A NPR Morning Edition news report last September by Jessica Meszaro, “Meat Industry Turns Florida’s Feral Hogs Into Prime Pork,” reminded me of my encounters with wild pigs on the Quarter Circle A ranch in Manatee County in the 1950’s, particularly shortly after my family moved onto the ranch in 1957.
My father quit his ranch hand job on the Circle T spread near Lake Okeechobee for a similar position on the ranch outside of Parrish. Although the pay was not much greater, the opportunity to build his own new house, have a cow to milk, have chickens for eggs and meat, have a steer to butcher once or twice a year, and have a garden as benefits enticed both my parents. His salary of $250 a month, supplemented by beef, chicken, eggs, milk, housing, and utilities, allowed him to buy a decent truck, a serviceable car for my mother, and a horse he could train and use in local calf roping competitions. He felt he was in hog heaven.
Wild pigs added to that sense of wellbeing. He and Vick Blackstone, the ranch foreman, decided one way to lessen the destructive impact of hogs on the pasture land Vick was trying to develop to improve beef production would be to trap the feral pigs, keep them in a pen for a couple months to fatten them on grain, and butcher them for food to feed the ranch families. They built two large wooden traps out of two by ten pine boards that stood eight feet tall and were fifteen feet by fifteen feet square. A single hinged trap door four feet square propped up by a two by four driven slightly into the ground served as a simple mechanism for capturing the pigs. The traps were pre-baited with livestock feed, tomatoes from the local commercial farms, and, occasionally, carrion (road killed raccoons or possums) with the trap door tied open for a couple weeks so the hogs would get used to the structures. Once the traps were set for captures, my brother and I were often sent to check on them.
The first capture of two yearling hogs proved entertaining as my father and Vick took turns roping the 75 pound pigs as though they were calves, tying them off to posts, jumping down into the trap to hogtie their rear feet first and then their front feet, and putting burlap bags over their heads to reduce their struggles. The hogs were dragged out through the trap door, thrown onto the bed of a pickup truck, and driven to their brand new sty. My brother and I happily took on the new chore of daily feedings. The unpleasant task of mucking out the sty also fell to us after a fence with a gate divided the sty in half, so the pigs could be enticed with food to gather in one half of the enclosure while we closed the gate. We cleaned the empty half and repeated the process to clean the opposite half. We made sure we never leaned over the fence when we poured feed into the troughs. After the hogs got over their initial fear of being near people, they would charge toward the fence in efforts to get at us for days as if they were defending territory. That charging behavior occurred most frequently when sows were captured along with two to a half dozen piglets. One 250 pound sow that had three piglets grunted and charged us every day for three months before she was finally slaughtered and sent to a butcher.
Pork chops, roasts, and sausage filled our freezer. Pork and beef dominated the dinner table because the chickens were only replaced every 18 months or so. We gathered eggs every day from the thirty chickens that were kept in a wire cage that was suspended from the barn rafters, but the complex process of slaughtering and plucking chickens took most of a day, a task both Vick and my father put off until their wives repeatedly complained about not having chicken as a meal alternative.
Small herds or drifts of pigs were common sights along the length US 98, US 19, and all the other rural roads in the 50’s and 60’s, and, because the state was much less developed, the feral pig population did not get the attention the animals get today.
Wild pigs have become a problem in Florida as hundreds of thousands roam the state and destroy pasture land, crops, and residential property. There’s an effort now to turn the pest into a profit. According to William M. Giuliano in “Wild Hogs in Florida: Ecology and Management,” “Wild hogs are now found in every county in Florida and in at least 35 states and Canadian provinces, including most of the Southeast. Florida’s wild hog population is second only to Texas’s; the state is estimated to have more than 500,000 wild hogs in a relatively stable population (there are from 1 to 2 million wild hogs in the southeastern United States). Some of the highest hog population densities in Florida can be found north and west of Lake Okeechobee in areas with large forested tracts, dense understory vegetation, and limited public access. Hog numbers tend to be lower in areas with intensive agriculture and urbanization, and little water.” The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission contends “the wild pig (Sus scrofa), also called the wild hog, wild boar or feral pig, is not a Florida native…and prefers oak-cabbage palm hammocks, freshwater marshes and sloughs and pine flatwoods. Wild pigs can reach weights of more than 150 pounds and be 5-6 feet long. They usually travel in small family groups or alone.
Laura Reilly, argued in 2014: “One solution to Florida’s wild pig problem: Eat them.” She put forth that “Anna Maria restaurateur Ed Chiles’ three moderately priced indoor-outdoor restaurants, Anna Maria’s Sandbar, Mar Vista on Longboat Key, and Anna Maria’ BeacHhouse, showcases Florida foods, which includes Braised Punta Gorda Wild Boar Au Jus with Beagle Bay Organic Sauerkraut. That is a pretty upscale treatment for meat coming from “descendants of pigs brought by Hernando de Soto in 1539.” She did address a question most restaurant patrons would ask: “But is this wild pork safe? Field dressing wild hogs puts hunters at risk of brucellosis infection, and then there are the specters of dangerous diseases such as trichinosis, pseudorabies and leptospirosis. According to D.J. Conner, who regulates animals coming in and out of the state for Florida’s Department of Agriculture, if it’s cooked thoroughly (the USDA says that means an internal temperature of 160), it poses no greater risk than commercial pork.”
From chapter 9, “The Barn,” of Growing Up Floridian:
Lessons in how steak, pork roasts, and fried chicken got to the table were taught in that barn, too. Every six months a steer was grain fed for a couple of months before he was butchered to serve to families. Wild hogs were as frequently trapped, fed, and slaughtered. The anatomy lessons offered during those very real life moments identified livers, hearts, stomachs, and intestines in three vivid dimensions. Every eighteen months the chickens were replaced after they were slaughtered and distributed to the ranch families. I was not quite prepared for the spectacle of bringing to life the adage of “running around like a chicken with its head cut off.” Even at eight years-old, I had heard the saying many times but did not realize such a behavior could happen. When Vick and my father set up a huge iron scalding pot over a fire in front of the barn one Saturday morning, I had just finished cleaning the chicken area and washing off the red wagon with the hose at the back of the barn. Both men had hatchets and oak stump chopping blocks set near the bubbling pot. They went into the chicken cages, brought out two chickens at a time, and chopped their heads off. Then, they tossed the headless bodies into the grass. The white unbalanced forms ran or stumbled around the area for ten to twenty seconds, sometimes going fifteen to twenty feet away from where they were tossed. The actions of the headless chickens were the strangest I had ever seen, and I was hesitant about eating chicken for some weeks afterwards. After all the chickens were dispatched, both men plunged the bodies into the scalding water, plucked the feathers, dressed the birds, and wrapped them in white freezer paper. I carried a box filled with white packages to my mother so she could place them in our freezer.