It all began with a simple question to alt-country singer-songwriter Jason Isbell from William McNabb, an Arkansas resident who describes himself on his Twitter page as “Husband / Father / Christian / Libertarian / WCU [West Carolina University] Alum / & Fan of Pearl Jam & Red Sox”:

Isbell had, like many celebrities, expressed support for gun control (specifically a ban on assault weapons) in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton mass shootings.

So McNabb attempted to rebut him by naming a legitimate reason to own AR-15s and other advanced semiautomatic rifles: mowing down the feral hogs that menace him and his young children.

Unfortunately for McNabb, the mental image of a violent army of pigs facing off against one AR-15-wielding hero quickly got the better of Twitter and, before long, it was trending nationwide with over 50,000 tweets.

They were good tweets. It was probably the only good day on Twitter in the website’s history. And it wasn’t just Twitter. There is already an interactive web game where players can defend their small children from 30 to 50 hogs.

GQ’s Gabriella Paiella soon enough offered an explainer of the feral hog phenomenon and I found myself behind the curve, disappointing my editors by not explaining the hogs before our competitors. Like everyone, I found myself living in the hogs’ world, playing by rules the hogs made.

I have repeatedly reached out to Mr. McNabb for comment without success, in an attempt to get a full account of his and his family’s dealings with the feral hogs, who reportedly number between 30 and 50. (I should say also that McNabb has reported getting threats and harassment, which is horrible and unacceptable.)

Fortunately, McNabb explained much of the situation in subsequent tweets. Here is what the hogs did to Mr. McNabb, what they are doing to much of America and Europe, and what the dilemma of wild hogs says about the nature of human morality.

What the wild hogs did to Mr. McNabb

Here’s the thing: McNabb does not own an assault weapon, AR-15 or otherwise. He wants to make that very clear. Instead, he has used a .270 caliber hunting rifle that holds a mere four shells to fight back against the feral hogs in his yard.

These hogs have come to his 10-acre property four times, McNabb reports. In the rainy season in his Arkansas town, the hogs get pushed out of nearby “swamps / low lying areas looking for higher ground,” resulting in them pushing into human residential areas. He has dealt with the situation by shooting, trapping, and setting dogs upon the hogs.

Recalling one specific hog attack, McNabb says he shot and killed three hogs with his gun before getting his kids inside. His kids were not harmed.

So what’s the connection from McNabb’s perspective between the hogs and gun policy? The issue, as he sees it, is that gun type matters. Shotguns aren’t as effective as a rifle for this purpose, he claims, and despite his lack of an assault weapon, “Some of my neighbors do and from personal experience — I can see how it helped them.”

For the record, the US Department of Agriculture disagrees with this approach to feral hog management. “Shooting can be an effective control measure when only a few individual feral swine are present in an area,” the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) advises on a page titled “Feral Swine — Methods for Managing Damage.” “If larger groups are observed, shooting a few individuals of the group can disrupt the social organization and cause them to disperse even further across the landscape, thereby increasing the potential for damage. It is also very difficult, if not impossible, to shoot all feral swine in a group at one time. Ground shooting is labor intensive and is unlikely to have the desired relief from damage.” Emphasis mine.

So while a smaller group of feral swine — perhaps three to five — might be managed through shooting, a group the size of 30 to 50 is not effectively managed through firearms. APHIS does, however, agree with McNabb that fences can be cost prohibitive as a control technique.

As for the number range 30 to 50, Arkansas Game & Fish Commission spokesperson Keith Stephens told GQ’s Paiella, “I guess it’s possible, but that’s very large. The typical size we see is usually less than 20.” Stephens encourages Arkansans to contact the Game & Fish Commission for help dealing with any hog problems.

What the wild hogs did to America — and the world

One of McNabb’s key messages throughout his tweets is that this is a real problem. And, to be clear, it is, as the videos he tweeted at people mocking him demonstrate:

The videos aren’t his own — “I couldn’t video and shoot at the hogs simultaneously” — but illustrate just how devastating the feral hog problem is in much of Texas and neighboring states like Arkansas.

The problem is not usually one of safety. The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Rick Taylor notes that while “all wild animals have the potential of being dangerous, especially when wounded or cornered … in a natural state, feral hogs will prefer to run and escape danger, and are not considered dangerous.” If you trap or corner them, or challenge an injured hog or a mother protecting her children, there’s potential for danger: “Their razor sharp tusks combined with their lightning speed can cause serious injury.” But if McNabb simply got his kids inside, they likely would have been fine.

The problem, instead, has to do with the up to $2.5 billion in damage feral swine do to agriculture every year. “Wild hogs are ‘opportunistic omnivores,’ meaning they’ll eat most anything,” Smithsonian Magazine’s John Morthland explains. “They’ll devour or destroy whole fields — of sorghum, rice, wheat, soybeans, potatoes, melons and other fruits, nuts, grass, and hay. Farmers planting corn have discovered that the hogs go methodically down the rows during the night, extracting seeds one by one.”

The USDA’s map of feral swine in the US in 2018
Feral swine are ravaging the southeast and California and they are spreading north too, according to this USDA map of 2018 feral swine populations.
US Department of Agriculture / Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service

Their evils don’t stop there, Morthland writes. They also:

…erode the soil and muddy streams and other water sources, possibly causing fish kills. They disrupt native vegetation and make it easier for invasive plants to take hold. The hogs claim any food set out for livestock, and occasionally eat the livestock as well, especially lambs, kids and calves. They also eat such wildlife as deer and quail and feast on the eggs of endangered sea turtles.

Because of their susceptibility to parasites and infections, wild hogs are potential carriers of disease. Swine brucellosis and pseudorabies are the most problematic because of the ease with which they can be transmitted to domestic pigs and the threat they pose to the pork industry.

And those are just the problems wild hogs cause in rural areas. In suburban and even urban parts of Texas, they’re making themselves at home in parks, on golf courses and on athletic fields. They treat lawns and gardens like a salad bar and tangle with household pets.

Feral hogs feature tough hides, fast legs, and the intelligence of, well, pigs, which are far craftier than the typical deer or duck or other game.

In response to this threat, states menaced by feral hogs have embraced extreme measures. “They may be taken by any means or methods at any time of year,” the Texas parks department’s Rick Taylor writes. “There are no seasons or bag limits, however a hunting license and landowner permission are required to hunt them.” Feral hog meat is apparently quite lean and tasty (at least according to some feral pork enthusiasts), leading some to advocate hunting and eating the feral pigs, but even this additional motivation wasn’t enough to get the hog population under control

In 2011, Texas passed what’s known as the “pork chopper” bill, legalizing the use of gun-mounted helicopters to mow down feral hogs at a far faster pace than McNabb and his four-round hunting rifle can manage.

Sonia Smith in Texas Monthly had an excellent feature on the experience of aerial hog hunting in 2011, if you want to learn more about this method. Unfortunately for the hunters (and farmers ravaged by hogs), the pork chopper law hasn’t been very effective. Aerial hunting is expensive and not particularly popular, and even worse, the pigs are too wily for it, the Dallas Morning News’ Kelley Shannon reports. “The hogs have gotten smart. They kind of recognized what those rotor sounds mean, and they’ve headed for heavy cover,” the Texas Parks Department’s Steve Lightfoot told Shannon the year after the law’s passage.

Some states, like Missouri, have abandoned hunting as their primary control strategy (hat-tip the Guardian). Writing in the Missouri Conservationist Magazine, the Department of Conservation’s Lauren Hildreth argued, “From what we’ve seen in Missouri and in other states, we know that hunting is not effective at eliminating feral hogs. Here in Missouri, a shoot-on-sight strategy was encouraged for over 20 years. During that time, the feral hog population continued to grow.”

Instead, Hildreth urges Missourians to report hogs to the Department of Conservation so it can trap them effectively. “Report — Don’t Shoot!” is her final advice.

What we owe to the wild hogs

Feral pigs are a serious agricultural problem. But they present, I would argue, a serious, no-joke, moral problem too. The image of hunting tourists in helicopters raining death upon the hogs — and even of experienced conservation personnel trapping and euthanizing the hogs — raises an obvious moral question: Is it ethical to kill hogs in this manner?

To some degree this is a subsidiary question. If you think the conditions in factory pig farms — like Smithfield in North Carolina, where an investigation shows mother pigs forced into tiny cages where they can’t move around and frequently crush their piglets to death accidentally — are morally acceptable, it’s hard to see why gunning down or euthanizing feral hogs would be any worse.

But many people, and not just vegetarians or vegans, object to the brutality of modern factory farms. And as long as you accept some kind of moral limitations on our treatment of domesticated farm animals — not to mention our treatment of companion animals like dogs and cats, which basically no one would accept being treated the way pigs (which are probably more intelligent) are treated — then the question of what we owe to wild animals is a natural next query.

Wild animal suffering is a growing area of inquiry among certain zoologists, philosophers, and others interested in animal rights, in part because it raises uncomfortable questions and dramatically broadens the scope of their project. It is one thing to end factory farming, an industry that is strictly unnecessary for human survival and clearly represents a malignant human intervention from an animal rights perspective. But how could killing an animal in a farm be unethical and killing an animal in the wild ethical?

In some ways, feral hogs are an easy case for wild animal suffering researchers. It involves an invasive species introduced to the Americas by Christopher Columbus and Hernando de Soto, which has gained ground due to manmade climate change causing milder winters. We created the feral hog problem, so it makes sense that we would have some ethical obligations in terms of how to manage it.

(The harder cases involve hypothetical obligations to defend wild animals against suffering caused by carnivorous animals or the ravages of nature — in other words, protecting a gazelle from a lion, an obligation philosophers like Oscar Horta and Jeff McMahan and research groups like the Wild Animal Initiative have argued we might have. Yes, it sounds absurd — but that’s a longer piece for a later date.)

If you believe pigs have moral status — and I do — that implies that we should be actively pursuing measures like contraception that don’t involve putting pigs to death directly but could be effective in reducing population sizes. No contraceptives are currently available for feral hogs, and there are many challenges to the method (like the potential of contraceptives spreading to other species, or to humans who eat the hogs), but additional research and advocacy could change that.

Taking hog welfare seriously also implies that measures like Missouri’s approach of trapping and humanely euthanizing hogs are preferable to aerial gunning — especially if that approach is more effective anyway.

This is not where I expected to end this article but here we are. Ask not what you should do to the feral pigs; ask what you can do for the feral pigs.

Sign up for the Future Perfect newsletter. Twice a week, you’ll get a roundup of ideas and solutions for tackling our biggest challenges: improving public health, decreasing human and animal suffering, easing catastrophic risks, humanely handling the scourge of feral hogs, and — to put it simply — getting better at doing good.