In its effort to control Florida's overpopulation of feral hogs, the state has enlisted some unlikely partners: children.
Kids like 9-year-old Cecilia Plummer, a fourth-grader at St. Jude's Cathedral in St. Petersburg. She will be one of 20 children to don gear and rifle for a hog-hunting expedition on a state reserve in Manatee County.
The youth hunt will be a first for the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which also touts the event as a way to get kids outside more. Parents will tag along on the free hunts, which will be held on two Saturdays this month.
Little Cecilia is ready.
She's not the frilly pink type. She prefers light blue. She'll take guitar lessons over Barbie.
And when it comes to wild hogs? She's not at all squeamish about killing them.
"They're creepy," she said.
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Wildlife agencies in many states offer children opportunities to learn hunting.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission began hosting youth hunts three years ago. The agency offers instruction on hunting hogs, deer, turkey and water fowl. Almost 300 youths participated in the hunts last season, said Tony Young, a spokesman for the hunting division.
But concerns remain about the future of the sport.
"This is a part of our heritage here in Florida, and we've lost a couple of generations of hunters," said Kenny Barker, who coordinates youth hunts for the wildlife commission and the nonprofit National Wild Turkey Federation. "This is an effort to recruit and retain some new hunters for our future. Kids need to learn that food doesn't come from a grocery store."
Officials with Swiftmud, the water management district, see the hunts as opportunities to get rid of nuisance hogs while exposing young people to Florida's outdoors. Feral hogs are found in each of Florida's 67 counties.
"They root up the land and ruin the habitat for native animals," said district spokeswoman Robyn Felix.
When the problem gets especially bad on state lands, Swiftmud opens them up for hog hunts for adults. This year, they decided kids should have a chance, too.
So the agency created a contest, inviting children statewide, ages 8 to 16, to fill out applications and write short essays. Winners would participate in a hunt at Edward W. Chance Reserve's Gilley Creek Tract in eastern Manatee.
The agency had space for 24 kids but received only 20 applications so every applicant will be able to go. Half of the group will hunt on Saturday; the others on Oct. 24.
Volunteers will act as guides for the young hunters. The American Disability Adventures organization will provide bright orange vests and low-caliber rifles and shotguns for those who need them.
Guns will remain unloaded and will be carried by parents and volunteers until they reach the hunting site, Felix said. Dogs won't be used, but participants will use "blinds" — boxes or huts covered in camouflage.
A Swiftmud senior land manager and representatives from American Disability Adventures will instruct the youngsters on proper hunting techniques.
Groups such as the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida are opposed to such events, having protested several youth deer hunts sponsored by the wildlife commission.
"We don't think having a young child shoot an animal and watch that animal die before his or her eyes is a positive thing in any way," said foundation spokesman Nick Atwood. "Children these days are disconnected from nature and wildlife. Killing an animal is not going to reverse that trend."
Feral hogs in Florida are largely of Spanish origin, brought over by explorers in the mid 1500s. A wild male hog can stand 3 feet tall and weigh as much as 200 pounds.
No one denies the hogs are a nuisance, Atwood said. "(But) if you can tolerate them for a short time, the pigs will probably move on."
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Cecilia's mother, Alyssa Collazo, grew up in West Virginia and watched her father and brother hunt deer and squirrels.
"I think I took away from that an appreciation for being able to self-rely. It's very primitive and minimalist," said Collazo, 31, an outreach worker for the Pinellas County Health Department.
She encouraged Cecilia to apply for the hunt, but says she was surprised by her daughter's zeal.
During a recent camping trip, Cecilia learned to shoot a gun.
"I went up to shoot seven times and I made a couple bull's-eyes," Cecilia said proudly. "I was the best at it."
And if Cecilia actually gets her hog, does she know what might come next?
That's easy, she said.
"Make more bacon out of it."
Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813)226-3405.