Ultimately, this is going to be about a castrated wild hog from Florida that found its way into the freezers of the MeatEater crew, but I need to preface the story by saying that I typically dislike high-fence hunting. It’s not that I think high fence hunting is immoral. After all, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that my brother raises lambs inside a fenced pasture and then slaughters them with a .22 rifle, which is basically the same thing as high fence hunting except he’s honest and just calls it “raising lambs for meat.” What I dislike about high fence hunting is that its practitioners make a mockery of real hunting by borrowing the practices and language of our pursuit in order to camouflage, or distort, what they are actually up to. Because they recognize all of the great things about hunting— things such as acquired skill, discipline, patience, endurance, learning how to deal with uncertainty—they try to rig up a situation where they can feel as though they possess these characteristics, or at least appear to possess these characteristics, without actually having to go through all that work. That’s why hunting TV shows that do a lot of fenced whitetail hunts seldom actually show the fence. To do so would destroy the illusion they are trying to create. Conversely, this helps explain why my brother doesn’t get dressed in camouflage clothes and take triumphant grip-and-grin photos of him and his dead lambs and his .22 rifle. He’s comfortable just doing what he does, and doesn’t dress it up as something it’s not.
But like everything in life, the debate over high-fence hunting is endlessly complicated. Hard and fast truths about the subject are elusive. For instance, there are many species of big game animals in Africa that would be endangered or worse if it weren’t for the protections that they get inside fenced enclosures that are maintained by hunting outfits. Here in the U.S., we wouldn’t have a fraction of the buffalo that we now have if it weren’t for bison ranchers’ ability to monetize their animals through the sale of “hunts.” After all, about 94% of the approximately half a million buffalo on this continent are privately owned, and the folks that own them aren’t necessarily doing it for charity. If they didn’t have the potential to turn a profit from the species, that animal might very well have vanished permanently from the American landscape in the way of wooly mammoths and passenger pigeons.
Another interesting twist on high fence hunting is something that I had witnessed in South Florida. (This is where the castrated hog enters the story.) I was down there with the MeatEater crew hunting Osceola turkeys on a big cattle ranch. One night, the rancher’s son invited us to join him on a wild hog hunt with his hounds. At dusk we drove a swamp buggy out to the north end of his property, where it abuts a 40,000-plus acre nature preserve that hosts a tremendous variety of rare birds along with whitetail deer, alligators, and Osceola turkeys. The preserve is closed to all hunting, and much of it is closed to human traffic of any sort. Wild hogs are a major concern on the preserve, as they can have serious negative impacts on the flora and fauna. For this reason, the preserve has a hired hunter who’s contracted to kill an annual quota of the hogs in order to control their numbers.
Obviously this contract hunter can’t kill every hog; enough of the pigs elude his efforts that the rancher’s son prefers to hunt hogs immediately adjacent to the preserve in order to capitalize on the abundance of pigs that cross from the preserve on to his family’s ranch. Until recently, though, it was hard hunting. As soon as the dogs would get after the pigs, the pigs would head for the thick cover of the preserve where the rancher’s son couldn’t legally chase them. This caused much annoyance until the rancher’s son had an idea. He bordered off the 400-acres of his ranch that sits adjacent to the preserve with some hog-proof fence. Then he fitted in a bunch of trap doors along the preserve boundary, which would allow the pigs to come and go as they pleased. Now, whenever he sees that he’s getting a lot of fresh pig tracks coming in through the trap doors from the preserve—where the hogs are most certainly not wanted—he goes out at 4 a.m. and shuts all the doors before the hogs can return from their night’s feeding to the safety of the preserve. This traps the pigs inside his 400 acre parcel. The next evening, right after dusk, he heads out with dogs and turns them loose.
One night, after a day of turkey hunting, the MeatEater crew (me, Dan Doty, Janis Putelis, and Dom Savio) joined the rancher’s son for a mostly recreational and off-camera hog hunt. No sooner did we enter the fenced parcel and the dogs cut a fresh track. Within minutes they’d caught up with the hog, a big ol’ boar. He was thin and mean and stank like hell, and the rancher’s son assured us that this pig wouldn’t be very good to eat. So instead of killing the pig, we loaded it into a trailer and kept hunting. Soon the dogs kicked up another hog out of a palm thicket and chased it into a canal, where they caught it. This pig turned out to be a “barrow,” which is the term for a castrated boar. (Just like “steer” is a castrated bull.) The rancher’s son had caught it with his hounds and castrated it several months earlier. As the rancher’s son put it, the castration “had taken its mind off ass and put it on grass.” The incision was completely healed up, and the boar had put on some body fat. He said that this hog would now be great to eat, with more tender meat and better taste than a sexually intact boar. Our producer, Dan Doty, killed the hog by slicing its left jugular vein with a SOG blade. We then gutted the pig, salvaging the heart, kidneys, liver, and about eight feet of intestines to use as sausage casing.
The next morning, we went out with the rancher’s son to castrate last night’s hog. After wrestling it out of the trailer, he made two neat incisions and popped out the testicles about as effortlessly as letting a fish slip out of your hand. We then let the hog run off, wishing it a speedy recovery. From there we went and butchered the barrow hog from the night before, saving all of the meat including the head and feet and even a bunch of scraped hide for making fried pork skin. By the time we were done, I figured that the newly castrated hog was out there licking its wounds and thinking about a night of feeding on green grass. In a few months, if he got caught again, he’d likely end up in someone’s smokehouse. In the meantime, I’d have plenty of fresh insights about high-fence hunting to think about. Like I said earlier, some things in life are endlessly complicated.
Steve and MeatEater DP Dom Savio packaging the frozen meat of a “barrow,” or castrated wild hog before a flight out of Tampa. Everything arrived home in perfect condition.