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Hogs Gone Wild
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The pressure was on Danielle Rucker and Chelsea Barragan. The Sabinal Lions Club Wild Hog Festival queen and princess, respectively, were hometown favorites in the women’s division of their festival’s main event, the 18th annual Wild Hog Catching World Championships. They needed to beat the 11.46-second time already clocked by two no-nonsense gals out of San Marcos and Concan to secure first-place belt buckles.

They had to jointly catch a 40-pound wild boar, wrestle it into a burlap sack, then drag the sack across a line drawn from the center to the outer edge of a makeshift ring roughly 40 feet in diameter. The only don’ts: no punching or kicking the hog.

“Has anyone not been here before?” joke-a-minute emcee Eugene Verstuyft had already asked the throng of rough-and-tumble good ol’ boys, curiosity-seeking college kids, and blue-haired road warriors swarming the Sabinal Yellowjackets’ football field and bleachers under a brutal late March sun. “Y’all got one helluva surprise coming.”

Hogs. illustration by Rez.

Rucker and Barragan were their division’s 13th and final contestants. Rucker had changed out of the blouse, sash and tiara she’d worn to have her picture taken with previous winners in the lightweight and middleweight divisions, and put on a pink camouflage “Wild Hog Festival” T-shirt. She and Barragan were ready.

“You gotta sneak up on ‘em,” Verstuyft advised earlier contestants, “or they’ll run you to death.”

Hog master Charlie Black gave the starting signal. Rucker took Verstuyft’s words to heart, immediately catching her oblivious hog off guard and hoisting it in the air by its back legs, setting off a spasm in the hog that made Rucker look like she was working a jackhammer. So far so good. Then the hog got piggish about the burlap sack. By the time Rucker and Barragan got it across the line, Black’s stopwatch read 15.52. It was good enough for second place.

Fun and games are but one element of Sabinal’s love-hate relationship with wild hogs. We’re talking about once-domesticated hogs, imported by European settlers, that have gone feral after floods or other natural disasters set them free, whereupon they reverted to their primal ways.

They wreak havoc on this South Texas town in more ways than one. They destroy farmers’ crops with their rooting and trampling. They disrupt deer feeders on game ranches. Being carnivores, they occasionally dine on the livestock – goats and sheep, mostly – on which Sabinal’s economy depends. Then there’s the property damage.

“They’ll literally go through a fence and tear it all to pieces,” Lions Club member Ross Burris says.

They do it over and over again thanks to a speedy reproduction cycle that yields, on average, two litters per sow per year, or about two dozen hogs.

Instead of crying about it, Sabinal residents have turned their porcine problem into a marketing opportunity, branding their town the Wild Boar Capital of Texas and creating the Wild Hog Festival, which annually attracts upwards of 10,000 international attendees.

Proceeds from the weekend-long festivities – there’s also a marketplace in adjacent Sabinal City Park offering food and drink, a petting zoo, pony and mechanical-bull rides, carnival games, and T-shirts reading “A Sleepy Little Drinkin’ Town with a Hog Problem!” – go straight back into the community as college scholarships, improvements to the little league fields and donations to the local EMS budget.

“They deprive us of so much,” says Black, who for the last 10 years has organized the contest for the Lions Club, in addition to his day job as an agriculture teacher at the high school. “We tried to find a way to profit off them.”

Sabinal is about an hour’s drive west of San Antonio, just south of Utopia and not far from Mexico. The population is 1,701. A drive down its new-meets-old main drag yields a bar-and-grill, a cleaners and a library. The side streets are populated with duallies and double-wides interspersed with vintage houses with metal roofs. Scattered throughout are game-meat processing plants, taxidermy shops, and something called the Born Again Barn. Engulfing all of that are crop fields and game ranches. In other words, quintessential small-town Texas.

Verstuyft, the hog-catching emcee, knows all about the burden of the beasts. He’s seen firsthand what they can do.

“When we plant corn,” he says, “them boogers must smell that stuff or something. They can come down that row and put their nose under the ground so easily – a couple inches deep – and they can pick every kernel. They’re terrible.”

Verstuyft has lived and farmed in Sabinal for 30 years. He primarily grows corn for feed. In a world without wild hogs, he’d plant once a year. Last year, when the hogs went really wild, he had to plant five times. Verstuyft says the “boogers” can rack up $350 in nightly damages on his place alone, supposing they tear up half an acre, or 75 bushels’ worth. That doesn’t include the cost of replanting.

Sabinal isn’t the only Texas town that’s hog-tied.

“We got pigs dead everywhere on the road from people hitting ‘em,” says Shane Roberts, who brought 150 hogs down from Hawley, north of Abilene, for the contest. “They’re a bad nuisance up there.”

North Texas, South Texas and East Texas are prime habitat for wild hogs. According to Texas Department of Agriculture and Texas A&M University officials cited in a recent Associated Press article, some 2 million wild hogs account for $52 million in statewide crop damage a year.

That’s why state Rep. Sid Miller, a Stephenville Republican, is pushing House Bill 836. The bill, not yet assigned to a committee, seeks relief for hog-besieged landowners by giving them more options for eradicating the critters.

Landowners, including Verstuyft, typically hire professional hunters to shoot and kill hogs from helicopters early in the season, before growing crop cover makes them harder to see. Verstuyft reckons he spends $275 an hour for the helicopter, plus the cost of the shooter and ammunition. The aerial approach is in addition to lower-tech hog-blocking options like traps and dogs.

Under Miller’s bill, Verstuyft could sell that same aerial hunt to weekend warriors.

“Instead of paying someone to shoot hogs, it would allow landowners to make some money,” says Karen Kolb, Miller’s chief of staff.

Verstuyft says he isn’t entirely up to speed on HB 836. Still, he thinks it would probably create more trouble than it’s worth. He’s just glad people’s eyes are finally opening to the issue.

“People don’t understand how bad they are until it hits the golf courses,” Verstuyft says, referring to recent hog escapades on San Antonio-area links. “Then people get upset.”

While Verstuyft suffers at the hooves of hogs, Pete Denney profits. Sixteen years ago, after Sabinal Lions Club member Maurice Chambers conceived the Wild Hog Festival, Denney returned to the Sabinal land his family first settled in the 1850s and began offering hog-hunting expeditions. The weapon of choice? The only weapon he allows: bow and arrow.

“I think it’s more the challenge,” Denney says. “A lot of people think that gun hunting is just too simple. You put the ‘x’ on the spot and shoot. A lot of the hunters like to hunt with a bow because it is definitely more difficult to pick an animal.”

Denney charges $80 a day for a minimum two-day expedition, lodging included. There’s no limit on the size and number of hogs hunters may take from his land. Denney figures a large percentage of his hogs are hunted for meat, with the rest – the big daddies, with tusks, weighing in at 200 pounds and up – as trophies.

He says you can prepare them lots of ways: barbecued like brisket, sliced and fried like pork chops, or ground up with venison.

“Any way that domestic hog meat can be cooked, so can wild hog meat,” he says. Asked what he thinks about Miller’s bill, Denney sounds almost like a closet member of PETA.

“I know they are a nuisance to many,” he says, “but they are an animal, and I think they should be looked at and viewed in a humane manner.”

Humanity isn’t exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you’re staring down a 130-pound wild hog, as the men in the heavyweight division of the hog catching contest are about to do. Earlier in the day, before the competition, hog master Black and Jodi Rihn, a female champion from two years ago, described what it’s like to share the ring with a hog.

“My partner was crazed,” says Rihn, who wasn’t able to defend her belt buckle last year because she was pregnant. “She needed a Xanax or something.”

“Your heart wants you to do it,” Black adds, “but your mind won’t let you.”

God only knows what possesses a person. Perhaps it’s about testing limits, considering that the hog is one of the biggest, grisliest animals we can actually grapple and potentially contain with our own hands. Perhaps we subconsciously seek revenge against the animal that robbed us of our innocence, as wild hogs did when they gave rabies to Old Yeller. (The Fred Gipson story on which the movie was based is set near Mason, 150 miles north of Sabinal.) Or perhaps it’s nothing more than a way to satiate the human hunger for adrenaline, which begins to boil in the registration line, where officials coax young men up from the middleweight to the heavyweight division.

When it’s time for the heavyweights, Verstuyft’s comedy routine turns into a safety announcement. He issues warnings to the crowd gathered around the ring’s 5-foot fence, telling them to step back and keep an eye out for hogs leaping headfirst into the caging.

“You get too close to the fence,” he says, “and you’re gonna lose some teeth.”

Until that point, 16 pairs of ripped jeans and a twisted knee were the only casualties. That was about to change. One burly, black-haired monster with an extra-long snout had something more in store for one of its would-be catchers. After a few seconds of trying to usher the monster into its burlap sack, one of the guys quickly pulled back and grabbed his gashed forearm. He was bleeding like a stuck pig.

Austin writer Michael Hoinski contributes articles to the Austin American-Statesman, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.