Welcome to Wildlife Week, an exploration of what happens when nature and home meet.
Edward Dickey would’ve caught that whole hog herd (or the whole hog "sounder," as those in the industry know it). He always does. He’s been successfully trapping feral hogs around the Houston area for five years now, studying their moves and evolving his practices to out-maneuver their intelligence. Dickey is the guy you call when you have a feral hog problem, as large swaths of the Texas city currently do. So there’s no reason to doubt that he would’ve caught the whole sounder in nearby Sugar Land, if the homeowners association hadn’t chased him off.
As Dickey told me over the phone recently, he didn’t mean to get in trouble on that hot summer day in the suburban city just southwest of Houston. He assumed that, since several Sugar Land homeowners had gotten together and pooled their money for his services, he had the HOA’s blessing. That wasn’t the case. Mere hours before he intended to finish the job, he got a call demanding he remove his materials "immediately," as the HOA claimed he was trespassing and that the traps posed a danger to children and pets.
"The other HOAs have never been worried about my trapping system being a danger to the public," Dickey says, adding that he told the Sugar Land HOA he was both bonded and insured. The devices themselves are clearly marked and look like what they are: hog traps. Plus, the tall panels don’t even have a real gate attached until Dickey installs it late in the process, and the gate only drops if he presses the button. But such are the risks of trying to eradicate 350-pound hogs in one of the country’s most sprawling suburbs.
Dickey, who came to hog hunting as a career after growing up hunting with his family in Texas, deals with HOAs frequently, usually because they’ve hired him. While he also clears feral hogs for ranchers around the state’s farmland, it’s Houston’s growing neighborhoods that need the most help. Feral hogs, which are both a meme and a real threat to humans and their pets, were once a problem primarily for farmers in rural areas, but are increasingly disrupting more settled territory: the suburbs.
Dickey told me he’s personally noticed an uptick in hog activity around Houston since he started professionally eradicating the animals half a decade ago. The Woodlands, a suburban city on the northeast side of town, are rife with feral hogs, and residents in Anahuac—the state’s alligator capital, southeast of Houston—claim they’ve been chased by the hoofed animals. In Fulshear, on the far-west side of Houston, a teenager killed a 400-pound hog after it enacted severe damage to local ranches. Dickey is currently at work on a job in the northeast Humble-Atascocita area. The hogs are everywhere.
Part of it has to do with the city’s rapid growth. As construction spreads across Houston in every direction, builders—and, eventually, residents—are encountering existing hog populations that were chased out by new developments. It doesn’t help that the suburbs are the perfect environment for the feral hogs, which are drawn to the trappings of quiet human life—namely: moist, worm-laden lawns and soft-soiled gardens.
While Texans lament the movement of Californians to the state, it’s this other non-native species that’s causing significant economic damage. The hogs have made such a comfortable home for themselves here that the state’s top agricultural university, Texas A&M, has an entire website dedicated to tracking them, subtitled "Coping with Feral Hogs." According to A&M’s most recent data, feral hogs are estimated to cause more than $52 million in agricultural damage in Texas each year. As a result, Texas is rife with widespread attempts to remove them. Helicopter hog hunting services proliferate the state, and at least one South Texas couple hunts feral hogs as a public service, according to a 2020 Texas Monthly article.
He has one chance to drop the real gate, or else the hogs, via their aforementioned intelligence, will learn to stay away from anything resembling a fence, gate, or even a metal right-angle.
But, as Dickey explains, it takes more than a helicopter and a few rifles to successfully remove hogs from a neighborhood. On his personal hierarchy of intelligence, Dickey places feral hogs between "whales" and "dogs." Which is to say: They’re extremely smart. "Now, the hogs are getting more intelligent to the point that, when they hear the helicopters, they’re hiding under trees and not coming out," Dickey says. "So they’re learning to stay away from helicopters as well."
Dickey doesn’t bother with helicopters. His success stems from an elaborate trapping system—akin to a human-hog mind game—that he plays with each sounder. He spent the better portion of our hour-long phone call patiently explaining to me how it all works, but to be succinct: Dickey constructs a round, 35-foot corral, one large panel at a time, with a fake "guillotine gate" attached. Then, he sets up the corral with some "400 pounds" of corn. Over the course of weeks to months, he studies the hogs’ activity by watching live video feeds from thermal cameras. Once he gains their trust, as demonstrated by the sounder moving in and around the trap, Dickey replaces the fake gate with a real one that can be dropped by a remote trigger he operates from his Houston home. Then—and this is crucial—he has one chance to drop the real gate, or else the hogs, via their aforementioned intelligence, will learn to stay away from anything resembling a fence, gate, or even a metal right-angle, and the whole plan is ruined.
"It’s pretty intense," Dickey says. "Once you drop the gate on them, they’re slamming the panels and, you know, kind of freaking out. And once you approach the trap, they start getting worked up. Typically, it’s good to drive up with your headlights right on them; for some reason, that calms them down."
After Dickey successfully traps a feral hog, he either relocates the animal to ranch land, or, depending on the sex and age of the hogs, he "dispatches" them. The "dispatching" is easily, he told me, the worst part of the job. "I enjoy the excitement of the capture," Dickey says. "But dispatching, you know, I wouldn’t say that I enjoy it. But it’s part of my job. And just like everyone else, there’s part of our job that we just have to deal with."
Feral hog hunters like Dickey are free to dispatch as they please in Texas, where there are currently no limits on how many hogs a person can kill in a single day. The state wildlife department claims that "lethal control measures" are the only effective means of reducing wild hog populations. Of course, there are some opponents of this logic. The international animal protection organization In Defense of Animals, for example, refers to the practice of trapping and dispatching as "horrendously cruel and barbaric" and advocates for pig contraception for population control instead. (Dickey referred me to his YouTube channel, which is full of videos of him demonstrating his services, but I could not personally bring myself to watch any of them. And, after viewing a series of photographs that Dickey sent to me in the minutes leading up to our call, I decided I’d had enough hog gore for the day.)
Beyond dispatching, there are other parts of the work that Dickey very much likes. It feels nice, he says, to rid an entire suburb of the threat of a ruined garden or even, in rare cases, a grisly death. Hogs, of course, are also known to occasionally "dispatch" people, as a pack of them did in 2019 in Dickey’s territory, just 50 miles east of Houston. (As someone who grew up in Houston, I remember being warned to run like hell if we ever came upon one of the feral hogs. We all had our stories about encountering them while camping or about seeing them rooting around on the side of dark, two-lane highways, threatening the ruin of passing cars.) Dickey, however, has only been chased off a bait site by a slew of angry hogs once.
But back to that unfinished job in Sugar Land: Dickey was sure he had it, if only he’d been allowed to drop the gate. As it stands, residents there are still dealing with their unwelcome feral hog neighbors. Dickey is just a call away, if the HOA will allow it.
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