Feral pigs are violent, dirty, and ugly, and they ravage every ecosystem they live in—still, who knew killing them could be such fun?
Year of the Pig
by Mark J. Hainds
University of Alabama Press, 248 pp.
There comes a point in every man’s life when he realizes he hasn’t spent enough time killing feral pigs. For Mark Hainds, that point was 2007—the Year of the Pig, in the Chinese calendar—when he decided that too many pigs had been alive for too long, and that the only reasonable solution was to raid his retirement account and spend a year traveling the country, killing pigs in as many states as possible.
Year of the Pig, recently published by the University of Alabama Press, is Hainds’s account of his monomaniacal quest. In it, Hainds takes the reader through his year of hunts—across eleven different states, from Hawaii to Florida; alone and with company; using KA-BAR knives, black-powder rifles, compound bows, and various other weapons. It is the best book on killing feral pigs you’ll read all year.
Feral pigs have been devastating the American landscape since they were first introduced to this continent by European explorers in the 1500s. Some people call them razorbacks, or wild hogs—and, like the John Travolta movie of the same name, you will have trouble finding anyone with a good word to say about them. They ravage every ecosystem into which they’re introduced. They can grow to 500 pounds. They reproduce rapidly, and can begin breeding when they’re only eight months old. They’re violent and dirty and ugly and omnivorous—and they are everywhere. Writes Hainds,
Excepting city dwellers in the North who never visit the Midwest or South, virtually everyone in America lives or vacations in or near wild hog habitat. You may not have seen them. You may not have recognized the signs, sounds, or smells that identify them, but they were there, lurking in the shadows.
If they stayed in the shadows, there would be no problem. But they inevitably come out—tramping indelicately through woodlands and rooting through soil in search of food; destroying crops, polluting wetlands, imperiling forests, and spreading disease; endangering other species by ravaging their traditional food supplies. They are the animal kingdom’s scorched-earth policy.
It is the hunter’s role to fight back, and Hainds embraces this role with an assassin’s eye and an apostle’s zeal. Throughout the book, he hunts and kills pigs with extreme prejudice, stripping their skulls and boiling them clean so they can later be displayed as trophies. After he beheads them, he eats them. (“There are no known diseases that can be contracted from eating well-cooked pork, and wild pigs are delicious!”)
To be clear, for Hainds killing pigs is primarily a matter of sport and relaxation. “My professional life is oriented around science,” Hainds writes. “My personal life, at least in recent years, has been oriented around pig hunting.” Whether firing on fleeing hogs with a black-powder rifle in Mississippi, stalking pigs in the dark of night in Arkansas, or gutting a decapitated boar in Louisiana’s Bayou Cocodrie, Hainds makes very clear his belief that a weekend hunting pigs is a weekend well spent.
But it’s also a matter of conservation. Feral pigs give resource managers fits because they’re so hard to control—they have few natural predators, and they easily break through fences and other enclosures. Game hunters are often the last line of defense. (The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, for instance, deems feral pigs “unprotected wild animals with no closed season or harvest limit” and “promotes aggressive removal anywhere feral pigs are reported.”) Hainds is a forestry researcher at Auburn University, and, from the looks of it, a very sincere one. (The book is dedicated to the longleaf pine and wiliwili forests.) His clear, precise descriptions of the different forests in which he hunts illuminate the variety of ecosystems under attack by wild pigs—and he makes a strong case that responsible pig hunting is a relevant and vital form of pest control in these endangered ecosystems.
“Responsible” is the operative word here. Though Hainds is unrelenting in his deadly pursuit of America’s wild pigs, he is not a maniac, nor is he sloppy, and he has little good to say about those who are. He grows frustrated with a hunting guide who brags of indiscriminately killing snakes without first stopping to see if they’re poisonous. He chides those careless hunters who, after shooting pigs, leave their carcasses to rot on the trail. And he is embarrassed when, in order to meet his pig-a-month quota, he has to resort to bow hunting in a stocked pig stand that advertises a 95 percent success rate. (Much of the recent rise in the wild pig population can be traced back to the popularity of cannedhunt purveyors of that sort.) Many urbanites tend to stereotype all outdoorsmen as trigger-happy rednecks. With his moderate, reasonable approach to pig hunting, Hainds provides some welcome nuance to that depiction.
There isn’t much nuance to his writing, though. Hainds can be a droll narrator at times, well aware of the ludicrous aspects of his pursuit, and he occasionally turns a memorable phrase, as in his description of hunting with Hard-Luck Jimmy, “the single unluckiest hog hunter in the history of modern-day hunter-gatherers carrying high-powered rifles.” That said, the book is generally more tedious than any book about pig killing has a right to be. While Hainds ably communicates the joy he takes from game hunting, he does a so-so job of getting the reader interested in the journey. To a certain extent, if you’ve read about one hog hunt, you’ve read about them all, and it would take a keen, focused narrator to provide the color and description necessary to tell one from another. Hainds is not that narrator.
Hainds mentions that he has spent the better part of a decade collecting material for a book called A Field Guide to the Birds, Fish, and Crabs of Pensacola Bay and Surrounding Waters. A similarly comprehensive approach works to his detriment here. There is too much bland dialogue from hunting buddies (“Near the middle of the brake, John froze and motioned to stop. He whispered, ‘Pigs!’ ”), few of whom display any real personality. And too much attention is paid to the mechanics of each hunt—how it was planned, where he stayed when he got there, what time he had to wake up on the day of the hunt. An editor should have cut all this superfluous information. The interesting theme here is man vs. pig.
When he hits that theme, the book is excellent. In those segments, Hainds comes across as something of a rural American Ahab, ready to endure endless privations in the pursuit of his quest:
Scratched from head to toe, buried in a yaupon thicket, covered with blood, sitting in the dark in a cold rain with a fever, a bad cough, and a two-hundred- pound hog carcass, the revelation hit me: “Maybe this is why more people go golfing than hog hunting.”
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