Another Natural Threat to Florida: Feral Hogs

ByABC News

June 8, 2005 — -- Floridians are up to their noses in wild pigs with a population boom that has gone hog-wild.

An estimated 500,000 wild pigs now roam through the dense vegetation of Florida, and the folks who live there are grappling with a problem that's never going to go away.

European pigs arrived in the country with some of the earliest settlers, and they either escaped or were released into the wild nearly 500 years ago. Since then they have migrated as far north as Canada, and into at least 35 states, but they feel especially at home in Florida.

And that's a problem.

"They can be big, they have long tusks, their hooves are kind of dangerous, and they move pretty fast," says Bill Giuliano, an assistant professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Giuliano and George Tanner, professor of conservation, have found that wild hogs can host many diseases and parasites, including cholera, tuberculosis, salmonella, anthrax, ticks, fleas, lice and others. Male pigs can be particularly intimidating, tipping the scales at up to 200 pounds.

In some parts of the state, pigs are wreaking havoc on farms and saplings in regenerating forests. Efforts to keep the pigs under control include hunting, trapping and fencing, but it's a constant uphill battle.

"They're not going to go away," Giuliano says.

A pig can produce two, and sometimes more, litters a year, especially in southern Florida where conditions are perfect. And a litter can number a dozen. That's a lot of pigs.

"You just can't stay ahead of it," Giuliano adds.

Fortunately, the pigs aren't too fond of humans, and they tend to shy away from urban areas. So it's not as though they're prowling the streets, looking for tourists.

But a human-pig encounter can be dangerous, especially if the pig feels cornered.

"If you trap one, they get pretty aggressive," he says. And "they can cause some damage."

But since they prefer to flee rather than fight, violent human encounters are quite rare. What concerns people like Giuliano is the fact that pigs can carry diseases that affect humans. Pigs, incidentally, are so much like humans that they are often used in research on human diseases.

And, of course, there's that problem of appetite.

"They'll eat anything," Giuliano says. "Even dead animals." True to their image, they are always looking for food, a fact that is well known to farmers. And they can be pretty clever when it comes to getting what they want.

Efforts to fence them out frequently fail because the pigs will use their hooves to claw away at the base of the fence until they can squeeze through. And fencing is so expensive that it isn't practical on a large scale, Giuliano says.

So the only alternatives are hunting or trapping and a smart pig can sometimes figure out how to use its snout to push open the door on a trap.

The abundance of pigs is not a new problem for Florida, but it has reached near epidemic proportions. It actually began soon after America was "discovered."

Researchers believe the first pigs were probably brought to this country by Hernando DeSoto, a Spanish explorer, who landed in Florida at Charlotte Harbor in 1539. Or they could have accompanied Ponce de Leon, who arrived a few years earlier. Both explorers apparently had a fondness for bacon.

Some of those pigs headed north, where they eventually met up with Eurasian wild boars in New Hampshire, probably in the late 1800s, which were imported for hunting. The two hogs mated, so many wild pigs today are hybrids.

They are true pigs, not pig-like animals like those that roam the Southwest. The javelina is considerably less charming than a wild pig, and it isn't actually a pig at all.

Although they've made their way across much of the continent, wild pigs have apparently never lost their affection for Florida. It has everything they need.

Giuliano says they are vulnerable to heat, and thus need water to cool themselves off during the dog days of summer.

"We've got lots of water in Florida," he says. Plus the vegetation they need for sustenance and cover. So they're there to stay. Just like a lot of other folks.

"Everyone likes to live in Florida, I guess," Giuliano says. Even pigs.

Lee Dye's column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.