Hogzilla

By  |  March 29, 2016
"Wild Boar in Dark Woods" by Hanss pure hard. Courtesy of Getty Images. "Wild Boar in Dark Woods" by Hanss pure hard. Courtesy of Getty Images.

One does not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to have hunted.

— José Ortega y Gasset, Meditations on Hunting 

 

When I called the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department to ask about pig-hunting regulations, the lady who answered the phone said, “There aren’t any.”

“Excuse me?”

“You need a hunting license; a five-day will cost you forty-eight dollars.” 

“What’s the season?”

“Year-round.”

“What’s the bag limit?”

“Ain’t none. Shoot all you want.”

“Males? Females?”

“Take them all, big and small.”

“Wait. Have I reached the Texas Department of Wildlife?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Any restrictions on what kind of gun I can use?”

“Nope.”

“Do I have to wear orange?”

“It’s a good idea, but not required.”

“Time of day?”

“Jack them at night with a spotlight for all we care. As long as you shoot a lot of them. What you want to do is take and shoot the sow first. The piglets will stand around for a minute, and you can pick all of them off, too.”

Say what? In thirty-five years of hunting I’d never encountered an official attitude like this. In Montana, for example, where I’ve done most of my hunting, regulations were published in a thick booklet that divided the state into more than a hundred tiny hunting districts, each with its own fussy rules about species, sex, weapon, the permissibility of vehicles, day of month, time of day, and antler points. Forms had to be filled out and boxes checked. A tiny mistake could invalidate the application. Getting a deer tag was as complicated and tedious as doing taxes, but the process imparted a message: Deer were a precious resource, to be managed with care.

My hunting partners extended the ethic into the field. They taught me to stalk on tiptoe, “glass” animals through binoculars for their legal characteristics before placing a shot, and butcher with the exactitude of a surgeon so as not to waste a mouthful of meat. The hip thing to do in Montana was to rub a little tobacco on the dead animal’s fur to thank its spirit for the offering. The whole exercise was wrapped in reverence.

Reverence, though, was not the guiding principle in Texas when it came to wild pigs. The lady on the phone directed me to an online pamphlet called “The Feral Hog in Texas” that read less like a wildlife primer than a multi-count indictment in a death penalty case. It established straight off that hogs had no business running wild in Texas in the first place. They’d descended from barnyard stock that first escaped from settlers’ pens three hundred years ago. The import of Russian boars in the 1930s for hunting had seasoned the stock.

The result: as many as a million and a half feral hogs rampaging through Texas, growing as big as sofas, tearing up farmland and creek bottoms with their root-rooting snouts. They gobbled up baby lambs and caused car wrecks. They carried pseudorabies, swine brucellosis, tuberculosis, bubonic plague, tularemia, hog cholera, foot-and-mouth disease, kidney worms, stomach worms, liver flukes, trichinosis, roundworms, whipworms, dog ticks, fleas, hog lice, and anthrax. Their tusks were “razor sharp,” the pamphlet said, and their gallop as fast as “lightning.” Lest some shred of sympathy stay my hand from indiscriminate slaughter, the pamphlet threw in the lurid detail that feral sows had been known to eat their own young. 

No spirit-worshiping, tobacco-rubbing sanctimony here. By the time I finished reading about Texas feral hogs, I was drooling on my shirt and growling, “Lemme at ’em.” 

 80 F Hogzilla Baum Getty"Man Aiming Gun in Forest" by David de Lossy. Courtesy of Getty Images

Until the early ’70s, a banner hung over Lee Street in Casey Gunnels’s hometown: GREENVILLE, WELCOME. THE BLACKEST LAND, THE WHITEST PEOPLE.

“That’s how it was,” he said as he steered his car through town on the way to his grandpa’s land. Casey, a twenty-four-year-old high school Spanish teacher, was broad-shouldered, with a substantial belly he’d acquired in college and hadn’t yet gotten around to losing. He had a round face, almond-shaped eyes, and spiky black hair.

“People always ask me, ‘You Asian?’ I know there’s Indian or a Mexican back there somewhere,” he said. “That must be it.”

Casey invited me down after we met through TexasHuntingForum.com, and I figured that as we drove to his family’s hunting cabin, he’d teach me tricks for finding wild swine. Instead he wanted to talk about the Church of Christ, in which he’d been raised, and detail the rigors of a faith that took the Bible literally. No alcohol, no instrumental music in church, and no church suppers—for didn’t Paul ask in 1 Corinthians 11:22, “What? Have ye not houses to eat and drink in?”

“We’ll have whiskey at the cabin, don’t worry,” he added with a quick laugh. “I believe the Bible forbids only drunkenness. It’s full of references to wine.”

He lapsed into a pained silence—it was his opinion about alcohol that had set off a recent swivet at church, and I got the impression that one reason he’d brought me down was to process it with someone from outside—an agnostic East Coast Jew seemed to fit that bill. The civil war at church had touched off when he taught his interpretation of the alcohol question to a Sunday school class. The congregation, already divided over whether God used the terms “thee” and “thou” when addressing mere humans, had blown up over Casey’s apostasy. His parents, disgusted by the vitriol of the anti-Casey and pro-thee-and-thou factions, had decamped with half the congregation to another church, many miles away. Casey’s wife, Megan, though—whom he’d known from church since they were four years old—wanted to stay put with her parents. Sundays were excruciating. I told him the joke about the lone Jew stranded for years on an island, whose rescuers can’t understand why he’d built two synagogues.

“That’s the one I go to,” he tells them. “And that’s the one I don’t go to.” Casey laughed and laughed. “That may be the first Jewish joke I’ve ever understood,” he said, wiping his eyes.

As Casey piloted the truck through the rolling East Texas country between Greenville and Cooper, he tried to play the redneck he figured I’d expected. He told me stories about dipping snuff, driving big trucks, and shooting guns, but his heart wasn’t in it. The cantankerous intellectual in him kept rearing its head. The master’s thesis on which he was working posited that football was ruining high school education in Texas, a topic that was likely to get him tarred and feathered. At a gas stop, he took off his jacket and rolled up his sleeve to reveal a big tattoo: not all who wander are lost, from The Lord of the Rings. And he kept bringing up Dante’s Inferno, which he’d first discovered in ninth grade and devoured.

“Being a hell-bound sinner is a big concept in the Church of Christ,” he said.

Casey had fallen for guns when visiting his Uncle Charles in Amarillo as a little boy. He would disappear for hours into the attic, where he pored over fragrant and tattered back copies of the American Rifleman, Shooting Times, and Guns & Ammo. Even before he could read, he loved sitting cross-legged on the floor in his short pants, leafing through 1950s ads for Marlin rifles and Colt revolvers. Everything about the shooting world appealed to Casey long before his dad let him hold a gun. Firearms were for serious, virtuous, and technically competent adults of the type Casey wanted to be—like his dad. The men who smiled at him from the pages were rugged and wholesome. The accounts of hunting and target matches were stirring and cinematic. And the guns themselves, rendered in crisp black-and-white photos, were complex, elegant, and manly.

Dad kept a loaded five-shot .38 Smith & Wesson Chief’s Special in the house. He showed little Casey where it was—on top of the bottom pair of blue jeans on Dad’s closet shelf—and while Casey was forbidden to touch it on his own, he had only to tell Dad he wanted to look at it and Dad would stop what he was doing, unload it, and place it in Casey’s small hands. If Casey wanted to shoot it, Dad would take him out behind the barn and let him knock cans off a fence. There was no fear attached to the gun, and no taboo. It was a piece of equipment, like the cream separator or the baler, and Dad was happy to have Casey know how to work it. He drew the line, though, at letting Casey join Grandpa in the ramshackle trailer he kept as a poor man’s hunting cabin. It wasn’t the guns that bothered him; it was the thought of Casey’s young lungs cooped up in that little trailer with the thick miasma of cigarette smoke that followed Grandpa everywhere.

“Grandpa drove a truck for Safeway his whole life, and saved a little bit out of every paycheck to buy land. He had parcels all over,” Casey said as he turned off the highway onto a long dirt road. When, at age eleven, Casey was finally allowed to join his grandpa on a deer hunt, it was like being baptized all over again. They stalked the woods as the sun rose and returned to the trailer for a big breakfast of bacon, eggs, biscuits, sausage gravy, and coffee, which they ate standing outside under a cottonwood. It was Casey’s earliest lesson in what it meant to be a man in Texas: to lean your rifle against a tree at dawn and, in reverent silence, sop gravy from a tin plate with other men.

Casey received a Remington 870 shotgun for his twelfth birthday, then he was given a sporterized 1891 Argentine army Mauser that he used to kill his first white-tailed deer the following year. He waited until ninth grade, though, to buy his first handgun: a stainless-steel Smith & Wesson 686 .357 Magnum revolver. He was too young to buy it himself, but Dad was willing to do the paperwork and buy the gun with Casey’s savings—a technical violation of the “Don’t Lie for the Other Guy” rule, but hell, this was Texas, and Casey was a responsible boy. Dad imposed no rules on Casey when he handed him the revolver. He didn’t order him to lock it up or shoot it only under adult supervision. A man’s guns were his own business, Dad believed, and caring for them safely was part of what it meant to be an adult in a free country. One day, a kid announced in class that he’d captured a wild hog, and the class decided to barbecue it. Casey brought his .357 to school in his backpack the next day to dispatch the pig, and though it was only a year after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado, it didn’t occur to anybody to draw a connection. This was Greenville, Texas, after all—a million miles from places where teenagers misbehaved with guns.

Casey said he saw no contradiction between his love of guns and his love of Jesus. Portraying Jesus as a skinny little pussy was a lie, he felt; a first-century carpenter would have been a big, strong man accustomed to felling trees with an ax, splitting them with a hammer and wedge, and sawing them into boards by hand. Jesus understood the uses of violence; he’d chased the money changers from the temple with a whip, after all, and, according to the Gospel of Luke, he’d told his apostles to prepare to defend themselves. “He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” Turning the other cheek, Casey was convinced, didn’t mean letting people beat you up; it meant moving into a defense posture.

The cabin stood in a clearing at the end of a muddy driveway—one room, with a sheet-metal roof and, inside, unfinished plywood walls. Casey lent me a lever action .44 Magnum carbine that his grandpa had given him. It was no longer than my arm; it had a shockingly big bore; and its cartridges were as plump as baby carrots. He shouldered a scoped AR-15.

“I’m trying this out,” he said with a sheepish shrug. “I’m still not sure about these things.”

As we stepped outside, Casey inhaled deeply. “Smell them?” he asked, waggling his fingers in front of his nose. “Nothing else smells like that.” I smelled nothing.

The land around Grandpa’s cabin was a lovely expanse of open oak-and-hackberry forest, but the trees were laced with thorny vines that tugged at clothing, at exposed skin, and, I feared, at the exposed triggers of firearms. We hadn’t walked a hundred yards when four dark shapes sizzled through the fallen leaves to our left. My heart burst through the roof of my mouth. By the time I recovered, the monsters were gone.

Casey was in full stalk, crouched forward, gun up, urging me forward with commando hand gestures. He froze and passed me his rifle. “Use this one; they’re about sixty yards out,” he whispered. I raised the scope to my eye, but with all the foliage, I couldn’t find the pigs.

“Come on, come on, Jesus!” he whispered as I feverishly tried to place crosshairs on swine flesh. The pigs vanished with nary a rustle. As I handed back the rifle, I expected Casey to unleash that vilest of Texas insults—For Christ’s sake, you’re hunting like a middle-aged Jewish man from New Jersey!—but he was a paragon of politesse. “Not a problem, not a problem. I just want to get you one.”

The pigs may have vanished, but their handiwork was everywhere. Great swaths of forest looked stomped by giants, the earth so thoroughly churned that small trees had toppled. “They can tear up a ten-acre cornfield in a single night,” Casey said. “They’ll kill this forest if we let them. My grandmother’s hiring a guy with a helicopter next week to come shoot as many as he can. Last year, he got almost twenty.” He smiled, his round face lighting up like a little boy’s. “I imagine it would take a very long time for that to get boring.”

Casey jerked to a halt and pointed at a swishing stand of ragweed canes about fifty yards ahead. A sow and half a dozen hefty piglets emerged, sunlight glinting off their backs. “Nice blond one,” Casey whispered, taking a knee. “I’m going to count ‘one, two, three,’ and we’ll shoot on three.” But there was a tree blocking my shot, and then a tree blocking his. We waited and waited, and finally I landed my sights on a tan flank. I pulled the trigger and up went a squealing like old truck brakes. Pigs exploded in every direction. Casey leapt to his feet, ejecting brass shells into the blue sky—Bam! Bam! Bam! Bam!—as a huge, shovel-faced black sow made the fatal mistake of dashing across a clearing to Casey’s left. He followed her with his rifle and shot once. The sow shoulder-rolled beside a big oak and didn’t move again.

All God’s children got wings, but this one also had brush-bristle fur caked in mud and crawling with bugs, jagged three-inch tusks emerging from a ripply grimace of a mouth, and the aroma of a musk-and-feces milk shake.

Of the pig I’d shot, the only sign was a tablespoon of blood on crispy leaves. I began walking in outward concentric circles, searching. “They’re not like deer,” Casey said as he got down on one knee beside his pig. “They’ve got a layer of fat that seals up the wound and makes them hard to track.” I kept at it, loath to let a wounded animal get away, while Casey did something that nobody I knew would dream of doing with a dead deer. He used his dead sow to test ammunition.

Standing over her, he shot several bullets into her flank, then several more, of various types. “Nice,” I heard him say as he dug with a knife through the meat of her hip. “That cheap Russian hollow-point fragmented like I wanted her to!”

I was relieved to find my pig, a young male three feet long, about a hundred yards away, dead of a lung shot. He was proportioned like a smallmouth bass—about one-quarter head—and was as heavy as a sack of Quikrete. Casey estimated he was two months old. I’d have gutted, skinned, and hauled him out, but Casey said not to bother. “If you want meat,” he said, “just take the backstraps.”

I opened the piglet’s hide like a valise and sliced out the backstraps—the tender fillets that run along the spine. I didn’t enjoy the feeling. Where I came from, a carcass stripped only of backstraps was the work of a poacher. 

 

All 1.5 million of Texas’s pigs lived within a mile radius of us, it seemed. As I packed up the fillet meat in a Ziploc bag, another clan came crashing out of the brush in a long line. Accustomed to quiet stalking and single-shot placement, I was amazed to see Casey take off after them at full tilt, firing into the underbrush as he ran. I caught up with him as, panting, he drew his pistol on a writhing pig. “I’m wasted on cross-country!” he laughed, quoting Gimli from The Lord of the Rings. “We dwarves are natural sprinters, very dangerous over short distances!” He leaned over and casually shot the pig between the ears.

I looked back as we walked away. The pig lay on its belly, looking comfortably asleep. Leaving a dead animal unprocessed: again, a strange feeling. We ran into another hog family down by the creek, and Casey killed two more before I could even raise my carbine to my cheek.

For about ten minutes, I stalked a deep rustling in the brush, until a foot-long armadillo came waddling out, laughing at me. Then a big sow materialized from nowhere and, for once quicker on the drop than Casey, I took a shot and seemed to hit her; after some squealing and scuffling in the scrub, a deep moaning echoed through the woods. It was late now; the sun filtering through the oaks made long, spooky shadows. I couldn’t place the direction of the moaning, and as I crisscrossed the area, it stopped. Casey called to me to come on—there was one more spot he wanted to try before we lost the light.

My every impulse was to keep searching, with a flashlight if necessary. The worst thing a hunter could do, according to the ethic I’d learned, was lose a wounded animal: It was cruel, it wasted meat, and it messed up game management, because no tag went on the kill. But, good Sunday school teacher that he was, Casey explained patiently and repeatedly: “That’s not what we’re about here.” To reinforce his point, he pulled me from the woods into a pasture thoroughly bulldozed by hogs. If it had been my pasture, I’d have wanted the hogs dead, too.

“It’s primal; we like to kill things,” Casey said of our species as we headed back to his cabin in the gloom. “You got to be careful how you say it, but it’s true. It doesn’t make us sick. It’s just the way we are. The reason I like pig hunting is, I get to kill a lot of pigs. It’s the distilled essence of the thing. If you told someone you went out and killed seven deer and let them lie there, they’d put you in jail. You tell them you killed and let lie seven pigs, they’re like, Badass!

My mistake may have been to think of Texas pig hunting on the same spectrum as Montana deer hunting. All of the outward elements were there—tramping the woods with a gun, figuring out the nature of the quarry, reading sign, and of course the shooting and the blood. I’d started hunting because of the gun, but I realized with Casey that my reasons for loving the hunt had changed. For me, the shooting and the killing were no longer, as Casey would say, “the distilled essence of the thing.” I still loved being in the woods with a rifle in my hands. But for me, hunting was more about the unworldly relationship with one special animal that gives himself over in return for the care you’ve taken to understand him and his habitat. Then his flesh becomes your flesh, sealing the bond.

At the same time, though, I couldn’t find anything wrongheaded or immoral about the way Casey hunted pigs. Through carelessness, people had created the problem of the feral hog, and now it was up to people to ameliorate it. To focus on the cruelty of shooting individual pigs, when we were ruining habitat and causing extinctions from the Arctic to the Great Barrier Reef, seemed a little silly. And a state dependent on agriculture couldn’t afford an overpopulation of flesh-and-blood bulldozers. Somebody had to kill them, and it made more sense to let sportsmen pay and enjoy it than to spend public dollars to have rangers cull the herd, as Rocky Mountain National Park had done recently to manage an oversupply of elk (to the outrage of Colorado hunters). The pity in Texas was that tons of useful protein—local, free-range, organic, lean pork—rotted in the woods because a raft of laws banned the selling of wild meat.

Gunning down Texas pigs with Casey was, in the end, a gas—the greatest moving-target shooting I’d ever done, even if it wasn’t, for me, hunting. It was more like football—our team against theirs, with a score posted at day’s end.

We walked on, doubling back past the spot where I’d lost my sow. A sinister rustling came from our right, and a dozen buzzards rose heavily into the treetops like a panel of black-robed judges. “They found your pig,” Casey said. “You can stop worrying about it now."


Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.

Dan Baum is the author of Gun Guys: A Road Trip (Knopf, 2013); Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans (Spiegel & Grau, 2009); Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure (Little, Brown 1996); and Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty (Morrow/HarperCollins, 2000). Once a staff writer for the New Yorker, his work can be found in Rolling Stone, Playboy, the New York Times Magazine and elsewhere.