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‘We’re not gonna barbecue our way out of this’: Wild pigs, conquering all Florida counties, are now taking over the U.S.

A feral pig in the middle of grass
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
States like Florida and Texas have long borne the brunt of the pig problem and struggled to manage it as the situation grows more dire nationally. Officials have incentivized hunters by instituting few restrictions, and people have followed, whether it be by helicopter, drone, machine gun, or any combination of the three, all year long. But some people, including hunters themselves, question whether the approach is overkill.

States like Florida and Texas have long borne the brunt of the pig problem and struggled to manage it as the situation grows more dire nationally. Officials have incentivized hunters by instituting few restrictions. But some people, including hunters themselves, question whether the approach is overkill.

David Prendergast loved gardening at his home in the small Miramar development that borders the Everglades. Then he woke up one morning in early May to discover his grass destroyed and his plants devoured.

A family of wild hogs had visited his home, as they had those of other residents over the last several days, leaving lawns in various states of disarray and creating a sense of panic throughout the neighborhood, though Prendergast empathized with the animals.

“I guess they’re hungry,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Friday, a couple weeks after the scare had subsided. “And they’re displaced based on the development that’s going on in our area.”

Wild hogs, an invasive species first brought to Florida by Spanish settlers in the 1500s, have now appeared in at least 35 states as their numbers continue to grow at a rapid pace, leading officials to warn of a devastating population explosion called the “feral swine bomb.”

Country map shows feral swine populations in 1982
Country map shows feral swine populations in 2023
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Two maps show how feral hogs have spread across the U.S. over the last several decades.

The biggest threat the pigs pose is to agriculture, rolling around in the dirt to cool off, rooting for food and eating crops, their favorite of which is corn. Still other dangers loom on the horizon: across the ocean, wild pigs carry a deadly disease that could decimate the U.S. pork industry. Meanwhile, growing numbers of pigs combined with increasing development over once-wild lands means greater potential for ruined gardens and rare, but possible, attacks on humans.

“Unfortunately the only solution we have right now is lethal removal,” said Dr. John Mayer, a research scientist and manager at the Savannah River National Laboratory in South Carolina who has been studying wild pigs for over 40 years. “A lot of people don’t believe there’s such thing as a pig-proof fence.”

States like Florida and Texas have long borne the brunt of the feral hog problem and struggled to manage it as the situation grows more dire nationally. Officials have incentivized hunters by instituting few restrictions, and people have followed, by helicopter, drone, machine gun, and various combinations of the three, all year long. Yet some, including hunters themselves, question whether the approach is overkill, especially in areas where the animals are a vital food source.

“Agencies have created this scenario where they want to eliminate the wild hog,” said Bishop Wright Jr., a longtime hunter based in West Palm Beach. “It’s not managed to keep the hog, it’s managed to eliminate the wild hog and eradicate it.”

‘Praying to God’

Craig Greene rarely feared for his life when he trapped wild pigs, at least until a day in 2008 when he was sure he was going to get eaten alive.

The longtime animal trapper was baiting a trap in a cow field in the middle of rural DeSoto County. But when he opened his sour corn, the pigs ran out of the woods, taking him off guard. He had no choice but to crawl into his own trap, which was about 3 feet tall. Greene is 6-foot-2.

The cowboys had already moved through that day and Greene had told everyone else not to go out there. No one was coming to save him.

Two pigs in a cage
Craig Greene
Wild pigs caught in one of Craig Greene’s traps.

“I’m on my hands and knees, praying to God,” he told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “I didn’t have a pocket knife or nothing to protect myself.”

Eventually, after what felt like several hours, the hogs wandered off and Greene made it home alive, though as he walked, he couldn’t be too sure they weren’t just waiting in the trees for the right moment to pounce.

“I know when they kill you, they’ll eat you while you’re screaming,” he said. “I’d rather get eaten by an alligator.”

Though rare, wild pig attacks outnumber all species of shark attack combined. Still, the potential for dangerous interactions goes up as the pig population grows and humans develop lands where the hogs once roamed free.

“They’ve been here for 200 years and now everywhere they go they’re getting pushed out,” Greene said. “They’re doing so much major construction. So now pigs are showing up in people’s yards because the gated development is butted right up against a preserve.”

Hogs love acorns, so anyone who builds a house around an oak tree can expect a visit, he added. They often aren’t scared of people.

“I’ve had phone calls like, ‘Oh my God, I’m in my car right now, this pig is slamming his head up against my truck,'” Greene said. “‘Come help me.'”

One time, the police called him because a pig was on the loose in a hotel parking lot, banging itself into cars.

Recent hog sightings have worried residents across Florida, where the pigs now exist in all 67 counties. Sarasota County, where Greene lives, has some of the biggest problems, he said, along with Charlotte and Arcadia. The pigs prefer the inland areas in the middle of the state, from Clewiston to the sugar cane fields in Belle Glade.

“There are a number of factors that contribute to wild hog reports from the public,” an FWC spokesperson said in a text. “Seasonal food availability/mast production, year-round reproduction, and increased human population in Florida resulting in more people living in areas near ranging wild hogs are large contributors to wild hog observations and/or observed evidence of wild hog damage.”

In Flagler County, marauding wild pigs became so widespread earlier this year that officials created a feral hog dashboard for sightings, according to the Daytona News-Journal.

“This quality of life has been severely dampened by the chronic anxiety, fear, anger and exasperation felt by our residents,” Nancy Crouch, a resident of the Grand Haven development in Flagler County, said during a county workshop. “… I don’t want to be in the news for, you know, not doing anything about feral hogs that are attacking humans.”

Night view shows pigs gathered
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Feral hogs captured in the night.

Drones, helicopters, and automatic rifles spell danger for pigs

Still, when it’s a matter of life or death, humans pose a far greater threat to pigs than hogs could ever pose to humans.

In Texas, people can sign up to shoot the pigs with automatic rifles from moving helicopters. In Mississippi, legislators have proposed a bill this year that would allow the use of drones to hunt hogs. In Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission requires no license to hunt them. There is no off-season, and most places do not have bag or size limits. Killing hogs has long been a rite of passage for young hunters in the area, as they are plentiful and make for easy, accessible prey.

In recent years, the Internet brought even more popularity to the sport: Videos of people spraying hogs with bullets from helicopters or taking them out with military-grade snipers have garnered millions of views on YouTube. Last week, a popular streamer named “Tfue” was lambasted online for livestreaming himself hunting pigs in Florida. In the video, a pig, squealing in pain, can be seen running away after he shoots it multiple times.

“I feel bad,” Tfue says, then laughs. “You want to spear him dude? I don’t want him to suffer.”

Later, to defend himself, the streamer posted on X a list of problems the hogs pose to Florida.

A hunter himself, Wright Jr. worries that killings pigs indiscriminately, along with the rise of predators like the Burmese python, could upset the natural balance in places like South Florida’s Everglades where they are a vital part of the food chain. He wishes wildlife officials could find a way to redistribute the hogs to areas where they have been overhunted.

“When I was a kid, hogs were everywhere down South Florida way,” said Wright Jr. “The panthers and the snakes have pretty much decimated the hog population. Not that the panthers or the snakes have a bag limit or a size limit.”

He added, “there’s hardly any hogs due to all three predators, man being one of them.”

Even though hunting is popular, Mayer says trapping and euthanizing is the most effective approach when it comes to actually reducing the number of pigs.

“Hunting doesn’t take enough of these animals in any given year to keep populations low,” he said. “These things just crank out too many little feet every year for hunting to be effective.”

The extent to which hunting has reduced wild pig populations in Florida is unclear. An FWC spokesperson did not respond to questions about their numbers and if they have gotten too low in certain areas.

Snapshots of pigs in cages
Craig Greene
Trapping wild hogs is considered the most effective way of reducing their numbers.

The damage to the economy both in Florida and nationwide is real. Farmers have enlisted Greene to remove pigs from orange groves, where they knock over trees or eat the saplings. Nationally, wild hogs are estimated to cause $1.5 billion in economic damages per year, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. And while some areas may benefit from a hog or two, research has shown that they have overwhelmingly destroyed Florida ecosystems and habitats while competing with native species.

Meanwhile, a disease the wild pigs spread called African Swine Fever has wrought havoc in Asia over the last few years and could devastate the U.Ss pork industry if it ever crossed the ocean.

“It’s the ultimate kiss of death for pigs,” said Mayer. “If it ever got into this country the way it spread through Eurasia, it would be the death knell of U.S. pork industry. You wouldn’t be able to buy bacon anymore.”

Scientists are working on less violent solutions, like oral contraceptives, but “they haven’t really cracked that nut yet,” Mayer said, because they don’t know how that might affect the predators who eat the pigs.

Wild hog cuisine has also become more desirable, at least for some people. Greene has clients in Miami who buy his pigs to cook around Christmas or Thanksgiving, sometimes 50 at a time.

“There are a lot more wild boar dishes in restaurants now,” said Mayer. “But we’re not gonna barbecue our way out of this.”

A true pig-proof fence may not exist, but a reinforced fence has brought peace to Prendergast’s Miramar neighborhood, at least for now. Word is that the hogs, who he thinks are a mother, father and child, have wandered off to terrorize nearby communities.

Prendergast is an animal lover who spends his spare time watching the birds on the lake across from his house. He wishes there were 2 acres of wild land for every 1 acre of developed land. He doesn’t have too much ill will towards the pigs. But he’s glad they’re gone.

“Those guys, they can do damage, I’ll tell you that,” Prendergast said. “They can do damage.”

This story was produced in partnership with the Florida Climate Reporting Network, a multi-newsroom initiative formed to cover the impacts of climate change in the state.