Trapped!

They come mostly at night, ravaging lawns and gardens, eluding traps and terrifying homeowners and children. They breed almost as quickly as rabbits, taking over suburban haunts and destroying natural habitats. They are, quite simply, running amok — particularly in some areas of Nocatee, Marsh Harbor and Guana River State Park.

Feral pigs have been around for hundreds of years. A non-native species in the United States, they were brought to the Atlantic Coast of Florida by Hernando De Soto in 1539, eventually establishing vast feral colonies throughout the Southern U.S. They are now thought to number in the millions. According to feral hog authority William M. Giuliano at University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Florida ranks second after Texas in the number of wild hogs in America, with about a half-million, with a presence in each of Florida’s 67 counties.

These aren’t the cute and cuddly pigs we see in movies and marketing — no Babes, Porkys or Piggly Wigglys. Covered with a wiry, furry hide, with long canine teeth that protrude like tusks, these hogs outweigh offensive linemen, are as destructive as a John Deere tractor and have the disposition of a drunk on a three-day bender.

The hogs have been particularly problematic for residents of communities around northern St. Johns and southern Duval counties, as adjacent properties like the vast planned community of Nocatee are developed. Pushed out of more remote areas, the hogs have taken to the well-sodded lawns of suburbia, which they destroy with abandon. The persistent omnivores eat insects, fish, roots, birds’ nests, even fawns and small domestic livestock like chickens. Smithsonian Magazine dubbed the creatures “the most destructive invasive species in the United States” (http://bit.ly/t9ui5V). In just a few hours, roaming hogs can make a freshly sodded yard look like a monster truck rally has been held there.

Ryan Boyd, a wildlife trapper who owns Jacksonville-based Quick Catch, has years of experience with nuisance critters, including raccoons, opossums, armadillos, snakes, moles, skunks and rats. But he says the problem of feral pigs “is getting progressively worse.”

“There is a neighborhood out in Nocatee where they’ve done about $30,000 worth of damage,” he says. Boyd, who has trapped 150 hogs in Guana in the past eight months, recently caught 11 boars in Nocatee in a single week.

In addition to wreaking what Boyd calls “ungodly” destruction, the swine can also be dangerously aggressive, especially when trying to protect their nests and piglets. Just last week, Boyd says, a customer described a scene that sounds like it came straight out of a nightmare: “A hog with no ears chased her to her car,” he says.

For Carrie Eckert, resident of the once-serene Marsh Harbor subdivision, such scenarios are literally too close to home. After weeks of having the hogs occupy her yard, she hired Boyd remove them. In a 72-hour period, he trapped six wild hogs in and around her yard, including a 225-pound boar and a 175-pound sow pregnant with eight to 10 piglets.

“They’ve torn up the common areas,” she says of the pigs’ destruction in the Marsh Harbor neighborhood. “We just put in all new sod and they can destroy it in no time.”

Eckert’s mother-in-law, Mary Eckert, says she’s heard reports from over in Nocatee of 70 hogs being rounded up. She hopes she has seen the last of them. “They are not cute little creatures,” she insists.

Although hogs are nocturnal, and usually curl up in the daytime to keep cool, Eckert says they are also out on overcast days, and seem oblivious to cars and humans. Her husband once saw six hogs grazing alongside the road, paying no attention to the passing cars and trucks. While shooting the hogs is legal (and, some think, great sport), Eckert worries about children when people are aiming guns and shooting arrows at hogs.

Boyd estimates he has snared more than 1,000 wild hogs in his career, but the 26-year-old trapper sets himself apart from other, less-experienced trappers, who inadvertently teach the hogs to shy away from the traps, making them much harder to catch.

“Hogs are the most intelligent animals in the woods,” Boyd notes. Though their eyesight is poor, they possess a keen sense of smell and, Boyd contends, “problem-solving abilities.” If there are 10 hogs in a sounder (the term for a group of pigs), most trappers will be happy if they can catch eight of them. “But what they’ve done is educate the two left,” he says. “From now on, they will be spooky,” and pass that fear on to their piglets.

Before he can catch any hogs, Boyd will scout an area and develop a plan. He sets out his large steel traps and the right combination of grain and goodies to entice the animals (his specific bait ingredients are a trade secret). He can attach an infrared camera to his traps to see how hogs are reacting to it. He also sometimes uses dogs in his hunt.

“Hog-trapping is not an event, it’s a process,” says Boyd.

After hogs are captured, Boyd sells some to game preserves — particularly the trophy boars with large tusks. Male hogs weigh from 200 to 400 pounds, though there were reports in 2004 of an 800-pound pig dubbed “Hogzilla,” having been shot in Alapaha, Ga. (DNA testing showed it was a hybrid of a wild boar and domestic pig.)

Smaller hogs are butchered, and some of the meat is given to homeless shelters and needy families. It’s said to taste like regular pork, only a little gamey. “The big boar hogs, you can’t eat those,” says Boyd. “It’s like chewing on cardboard.”

Boyd charges a fee to set up the traps that can hold several hogs, and he charges for each hog he catches, though he declined to discuss his rates. He does emphasize, however, that it’s a business, not a lark. “A lot of people do it for free,” he says. “Some redneck boys like to drink beer and catch hogs.”

Boyd doesn’t recommend going that route, though. “A lot of people are under-educated and ill-equipped,” he says. “I’ve been doing it since I was old enough to walk. I don’t know how I got into it, but it got into me. I was born to do it.”

Ron Word

[email protected]

About FOLIO