Of the many memories etched in my mind from the double-murder trial and conviction of Alex Murdaugh, wild hogs are, well, the least expected. Hogs were mentioned so often throughout the six weeks in court, it sometimes seemed as though they were on trial.
The hogs' prominent role was connected to the guns used by Alex Murdaugh's sons Paul and Buster, each of whom had been given a .300 Blackout semiautomatic rifle for Christmas to use in hunting hogs. More to the point, one of the two weapons used in the murders was a .300 Blackout, perhaps a missing one that Paul lost. Neither murder weapon has been found. Paul, 22, was killed by two blasts from a 12-gauge shotgun. His mother, Maggie, 52, was shot five times with the Blackout rifle.
Several of Paul's friends testified to his passion for hunting and shared their own exploits in the field. Jurors heard how a felled hog would sometimes go to the skinning shed at Moselle, the Murdaugh hunting compound. Sometimes the animal would go to locals who appreciated the food. Other times, the carcass would be left to nature's discretion.
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Talk of killing hogs came naturally to these and other witnesses. Ronnie Crosby, a former law partner and friend of Alex Murdaugh, testified that he had killed hundreds of hogs in broad daylight, countering the accused's testimony that he and his boys hunted hogs only at night. It's true, nonetheless, that hogs do most of their foraging at night to avoid human predators. They're smart like that.
Humans, of course, are smarter than pigs -- usually -- which is why Paul's first rifle had a thermal scope to pick up the hogs' body heat at night. Apparently, night hunting for hogs is a blast, though I'll probably never find out, as I am no hunter. A professed lover of anything with a heartbeat, I do, however, generally support non-trophy hunting and understand that most hunters are avid conservationists. But the constant refrain about hog killing day after day began to drag me down.
Once during a court break that fell on, no kidding, National Pig Day, I was commiserating with Charlotte attorney Trey Lindley. "I'm feeling bad about the hogs," I said. He replied, "Just imagine if you have a pet pig." Well, I hadn't thought of that. Clearly, Trey, who is co-owner of a delightful juliana (mini-pig) named Lula Belle, took the prize for pig sensitivity.
After the trial ended and Murdaugh was sentenced to two life sentences, I wasn't quite ready to abandon the hogs. Surely there's a way to coexist with this invasive species short of mass shooting, I thought. But even my go-to expert on animal welfare issues, Wayne Pacelle of Animal Wellness Action, told me that the hog problem, unlike most animal issues, lacks moral clarity. "This one is much more nuanced and difficult," he said, primarily because of the hogs' "hyper-reproductive capabilities."
The pig slaughters I found offensive, it turns out, have become essential to management. Ironically, the weapon of choice is an AR-15 type rifle like those of the Murdaugh sons.
Wild hogs have existed since before the Ice Age, but they're not native to the United States. European explorers brought them to the New World in the 1500s. Highly adaptable, these porcine marauders have destroyed forests, swamps and agricultural fields. Some people refer to the overpopulation issue as a "pig bomb." Though originally the problem was limited to the Southeast, California and Hawaii, they're now in at least 35 states and several Canadian provinces.
In South Carolina, as in many other states, it's open season on hogs -- no limit and no license required. In Texas, which unhappily boasts half of America's estimated 5 million feral hogs, hunters can shoot them from helicopters. In some western states, wild hogs have been imported to attract trophy hunters. Nothing says "cool" quite like a boar's head mounted on the wall, I guess.
Thus far, the pigs are winning. Farmers, hunters and other large landowners say you can never kill enough of them. Feral hogs procreate young and often, beginning when they're just 8 to 10 months old. A mature sow typically births four to eight piglets twice a year.
These aren't cute little cartoon piggies or E.B. White's Wilbur from "Charlotte's Web." They're big and hairy with tusks (actually teeth) that can grow as long as nine inches in males. They use their tusks and snouts to plow through fields, eating crops and digging up roots, tubers and bulbs. They also eat fruit, acorns, bugs, reptiles, amphibians, worms, nesting birds and dead animals, as well as live lambs and calves.
Don't hate them yet?
Then consider that wild pigs also pollute streams and destroy ecosystems. In South Carolina, they're wreaking havoc in Congaree National Park, a 26,000-acre treasure that features a flood plain forest and includes one of the highest canopies in the world. This sanctuary for plants and wildlife has become the hogs' Ritz-Carlton. Like a pack of wilding drunks, they're destroying habitats, contaminating water with their wallowing and feces, eroding topsoil and generally making a mess of things. The hogs also carry diseases, such as brucellosis, which they transmit to domestic pigs as well as to humans who come into physical contact with them. Pig attacks on humans are rare, but they don't like us either.
Without a ready solution to this porcine predicament, and in the absence of a few million hungry wolves, a little American ingenuity would seem timely. Why doesn't some bacon-loving entrepreneur figure out a way to turn wild hog into the newest fast-food delicacy: free-range pork, humanely harvested and converted to inexpensive burgers 'n' barbecue. Fried tubers on the side for the ironic diner.
It might be the first time in history that animal welfare advocates, Second Amendment activists and hunters could find common cause. People like me could eat a little pork now and then as a moral imperative: Save the planet, eat hogs.
With permission, we could name the restaurant chain Lula Belle's.
South Carolinian and Pulitzer Prize winner Kathleen Parker's email address is email@example.com.