I suppose I should place some sort of disclaimer at the beginning of this article or you could get the idea that I am anti-pork. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a huge supporter of the swine industry in Alabama and anywhere else in the country with legitimate swine production operations. I very often show my support by purchasing and consuming pork barbeque. Being able to eat pork barbeque is a special privilege that we in Alabama sometimes take for granted. I do appreciate the swine industry.
Swine were domesticated centuries ago. I believe that when we read in the New Testament about the Prodigal Son feeding pigs for a living, it is referring to some type of swine farming operation. Swine were very prolific in Europe back through history. DeSoto is given credit for introducing swine to Alabama back around the 15th century. I am sure he and fellow explorers understood that life with bacon, sausage, sweet and sour pork, and fried pork chops was much better than in the absence of those products. I understand all of that and am very appreciative DeSoto brought the pork industry to our state.
Husbandry practices as well as the type of hogs produced in the pork industry over the years have greatly improved. However, it was early husbandry practices that led to some of the early feral swine populations becoming established along coastal areas of the United States. That along with the importation and movement of wild hogs for the purpose of hunting have led to the huge problems we are now experiencing with feral swine. An NBC news report in April 2013 stated that feral swine are a growing problem in about three-fourths of the states in our country with a population exceeding 5 million. The hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage.
Feral hogs are not to be confused with their close relatives the Yorkshires, Durocs, Spots and so forth, but there has been some intermarrying between wild and domestic hogs resulting in a hybrid that brings some of the good traits such as large litter size and larger hams and loins. That also makes the feral swine (I switch the terms feral swine and wild hog out regularly to break the monotony of using one term all the time) more desirable to hunt for the meat. Wild hogs can reach sexual maturity by four months and have a gestation period of less than four months. Their litters are often up to 12 piglets and some sows produce two litters a year. If you get to figuring the math out on paper, it becomes pretty impressive how a population can grow even if you figure in a loss to predators and hunters.
Recently, the television show "American Hoggers" came out and had a fair amount of popularity. Another show about wild hogs, "Hogs Gone Wild," was on the Discovery Channel. Both of these shows were sort-of reality TV shows with feral swine being some of the main characters. I enjoy hunting, but have not joined the ranks of those who hunt wild hogs; although I would not say I never will.
There are some public health concerns that should be considered when a hunter does harvest a wild hog. It is not uncommon for feral pigs to carry brucellosis and trichinosis, as well as toxoplasmosis, a parasite sometimes associated with the reason pregnant women are not supposed to change cat litter.
Trichinosis is a parasitic disease that has mostly disappeared from the pork industry because of modern husbandry practices. Additionally, there are regulations in the meat industry dealing with any possibility of trichinosis in inspected pork. Recent reports indicate nine people from two families in Illinois acquired trichinosis from eating undercooked sausages made from feral swine taken in Missouri. There are typically about 19 human cases of trichinosis reported annually. If untreated, trichinosis in humans can be fatal.
While there has been no brucellosis in domestic swine since 1996, studies on trapped feral swine reveal the disease is not uncommon in the wild population. There are documented reports of hunters who have contracted brucellosis while field dressing these feral swine. It is strongly suggested that hunters and processors wear protective gloves while field dressing or processing wild hogs, especially when coming in contact with the uterus or other reproductive organs. Brucellosis, also known as undulant fever in humans, causes fever and night sweats; the swine species of the organism Brucella suis may cause an even more severe arthritis than other species of the disease.
Feral swine also carry the swine-specific virus pseudorabies, or "‘the mad itch." This is a disease, like brucellosis, that is not presently found in domestic swine in Alabama. Pseudorabies has no human health implications, but could cause significant problems if introduced into any of our domestic swine herds. It is highly recommended farmers who keep domestic hogs in a fence make certain feral hogs cannot come in contact with their animals.
Then, there are environmental issues. I have spoken with people who spend a fair amount of time in our state’s national forests. They tell me the negative environmental impact left in the wake of these wild hogs is astounding. I have seen hay fields almost completely destroyed by a sounder (herd) of wild hogs. Again, the damage to farm and timber land is in the BILLIONS of dollars.
So what can be done? Eradication may be impossible and control difficult. Hunting is one way and very popular, but the folks from wildlife conservation tell me when one wild hog is taken out of an area by hunters it will be replaced by several others. Trapping is a good method of control, but requires some equipment. Always check with the state wildlife agency for their regulations in these areas.
Finally, in an effort to address some of these issues, our Commissioner John McMillan has formed a feral pig task force. This is a working group made up of our folks at the Department of Agriculture and representatives from state and federal wildlife agencies, the Wildlife Federation, Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, ALFA, Auburn University Department of Wildlife and College of Veterinary Medicine, and probably others to be added. With many issues to debate, one area of interest to this group is a developing project at Auburn University that is researching a population control product. When it comes to trying to control these critters, we need our toolbox full.
Stay tuned for more developments in upcoming issues.
Dr. Tony Frazier is the State Veterinarian for Alabama.