Legacy of The Hell-Ape

A few years ago I bought a small farm about 3 miles down the road from our family place in the pine-studded Georgia Coastal Plain near the Flint River. It was rare for a farm in our area to come up for sale and so since I wasn’t getting any younger, I made the leap of faith that has brought many a man to ruin.

               The farm is nestled down a dirt road that makes a big loop and is bisected by another dirt road running perpendicular. The farm’s 84 acres were, at the time, composed of around 40 acres of dryland row-crop fields and 44 wild acres consisting of cutover timber and a couple stands of CRP loblolly pine trees.

               The previous owner had done a masterful job of setting the place up as a haven for wildlife and with an eye for beauty to boot. Sawtooth oaks with their glossy, serrated leaves and early-maturing bristly-capped acorns nearly the size of a ping pong ball were planted all along the edge of the property’s road frontage. These were interspersed with Formosa azaleas, blooming pinkish-purple in the bright spring sun.

The row crop fields were split into three small fields of 15,15, and 10 acres each in size. In this manner, the farm resembled the farms of years gone by. The small fields created lots of edge on the property. Bicolor lespedeza grows here too. As a result of the rare combination of cover and food, bobwhite quail are regularly seen on the place. Such small fields and their preponderance of brushy fencerows have all but disappeared from our area.

In my grandfather’s time, bobwhite quail were so common here that men often took their bird dogs for a walk to find two or three coveys in the evenings before supper. Farmers now feel pressured to grow for scale, which leads them to enlarge their fields, removing the wooded heads and fencerows where quail took shelter to make way for larger fields with no impediments. Fields which can handle large equipment and over which irrigation pivots can pass. The fields became more efficient and the quail scattered to the winds to hide in deep cover.

Trophy whitetail deer are abundant on the place because it serves as a natural funnel between the wide-open neighboring fields to the East and the 300 acres of timber and cypress swamp, known locally as the Mile Pond, to the West. Rabbits scamper from brush and tall grass benefitting from the same edge and brush that the quail enjoy. Raptors, owls, blue grosbeak, brown headed nuthatches, kites, herons, towhees, sandhill cranes, brown thrashers, hermit thrushes, and warblers of all colors call the diversity of habitats found on the place home for all or part of the year.

This old relic of a place is full of the land’s bounty in the form of wild plum trees, wild muscadine vines, and planted pear trees, blossoming white in the spring. The wooded areas offer both the dense cover of the cutover land and the relatively open timber of the planted pines. Unfortunately, all this habitat combined with that of my neighbors is attractive to another form of wildlife which is not so welcome.

During the winter after I bought the place, I filled one of the 15 acre fields with pecan trees , converting it from an annual row-crop field to an orchard. I dug a well and irrigated the trees with a network of buried PVC tubing and microsprinklers placed at each tree for efficiency. A crimson blanket of blooming clover spreads over the grass between the tree rows each spring and there is a long strip of wildflowers planted on the West side of the orchard, which erupts in an edible rainbow for summer butterflies of all sorts—swallowtails, viceroys, heliconids, skippers, and buckeyes, all feasting on the blooms. Over the first three years, the trees grew well. Several trees even began producing a meager crop of nuts.

While mowing the orchard one day I noticed the dirt had been disturbed around about 1/3 of the trees on the east side of the orchard. Some of the ¾” irrigation lines were rooted up and exposed. The smaller tubing lines were detached or broken and the stakes knocked down or buried. The tractor rocked and beat me around the cab as I bounced over an open sore of rooted-up grass the size of a pickup truck bed between the tree rows. Trees at the ends of the rows had wallows around them where some creature had rooted and molded the soil to suit their forms so that they could lay in the cool, damp earth. I had been invaded.

Wild hogs and their sign were common on the far West side of the property where the rough cutover land lay adjacent to the Mile Pond. During deer season I thinned their herd. But no matter how many hogs one removes, they just keep coming. Like overgrown roaches. Wild hogs have the highest reproductive rate of any ungulate. Females average 1.5 litter per year, with as many as 12-14 piglets per litter. The females from those litters can reproduce by the time they reach one year of age. Their population growth can be exponential. Now, the year’s frequent rainfall had pushed them out into the fields and orchard. It had only been a matter of time.

Over 20 million years ago North America was home to giant pig-like creatures known as Entelodonts. With enormous heads measuring 40% of the width of their body length, entelodonts weighed in at 2000 lbs. If you transpose the destruction wrought by current day wild hogs onto the magnified potential of entelodonts, its not hard to understand why they are affectionally known among paleontologists as Hell-Pigs.

Since Hell-Pigs went extinct some 15-20 million years ago, the peccary or javelina, inhabiting the Southwestern deserts of North America, became the lone pig-like mammal native to the New World. They differ from domesticated pigs and wild hogs in subtle ways. Peccaries have smaller ears, non-visible tails, 38 teeth as opposed to the 44 found in pigs, and only three toes on their hind feet compared to the pig’s four.

One of the original products of the Columbian Exchange, the wild or feral hogs which course through our country are derived from a blurry complex of domestic swine and Eurasian wild boar. When Christopher Columbus made his second voyage to the new world in 1493, he deposited eight domestic pigs onto the islands of Cuba, Hispaniola, and Jamaica. As Spanish explorers ventured out further onto the North American mainland in the early 1500s, they carried with them the offspring of these pigs, which became the first swine to set their ungulated toes upon this soil in nearly 20 million years.

The first official documented introduction of hogs to the now continental U.S. occurred via the expedition of Hernando DeSoto. From 1539-1543 DeSoto traversed much of the region that would become the southeastern United States with a force of over 600 men in a seemingly perpetual search for riches. He traveled nearly 4000 miles on a route which today would cover 14 states. At one point, DeSoto’s swine herd outnumbered his men at 700 pigs. Many of the pigs escaped into the wilderness of the new land or where stolen by or traded to the Native Americans the expedition encountered. DeSoto’s escaped hogs and those of later expeditions reverted to their wild state and established populations in the dark swamps and deep forests of the south.

Early European settlers later kept hogs as a major part of their free-ranging stock in the new world. The animals were smart and well suited to a life of foraging the woods for much of the year in search of acorns, roots, grubs, and whatever else nature provided. Inevitably, many of these domestic swine answered the call of the wild as well and feral hogs established populations throughout the Eastern and Southwestern United States. The very traits which made them so suited to a free-range, semi-domestic existence are the same ones which, today, make them so hard to eliminate. They are survivors.

The swine we brought to this continent played no small role in the rapid decline of the Native American population which soon followed the first European boot print on North American soil. Old world Europeans had lived in close proximity to pigs and other domesticated animals for centuries and had been exposed to animal infections which jumped species and developed strains which could prove deadly to humans. At one time these diseases ravaged European populations too. The survivors passed on their immunity to later generations and the deadliness of these nightmarish diseases largely faded from the old world landscape. Native Americans had not had the opportunity to develop this immunity. Swine influenza is believed to be one of the many diseases that contributed to the 90% reduction of the North American population between 1492-1650.

Domestic pigs are descended from a beast known as the Eurasian boar through the long process of domestication thought to have occurred in eastern Turkey and at multiple locations across Asia, India, Europe, and Africa as long as about 9000 years ago. Eurasian wild boar have bristly black or brown coats which fade to grey with age, a coarse mane of hair along the ridgeline of their backs, erect ears alert for the sound of intruders in the brush, a long snout adorned with razor-sharp tusks, and a long, straight, tufted tail.

While the Eurasian boar and the domestic pig are considered the same species, many of the boar’s wild and aggressive features were toned down over the last 9000 years in the resulting domestic pig. Human beings tried selecting for traits in their breeding stock which made them easier to handle and process. They became more docile, less hairy, more compact, and less lean. However, the swine have refused to be fully tamed. Genetic studies indicate domestic stock and wild boar continued to inter-breed and cross-breed often over the 9000 years we have associated with them.

Eurasian boar were first introduced to the US from the Black Forest of Germany when a man named Austin Corbin brought them to Sullivan County, New Hampshire in the 1890s as a game animal for the wealthy to hunt in their mimicry of European aristocrats. Subsequent introductions took place shortly thereafter in New York and North Carolina. These introductions tended to occur on game farms but the boar soon proved too strong or cunning for the fences intended to hold them.

As European boar escaped their enclosures they mingled and bred with feral hogs already loose upon the landscape. Until the late 1980s feral hogs were largely confined to the southern states and states on the West Coast. Since then, thanks to human facilitation, feral hog populations have spread to at least 35 states within the U.S.

When I was a boy my father went on a hunting trip into the deep wilds of the Southeast Georgia swamplands along the Alapaha River. A part of the world where the ground squishes under your feet and the tyty bushes, bay trees and loblolly pines seem to be sinking into the earth below the road grade. What little high ground there is, remains largely sandy, acidic, and sterile. He returned with a black hog armed with tusks that curled out of its mouth like a ram’s horn.

It was a mysterious beast. One with which we weren’t familiar. My father had a taxidermist mount the head and my mother had him take the menacing creature to work and hang it in his shop. I remember its artificial tongue—hard, wavy, pink, and glistening with some sort of lacquer as though it could drip a gob of slobbering saliva from its open mouth at any moment. I reached my hand in to touch it, careful of the ivory sabers between which it laid. The peril of those knife-edged fangs and the devious snarl frozen on the hog’s face impressed upon me the harm these beasts represented. Surely this was the Hell-Pig.

Now, in the orchard, the turned-up dirt around my trees looks like the work of a harrow disk but it was formed by the hogs’ nearly prehensile snout, heavily sensitized and enervated to locate food buried in the ground. Roots, seeds, nuts, insects, fungi, small animals of all kinds, plants. They will eat almost anything they can root from the sodden earth.

Wallowing is a multi-purpose task designed around the goal of making the world a better place for hogs. Since pigs lack functional sweat glands and are nearly incapable of panting, they must wallow in mud and water to cool their body temperature. The evaporation of cool water through the mud coat occurs more slowly and lasts longer than a simple dip in the creek. This mud-lathering acts as a portable air conditioning unit for the hogs. They scrape the dried mud from their bodies against my trees’ trunks to remove parasites—lice and ticks. As they wallow in the mud they are constantly marking their territory via scent glands around their eyes, mouth, legs, and flanks.

Wallowing is a form of ecosystem engineering. Lots of animals modify their environment to suit their needs. Beavers do it. Woodpeckers do it. So do gophers, tortoises, earthworms, ants, and elephants. But, none is quite so frightfully good at it as our own kind. Bruce D. Smith, a Smithsonian anthropologist calls us the “Ultimate Ecosystem Engineers”.

We humans make our own wallows. Over the 200-300 thousand years or so since Homo sapiens came on the scene we’ve used fire, shovels, hoes, axes, saws, wells, pumps, plows, fencing, combustible engines, plants, animals, silicon chips, satellites, nuclear fission, plastic, concrete, guns, germs, and steel, among other things to manipulate the world to our own liking. Much like a roving pack of hogs, we have fouled the earth with our living.

But, that’s what all animals do in one way or another. No animal lives without doing so at the expense of another living thing. We, like hogs, just happen to be exceptionally good at it. The problems are that we do it at such a large scale and with so little care for the consequences of doing it in such great numbers.

There is hardly anywhere on earth we haven’t left our mark. It seems to me that the hogs don’t know their place when they invade my orchard. Lord knows they don’t care. They’ll use it until I lose patience with them and run them out our until they find someplace better. Perhaps we don’t know our own place in this world anymore either or perhaps we simply refuse to live within the limits we’ve been given. We have always pushed the bounds. I guess that’s part of what makes us human. Climate change, COVID, wildfires, drought, pollution, loss of biodiversity, famine, war. It seems to me these are the warnings that nature is losing patience. But, unlike a pack of wild hogs, we have nowhere left to go.

Feral hogs and those of us with the old world buried deep within our bloodlines have traveled parallel arcs on this continent. We arrived here together and we are alike in the messy ways in which we make our respective places in the world. When I come upon their damage in the orchard that old anger burns inside me. But I recognize something familiar in their careless ways.

I’ll continue to shoot a few hogs when need arises as their vandalism becomes too much to bear. Still, the hogs will remain. They are too much like us to do otherwise. They are too prolific. Too proficient. Too persistent. We’ll find a way to make this work. They’ll stay largely in the wilder places too thick and wet and rough for human use. I’ll go there at times. There will be times when they come to the orchard. There will be give and take. But we will find our places.

When those collisions do arise and I find a hog in the crosshairs of my scope there will be a voice in my ear whispering that we are not that different, these hogs and I. A voice reminding me that in too many ways, the difference between us is that we humans know the harm we cause and yet we do it anyway. Perhaps in this truth, describing our own kind as the Hell-Ape is not too far off the mark.

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