Feral hogs — resilient in the face of helicopter assaults, threats of mass poisoning and elaborate traps — have stumbled into the national debate over the availability of assault-style rifles.
The pigs will win, of course. They always have. But more on that in a second.
How, exactly, did we get to a nationwide discussion and meme explosion about feral hogs and the oddly specific range of 30 to 50 of them?
On Sunday, in the wake of two mass shootings, musician Jason Isbell questioned the necessity of ordinary Americans to own an “assault weapon,” touching on the pedantic and intricate ways gun-rights advocates define their wares.
“Legit question for rural Americans,” responded William McNabb, a Twitter user whose bio says he lives in southern Arkansas. “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”
McNabb’s response, and his back-and-forth with Isbell, paralyzed social media with countless memes that poked fun at the idea of semiautomatic rifles as a vital tool in wild pig home defense. An 8-bit game was quickly developed. Even “Simpsons” writer Bill Oakley created a mock episode script title “Bart Gets 30-50 Feral Hogs.”
Yet, millions of marauding wild pigs have invaded large swaths of the southern United States, eviscerating crops, gobbling up endangered sea turtles and trampling archaeological sites in a rampage showing no signs of letting up.
There are now 6 million of them in at least 39 states, and they are “rapidly expanding,” according to the Agriculture Department. They move in large groups called sounders. One instance in Ohio met McNabb’s threshold — 30 caught in a single trap.
Feral hogs are invasive species that were brought to North America from Europe by Spanish conquistadors, and ever since, they have multiplied across the country. Hogs use their snouts to dig through soil, leaving fields scarred and crops flattened. But they also kill livestock and reptiles.
The cost: $1.5 billion a year in damage and control spending, the USDA said in 2014.
That has led to cottage industries of groups that exterminate the animals in all kinds of ways — including with firearms, though the hogs’ thick hides can help shield them from rounds fired from many AR-15-style rifles.
So is McNabb so off the mark? It is tough to know. He could not be reached for comment, but in tweets defending his original message, he said hogs have been a persistent issue at home in Arkansas.
They’re a “threat” to the state, says Keith Stephens, a spokesman for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission, leaving a trail of diseases and parasites. Feral hogs are considered a public nuisance in the state, not regulated wildlife, so private landowners can hunt or trap them at will.
A state task force assembled to combat the problem agreed trapping them is the most effective strategy, he said, although pigs are clever and known to evade traps. And for the record, the state is seeing sounders of 20 or less, but “there’s not a typical group size,” Stephens said.
Another problem: Hogs are built to last. They produce large litters that replace pigs killed en masse and use their stout tusks to defend themselves against cougars. “Hogs are tough, fierce, and hardy beasts,” Duke University professor Gabriel Rosenberg wrote, and are helped by a general lack of natural predators and the ability to withstand different climates.
That leaves game officials, farmers and private industry to contend with the expanding pig crisis. Texas produced a uniquely Texan solution: Shoot them from low-flying helicopters. Sport hunters there can legally rent a helicopter jump seat and shoot fleeing hogs.
Of course, that has produced its own “Apocalypse Now” rip-off. In one video with a million views, a shooter fires at hogs with a semiautomatic shotgun, occasionally at nearly point-blank range, to the soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
But Texas Parks and Wildlife has warned: if you’re going to hunt wild pigs to protect land or for sport, an AR-15-type of firearm may not be enough to pierce its tough hide.
“The best rifle calibers to use should be a .243 or greater to prevent wounding and loss of the animal,” the agency said, referring to a bullet used for hunting, which packs more of a punch than a typical .223 round associated with many AR-15-style rifles — though some rifles are chambered in heavier and more lethal sizes more appropriate for hogs.
“Bowhunting, muzzleloading, and handguns are also popular among sportsmen to hunt feral hogs,” the agency said.
Since helicopter squadrons of rifle-toting hunters are not practical for the rumbling mass of feral hogs, Texas also tried to introduce pesticide to trigger a “hog apocalypse,” as the agricultural commissioner put it. But that plan had setbacks after 200 birds were found dead.
Feral pigs are clearly dangerous to wildlife and agriculture. But are they a threat to people, as McNabb suggested?
“In a natural state, feral hogs will prefer to run and escape danger and are not considered dangerous,” Texas game officials said. But people should still use caution, especially around wounded pigs, officials said. “Their razor sharp tusks combined with their lightning speed can cause serious injury.”