in total. Thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars of damage. It's Mother Nature at her worst. I've got to deal with it. But it gets old. Real old."

And it's getting really expensive. As many as eight million wild pigs in America do $1 billion to $2 billion in damage a year to farms, lawns, cemeteries and golf courses. One Dallas-area club spent more than $500,000 on hog defense and repair in 2017. Feral hogs haunt the night in 40 of our 50 states and are a particular problem in Florida, Oklahoma, California and, most of all, in Texas.

Half a world away, a well-known golf club in Hong Kong admitted it has a pig problem but didn't want to acknowledge it for this article. Says John Walker, the South Central representative of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America: "I could give you the names of 100 superintendents having trouble with hogs."

THERE’S AN OLD SAYING: “IF A PIG HAS A DOZEN PIGLETS, 13 SURVIVE.”

Ron Wright, the GCSAA Southeast rep, says the situation is far less dire in his region, but he has seen some damage. "I don't know if they're smart or just very adaptive," he says. "They're crafty critters. They eat everything. But to me they're nothing but 400-pound rats."

Four-hundred pounders roam the land, for sure, although most of the adult pigs in a sounder—the collective noun—weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. (The Internet provides photographic evidence of an Alabama boar as big as a Chrysler Town & Country.) But do they really resemble rats? Well, feral hogs do not put you in mind of a porcelain Porky Pig piggy bank or of Wilbur, the radiantly pink pig in Charlotte's Web. They're not cute: No one knows how many calves and lambs they devour each year—because they eat every molecule of the newborns. They befoul water and destroy habitat. They're not supposed to be aggressive, but when a 132-pound boar wandered out of a park and onto a city street—last year, again, in Hong Kong—he put two humans in the hospital and the rescue van in the body shop.

What with their terrifying tusks and bristle-brush hair, and the brucellosis, trichinosis and other osis-es they can carry, the rat reference doesn't seem so far off.

Pigs were introduced to North America by European explorers 500 years ago—a nation of bacon mavens thanks you, Hernando de Soto—but things went south when Eurasian wild boars were brought here in the 1930s for hunting purposes. The new pigs bred with free-range or escaped domestic pigs, creating a hybrid that is amazingly prolific and amounts to an invasive foreign species, like kudzu or zebra mussels. Feral hogs are the fastest breeding large mammal on earth. Eat, breed, repeat. ... Eat, breed, repeat. ... A single sow can re-create herself 24 times by the time she's 2 years old, and the babies are as durable as little footballs. "If a pig has a dozen piglets," they say, "13 survive."

THE BIG DIG: The author surveys the aftermath of a hog attack at a golf facility bordering a branch of the Trinity River.

VICTIMS STRAIN TO ADAPT
During the floods in Houston last August, wild pigs rose out of the overflowing streams and bayous like a bad dream. They've dined at—or on—many nice area country clubs, including BlackHorse, Shadow Hawk, Willow Fork and the Golf Club of Houston, which has hosted the PGA Tour's Houston Open.

During dry conditions, any irrigated ground becomes a buffet, and golf courses lose again. As Superintendent Haas said, the big pig problem has gotten very old. Eradication is impossible. Containment is barely working. Bullets, fences and traps have hardly made a dent. Poisoning and edible contraceptives, with their uncertain effects on the food chain, are truly bad ideas.

In Texas, and in spots throughout the South, one can see the coming aporkalypse. But if swine can adapt, so can we. Guided hunting companies are proliferating (check out Hogswat.com). Ben Wheeler, a little town in northeast Texas, stages an annual Fall Feral Hog Festival. There's a hog cook-off, a hog call-off, a parade and I hope never a Miss Pig competition. In Texas, the hog-hunting season is 365 days a year, thermal imaging and night-vision goggles are perfectly fine, and it's legal to use a machine gun—or a chopper. Type Helibacon.com into your search engine.

On a brightly lit day last October, at a fancy new club in north Texas, golfers on the first and ninth fairways stood open-mouthed as three pigs played through. Two were black, one was a sporty black and white. The normally nocturnal animals cantered across the greensward and into the thick woods on the perimeter. They didn't look like they were in any big hurry.


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