During the ordeal, she wasn’t sure that these were wild pigs because she’d never heard of any in San Diego. Wells says she got a good look at their distinctiveness: pointy face, root-worthy snout, erect ears, long legs, hairy hide, razor-backed body, russet color, and sinewy tail. The pigs were wary of her and quick to bolt. “They were fast,” she says, and would snort and fake a charge if she got too close.
The next morning two officials, one from the Humane Society and one from Fish and Game, came to her ranch. The two conferred. If the pigs were domestic, the Humane Society would take them away. But since these were wild and a nuisance, the game warden shot them, at close range, in the pen. The “very knowledgeable” warden told her, Wells says, that since the pigs were a male and female, weighing about 125 pounds, his main reason for killing them was to halt their reproduction — more wild pigs would cause even more havoc.
Why did the hogs have to die? I asked Kyle Orr, a spokesperson for Fish and Game. He says that his office issues a depredation (defined: “an attack involving plunder and pillage”) permit, which allows “immediate take” of pigs when they are “damaging or destroying land or property. Relocating them,” Orr says, “only moves the problem somewhere else.” Wild animals, as everyone knows, cannot be domesticated.
Wells’s story is one of several told by backcountry residents who’ve encountered feral hogs during the past year. Jamie Leclair, a Ramona accountant, hit a pair of pigs on Poway Road near the junction with State Route 67. She told the Union-Tribune they were “running together, nose to butt, and the first one went under the truck when I hit it. When I hit the second one, the truck went up on two wheels for a few seconds.” In addition to blood and hair on her tires, her truck needed an alignment.
In Ramona’s feed store, Kahoots, I meet a woman whose father calls me later to say that he’s been watching the Discovery Channel and its show Pig Bomb. One segment, called “Hogzilla,” depicts — in you-are-there re-creation — the stalking and killing of an 800-pounder, Hogzilla he was named, in rural Georgia. Hogzilla would soon be topped by Pigzilla, or “Monster Pig,” which weighed 1051 pounds and was shot by an 11-year-old boy in Alabama. (According to the Berryman Institute’s report “Managing Wild Pigs,” the dirty secret is that such mammoth porkers are raised by pig ranchers, who fatten them in pens and then release the boars for hunters.) “Man, that show just blew me away,” the man says, breathlessly. “How fast and big these pigs are going to get. It’s scary.”
A butcher in Ramona who prefers anonymity tells me that he’s made sausage out of all sorts of animals (but only when he sees a tag that proves it was legally killed). He insists that there have been feral pigs in the San Diego backcountry for years, long before any Russian boars were released on Indian land.
The Department of Fish and Game notes in its “Guide to Hunting Wild Pigs in California” that West Coast wild pigs are a “wild boar/feral domestic pig hybrid.” Since the 1920s, escaped domestic pigs have mated with the European or Russian wild boar. Today, wild pigs, which are not native to North America, exist in 56 of the state’s 58 counties. California is split about 50-50 between private and public land. Pigs that are hunted on public land take refuge in private areas. Hunters, who must buy a pig tag and report a kill, harvest them with rifle, pistol, bow, crossbow, shotgun, and muzzle-loading, or front-loading, gun. During the July to June 2008–2009 count, some 51,625 pig tags were sold and 3838 reports of harvest filed. (About a third of the pigs were shot in Monterey and Kern counties.) In that year, two pigs were shot in San Diego County.
According to several websites run by pig scholars and trackers, Hernando de Sota brought the first pigs to Florida in 1539. Since then, feral hogs have ranged freely throughout the Southeast, having grown excessively in size and number. The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that European wild boars were released in North Carolina in 1912 and then in California in 1925.
Captive pigs are bred for their meat. Penned, they grow to two feet tall and weigh between 90 and 260 pounds. Their feral cousins grow to be three feet tall and weigh in between 250 and 500 pounds. The wild boar has a flatter skull and longer legs than its domestic cousin. The upper and lower canines of the male sharpen each other during chewing; they can grow to four inches or more. When males fight over a sow, they use these tusks to scar and bleed their opponent. This is one method by which hogs give themselves away — boars jousting to claim a sow, and the sow’s horror-movie cry to protect her piglets.
I Wouldn’t Be Surprised If They Eat Toads
Undaunted, I’m on a second pig hunt, this time with field biologists Megan Jennings of the Descano Ranger District and Jeff Wells (no relation to Susan Wells) of the Palomar district. It’s a bright morning, and we’re moving single file along a slope toward a crystal-clear cow pond, deep in the Cleveland National Forest. In their piney green slacks and jackets, minus the broad-brimmed hats, Jennings and Wells, both unarmed, are stepping in streams and dodging cow patties in what they call a natural pig habitat: a grassland bowl around a pond with plenty of oaks positioned postcard perfect on the slopes. Leaving the Palomar Ranger District office in Ramona, we bumped down Eagle Peak Road just below the Pine Hills enclave south of Julian. The pigs, so they’ve heard, have made their way up the San Diego River; they’re ranging into this bouldery, hilly terrain, once the Rutherford Ranch, stopping to root in its pristine valleys. We’re looking for signs: hoofprints, wallows (mud holes pigs lie in) and mud rubs on trees, uprooted cattails, and scat.