Hog Wild: Susanne Rust on the Feral Pig Problem

You may not have seen them running through your yard, but just wait. Feral pigs are everywhere and they’re a growing problem. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with Susanne Rust, an environmental reporter from the Los Angeles Times. She talks about the millions – yes,  millions of wild pigs roaming the countryside, and the multitude of problems they bring: eating like pigs and breeding like rabbits, these wild swine trample fragile habitats and imperil other animals, ecosystems, and even humans.

Narrator  0:01  This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Susanne Rust  0:27  Just about everybody except for animal rights activists really see that there’s a problem and believe that whether it’s expanding hunting, although there are concerns about doing that, that you could miss align the incentives there, or having the state just go in and do a massive assault. But something needs to be done because there’s so much at stake.

Narrator 0:49  You may not have seen them running through your yard, but just wait. Feral pigs are everywhere, and they’re a growing problem. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with Susanne Rust, an environmental reporter from the Los Angeles Times. She talks about the millions – yes, millions of wild pigs roaming the countryside and the multitude of problems they bring. Eating like pigs and breeding like rabbits, these wild swine trample fragile habitats and imperil other animals, ecosystems and even humans.

Alex Wise  1:42  I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Susanne Rust. She is an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Susanne, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.

Susanne Rust  1:50  Hey, thanks for having me.

Alex Wise  1:51  So you have a really interesting piece that just came out in the LA Times about feral pigs and the problems they present. Why don’t you first explain what a feral pig is and how it might differ from a domesticated pig, obviously, and a truffle pig or a wild boar.

Susanne Rust  2:09  Alright, so feral pigs in California, are a hybrid of wild domestic pigs. So pigs that were brought by the Spanish missionaries in about the 1700s, who then were sort of let loose, and they became kind of wild and feral themselves. But what happened in California and has happened in a few other places around the United States. People then brought in wild boars in the 1900s as something fun to shoot, right to hunt. And then those boars got free and started breeding with the feral domestic population. So what we have now is this kind of cross between a wild boar and a feral domesticated pig. And biologists sort of refer to them as a super pig, because they’re this cross but they seem they’re smart. They’re wily. They’re incredibly what’s the word I’m looking for here? But their ability to procreate is is quite astounding. I mean, we use we use the expression to breed like rabbits think it should be turned to breed like pigs, because they can have up to four litters a year, about 18 each in each litter. And females are mature, sexually mature by the age of four months,

Alex Wise  3:35  Four months – wow! That’s incredibly efficient.

Susanne Rust  3:39  Yeah. So what we have is this super pig again, which is really a cross between a domestic pig that was set free and a and a wild boar.

Alex Wise  3:51  And do they cross pollinate the wild boars and the domestic pigs and these feral pigs, like in terms of their groups are these feral pigs are kind of unto themselves generally in California.

Susanne Rust  4:04  So at this point, what we basically have in California, and I would say, it’s probably mostly and is the same in sort of the southern part of the United States is this hybrid. So you don’t really find just pure I don’t think you can find pure wild boars running around anymore. There may be feral domesticated pigs in places but but the real the real score, the real scourge I’m talking about here is this is this hybrid form. And that’s sort of what we find what we find everywhere. And they hang out in packs that are called sounders, which usually consist of at least one sow and her offspring. But the like, for instance, I went up to Mount Hamilton in San Jose and there I saw two sounders and they each had like three or four sounds in them, plus, you know, I think about 20 30 piglets.

Alex Wise  5:01  So, a “sounder,” is that just the word for like a herd of pigs?

Susanne Rust  5:05  That’s correct.

Alex Wise  5:06  I see, or a pod of whales. It’s a sounder of pigs. Yes. Okay. I didn’t know that. That’s a good crossword clue. So why is this an environmental issue, Susanne? Why did you tackle this?

Susanne Rust  5:18  So they’re, as I sort of alluded to earlier, they’re not native. So they were brought here. And they are, again, these sort of very proliferative breeders. So their populations have just blown up. So we have a ton of pigs. And it wouldn’t just be an issue I suppose if pigs did nothing except sit in one place and mind their own business, but but that’s not what they do. They are voracious eaters, and they eat just about anything that comes their way they eat small mammals eat like pigs, apparently. Yes, they eat like pigs. Very good. So yeah, they eat small mammals. They eat fish, amphibians, a little birds, they bird eggs, they eat grubs, and insects and, you know, all kinds of plants. And so what they’re doing to the landscape in California is really quite distressing. If you’re interested in keeping native flora and fauna. They’re just eating everything in their way. And so environmentally, they’re there again, they’re a scourge and environmental groups. And I can’t remember offhand which ones but I’ve seen it written many, many times have labeled this feral pig form one of the worst, if not the worst, native species, I mean, invasive species on the planet, because of this kind of harm that they do.

Alex Wise  6:39  And you write about how hunting doesn’t necessarily solve the problem, does it?

Susanne Rust  6:45  No. So as we talked about earlier, number one, these things are, you know, incredible breeders. So to hunt, you would have to be on them all the time, you would just be shooting them like, every day and everywhere, because you give them a few weeks, and another 18 piglets are born. So hunting is not a it would be hard to do, you’d have to get sort of an army out to do it. The other issue and the real concern about hunting is, from what I understand, I haven’t done it myself, wild boar are a ton of fun, or wild, feral pigs are a ton of fun to hunt, they are big, they’re large they are they’ve got these, you know tasks. And so hunters really enjoy hunting them. So there’s really the incentive to hunt and kill off an entire population isn’t there once hunting sort of gets its hooks into it, it becomes something recreational and in an area, what you find is that, particularly commercial hunters, people who bring people in to hunt, start to import or move the pigs around. So as I read in one article about this, I think the way the author described it, right, who was actually quoting a scientist, is that these pigs are so are spreading so fast, they move from 55 to 70 miles per hour from place to place. And that’s because they get in the back of trucks and are moved by hunters to go from place to place, right.

Alex Wise  8:09  And you mentioned how Texas has very lacks laws protecting these pigs, they’re hunted quite a lot in Texas and these type of farms are in preserve or whatever. But Texas has, by far the highest population of these pigs, so it hasn’t really done much to call their population.

Susanne Rust  8:30  That is correct. The places where they seem to have kept them at bay are places like Montana, and Colorado, where they have huge sort of public information campaigns about how terrible the pigs are. So people who live in these states understand and when they see pigs, they report it to the authorities, right, I think it’s squeal on pigs or something like that is is Montana’s sort of catchphrase for this campaign. And then the state will go in either with hired hunters, by professionals or themselves and round up the pigs that they find. So there’s, there’s not a commercial aspect to it, there’s not this recreational it really is a you see pigs, we’re going to go in and wipe them out. And they’ve been able to sort of as, as a result, keep pigs out of the state.

Alex Wise  9:17  Do you have any idea of the numbers that we’re looking at in terms of the population just in California, let’s say compared to the domestic pig population? When we’re talking about these numbers, how do they stack up against the domesticated pig population, I guess is the question.

Susanne Rust  9:33  It’s such a good question, Alex. I have no idea but I do know there are I think 6 million pigs they estimate around North America that’s the wild pigs but I don’t know what the domesticated pig population is. I have no idea.

Alex Wise  9:49  6 million feral pigs!

Susanne Rust  9:52  Yes, it’s a lot and the number has been growing. I mean, again, I would have to go back and look but it’s not quite exponential, but it’s close to it like the numbers keep doubling. And they don’t know how many are in California. They’re probably close to a million here. Yeah, it’s quite a quite a large a large population. And again just just growing

(Music break) 10:18

Alex Wise  11:24  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Susanne Rust, who’s an environmental reporter for the Los Angeles Times. So Susanne, we think of wild animals as of a bigger percentage of fauna than they are in actuality, I’ve read that humans and domesticated mammals combined are 96% of mammalian biomass. So these pigs are, they are important to an ecosystem. They are devastating in some ways, as well. But you mentioned how they endanger flora and fauna. What kind of danger do they pose to humans directly.

Susanne Rust  12:07  So there are a few things they do one they can attack, they have been known to kill people, I think five people have been killed since I can’t remember the year I think it was 1825, which doesn’t sound like a lot. But they can be aggressive and they can charge and, like, again, I was looking at some of these pigs up in on Mt. Hamilton in San Jose, and nobody charged me but I was definitely getting eyeballed by them and felt uncomfortable probably because of what I’ve read and talking to county land managers, park managers here in the in the San Francisco Bay Area. And they say, in the past few years, they’ve had about two or three incidents per year, you know, this, this was in Santa Clara County, but before the pandemic that we’re having upwards of 12, right, they’re having about a dozen. And they think as the pig population becomes bigger, we’re just going to have more and more human pig interactions. So these these numbers are likely to get worse. But sort of more concerning in terms of human health and how widespread it is. These animals eat a lot. And like all mammals, once you eat something, you then have to get rid of it. And so they poop everywhere, including in reservoirs and streams and rivers. And so there’s a real concern by water managers, that, that they’re there, that diseases that pigs carry that humans can carry. And I think we have like crossover on 20 could get into water supplies as well. And the last thing is again, pigs eat everything. They’re really smart. California is a huge agricultural state. Pigs know about farms, right, and it’s a scourge for farmers. But I can’t remember the year right now it might have been 2012, there was an E-coli outbreak in around Salinas. And that was the that wetland managers and the USDA sort of came back thinking happened there was that wild pigs got into the lettuce and contaminated that with feces. And that’s where the E-coli came from.

Alex Wise  14:21  And toxoplasmosis, is that a waterborne disease that would be carried through their feces, or is that similar to what you’re describing in farming?

Susanne Rust  14:31  I think that’s generally a waterborne disease. So that would be something that would be concerning for water managers.

Alex Wise  14:37  So what are some of the solutions, Susanne, that made most sense to you from talking to experts in the field?

Susanne Rust  14:44  Well, it was funny. One of the one of the things I asked every land manager I spoke with and every biologist was in, do they have any natural predators and unfortunately, the United States North America, they don’t tigers are what generally get them in Europe and Asia and nobody thought it would be a good idea to import tigers and set them loose here.

Alex Wise  15:08  I think that’s a great idea. But we don’t have a lot of tigers, unfortunately, in the world.

Susanne Rust  15:13  And apparently mountain lions don’t show much interest in them probably because mountain lions, while big and could take down a human would have a really hard fight with a pig and pigs are nasty. And they have these these razor sharp tasks. So mountain lions generally don’t are not a good population check. Wolves are moving back into California. So they’re I suppose there is a potential that wolves at some point, if they were able to get back throughout the state could have an effect. But again, unlikely because it’s unlikely wolves are ever going to get to the level that they that would keep pigs in check. So it’s really it’s really a conundrum. So again, I talked about Colorado and Montana and states where the pigs are just moving in but haven’t yet they’ve been able to control them in places like California, Texas, North Carolina, where Florida where pigs are already so populated. They’re just they’re sort of everywhere. It’s a real head scratcher to figure out what we can do to stem the population. Again, you know, there’s a concern about opening up hunting, hunting is open. There’s concern about what sort of incentives hunting puts on the population. I talked to a county park manager who has tried using nematodes, these little like wormy things that she spreads on to Parkland and they go in and kill grubs. And pigs apparently love grubs. So that seems to slow them down a bit. But again, I talked to other managers who say you can’t use nematodes sort of like in in large areas, it just, it’s just not a sustainable way to, to sort of attack the problem. Plus, the nematodes are really problematic for farmers, they go in and kill all the good things they need in the soil. So other solutions have included things like spreading poisons, or sterilizers. But of course, what if you do that out in the environment, you’re going to potentially kill other animals?

Alex Wise  17:16  Yeah. And then animals will come and feed on these dead pigs and they’ll get sick. Right?

Susanne Rust  17:20  Right. So there is a there, there just don’t seem to be very many good solutions right now.

Alex Wise  17:27  I guess they’re not edible, then we can’t eat them, like we do domesticated pigs?

Susanne Rust  17:32  Oh, you certainly can eat them. And I have spoken to hunters who say they’re, they’re really quite tasty. I mean, they acorns, the grubs, they really yummy food. So therefore, they taste yummy. But again, sort of attacking the population and getting it to a level or first of all, wiping them out. But then getting them to a level where they’re not creating this kind of destruction everywhere. Again, that would require hunting to turn into food, it just doesn’t seem like it’s anybody has a really good idea of how to get the population down to zero or in check, even if you could eat them.

Alex Wise  18:09  And then there are environmental protections in place that probably limit a mass solution in terms of hurting them up and slaughtering them for a market type consumption, maybe you can explain some of the environmental protections that are in place and how that is part of this conundrum you’re describing.

Susanne Rust  18:30  Yeah, so right now they’re considered I believe, a non game animal in California, at least, which means you can’t sell the you can’t sell the meat. The there is right now legislation that’s been introduced, and it’s likely to pass it would turn feral pigs into a new category, which would be considered exotic game mammal, and then you could eat that meat. But again, I don’t think they want to create a market where you could sell it because once again, that would create an incentive for people to get a round up pigs or keep them in order to sell meat.

Alex Wise  19:11  So if we changed their designation to a game meat or and expanded it to a marketplace, he said that that is not in place in California, is that one of the proposals that instead of looking towards hunters, could there be some kind of government agency that tries to rein in that population and bring them to market?

Susanne Rust  19:32  So I think there is definitely, from what I’ve been hearing is a desire to have government agencies whether federal state county, largely be responsible for calling these animals. I think that concern they have with they could donate the meat but I think the concern is when she turned the meat into something commercial You’re again going to have those, that issue about people making money off of something, and then wanting to keep it here because they’re making money off of it. So even if that’s the county or the state, I think they just would prefer that. This is not a this is not a commercial. This is not a commercial meat not to be sold. But there, you know, certainly we’re, we’re we definitely have issues of food insecurity in California. And so maybe somebody should consider you know, if the county or the state can gather these things, these pigs up, you know, potentially bring the meat somewhere where it could be consumed by people who could use it.

(Music break)

Alex Wise  21:37  This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking the Los Angeles Times environmental reporter, Susanne Rust. So Susanne, you mentioned how these feral pigs are not unique to North America. How are some other countries managing their populations if they are?

Susanne Rust  21:54  Well, so it’s funny, they’re are showing up. Again, probably because their natural predators have largely disappeared tigers and wolves around Europe. So they’re suddenly laying scourge two cities, they’re like Barcelona was running amok a couple years ago with wild pigs in the streets, and Berlin has been having an issue as well. I think they’re a problem everywhere. And that’s why these environmental groups, I can’t remember if it was, anyway, I don’t want to say any of their names because I could be Miss remembering. But these are international environmental groups who are saying they are the most concerning invasive species in the world. And they have gone to Australia and they’re wreaking havoc there. They have hit a ton of the Polynesian islands and they’ve destroyed rainforest there. It’s nobody is handling the issue well, and their populations are just growing everywhere. I mean, we talk about cockroaches at the end of the world, it could be feral pigs and cockroaches.

Alex Wise  22:56  And these feral pigs are fairly uniform, genetically across all these areas. Are they does each one have kind of their own size and uniqueness?

Susanne Rust  23:08  No, it’s a it’s a question I was really trying to get at because I think it’s fascinating. So even here in the United States, right? domestic pigs have been brought in several times over the years, and wild boar have been imported several times over the years. So they’re actually different genetic variations of this hybrid, like, for instance, just in North America, in places like I think, Hawaii, so clearly North America, but but not, you know, not Continental, and islands, throughout Polynesia, those are actually just domestic pigs that have become feral. And then in Europe, it’s mostly wild boar, which is which is the issue, although again, there are breeding, there are populations where there have been this sort of mixture. So no, it is it is not uniform, but they all generally present the same.

Alex Wise  24:04  So there are problems with wild boar in other countries. That is correct. Maybe you can share some anecdotes on how people have been affected by these feral pigs other than attacks and eating crops.

Susanne Rust  24:20  So one area I did not look at too much. When I was reporting on this article, again, was this this sort of interaction between pigs and farms, but having gone through my Twitter feed reactions, after I published the story, and also on our website, there it looks like which rarely happens, particularly here in California there looks like a real convergence from both environmentalists and farmers on and I hate trade of pigs and a desire for something to be done about it. You know, environmentalists are concerned about how pigs are destroying, you know, again, native flora and fauna farmers that, you know, they’re they’re running across their fields. They’re ripping up their crops, they are pooping in their fields. So everybody just about everybody except for animal rights activists really see that there’s a problem and believe that whether it’s expanding hunting, although there are concerns about doing that, that you could miss, align the incentives there, or having the state just go in and do a massive assault. But something needs to be done, because there’s so much at stake.

Alex Wise  25:35  And so these animal rights groups, obviously care about all animals. But these feral pigs are endangering other populations.

Susanne Rust  25:45  I assume that that is true. Although, again, I didn’t I didn’t talk to animal rights folks for this, this story, and I probably should have. But again, just based on what I’ve been reading on my Twitter page, I think the sentiment is you don’t go kill an animal just because an animal’s killed another animal. At least that’s what I’m hearing. And this really is a human problem and not a pig problem.

Alex Wise  26:10  You say they’re everywhere but I haven’t seen a lot of sounders of pigs wandering the streets of San Francisco. It’s largely a rural issue, correct?

Susanne Rust  26:20  Well, yes. And no, they’ve been found in 56 out of 58 counties in the state. San Francisco. No, that’s one county where they have not been found. The other is Alpine County. Although when I talked to the state about that, they said, you know, we’re hesitant to say they’re not Alpine County, because as soon as we say that somebody is going to come to show us that we’re wrong.

Alex Wise  26:41  And that’s pretty rural, right?

Susanne Rust  26:44  Alpine County, it is pretty rural, but it isn’t high elevation. And so there may be it’s just they can’t find the kinds of foods that they really like up there or can survive sort of the numbers that they can elsewhere. They come out at night. They’re very wary of people. So I mean, it was funny when I started doing this story. I was like, I need to see pigs. So I sent on a on a tweet out on Twitter and said, somebody told me where I can find them. And it took a few days, somebody told me to go to mountain Hamilton, and sure enough, they were there, but it’s true. I live in the Bay Area. I live in San Mateo County. I have, you know, a nice, a nice yard here. I’ve never seen a pig in my yard. But they’re more at that urban wildlife interface. Right, which is where they would there are but what’s concerning is that the populations are growing as one. I think he was in Monterey County, the parks manager there said sort of bringing up all of the stuff we talked about in terms of their fecundity. It’s it’s they’re exponentially growing, and there’s just they don’t have the resources to keep it at bay.

Alex Wise  27:48  Well, it’s a fascinating story and we will point to the piece in the Los Angeles Times on SeaChangeRadio.com – Susanne Rust, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

Susanne Rust  28:00  Hey, thanks for having me and always fun talking to you.

Narrator  28:16  You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Little Sonny, The Beatles, and Ralph Stanley. Check out our website at Sea Change Radio.com to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast. Visit our archives there to hear from Bill McKibben, Van Jones, Paul Hawken, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week, as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio. I’m Alex Wise.