The dogs run ahead, passing through the spotlight as the handlers follow in a muddy pickup, weaving around trees and splashing through bogs near Plant City.
The dogs — Hambone, Slim, Bonnie, Daisy and Thumper — wear thick leather collars to protect their throats from scimitar-shaped boar tusks. They also wear transmitters with antennas. While Andy Baker drives, Derrik Glass tracks the dogs on a handheld GPS monitor.
It's another hunting night for Steve Davis' team. Davis pays Hillsborough County for the right to catch and remove feral hogs from public land in east Hillsborough. The goal: Take the hogs alive and sell the meat on the hoof or slaughtered.
On this mid-October night, he's joined by county land conservation manager Ross Dickerson. Feral hogs are overrunning rural areas of Hillsborough County, he says. They tear up preservation lands, public parks and sports fields. As suburbia encroaches on their habitat, they dig up flower beds and lawns.
"They love St. Augustine grass,'' Dickerson says.
Davis has taken up his usual spot in the truck bed. He stays there to rotate the dogs, keeping them fresh for the hunt.
Up ahead, the cur dogs find a scent and dash off into the brush. When they catch up to the hog, they'll nip at its rump so it stops and turns. They circle to keep it contained while barking out the news of a capture. Glass already knows. His GPS shows them all in one spot.
The truck bumps and splashes along in that direction, Baker trying to get as close as he can. Glass calls out the distance, "500 yards … 300 yards.'' At a particularly soggy spot, Baker, Glass and Davis jump out and free the catch dogs, Jaspar and Phantom, who wear wide collars but are also armored in Kevlar vests.
The men never know what they will find. Sometimes it's an intimidating 400-pound boar. This time, it's a sow of about 140 pounds. There are no tusks, but she has sharp, inch-plus teeth. The catch dogs rush in, biting the sow's ears and clamping down until Davis pins it with a knee and grabs a front and back leg. The trapped beast bellows, squeals and thrashes in the shallow pond where the chase ended, but the hunt is over.
Within an hour, the dogs pursue another dark-coated sow, scurrying past the spotlight. A catch dog bites for the ear, but the pig, apparently deformed, has none. The sow squeals, snorts and fights, blood from a bite slowly spreading in ankle-deep water.
Soon, both sows stand docilely in a cage on the truck. Dickerson is pleased with the catch, because both pigs are pregnant. That means the trappers really captured up to two dozen future pigs.
That leaves thousands more to catch. The animals, which roam throughout the South, are particularly populous in Florida. They root around rural Hillsborough like miniature backhoes, cause big problems in wetlands and open the soil for invasive plants to take root, Dickerson says.
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Davis, owner of Tampa Wholesale Nursery in Dover and a trapper for about 15 years, is one of five trappers contracting with the county, each in a different area. Davis pays the county about $250 per year for the right to trap hogs. He goes on hunts two to four times a week and captured 295 hogs last year. He sells the animals live or slaughtered for $50 to $100 each. Individuals buy them for July Fourth and New Year's Eve barbecues, or to stock their freezers. Davis provides some for area church barbecues. Wild hogs have a bit of a gamey taste, Davis says, but it's barely noticeable if the meat is cooked right.
Dogs aren't his only tool. Davis also uses baited traps to catch hogs, but says the animals are sometimes too smart to go in the cage. He has a picture of two pigs on each side of a trap, kneeling and eating corn through the grate but avoiding the open door. It's even harder to trap them when other food — like acorns — is readily available.
"We'll catch some of the young ones and we'll catch a few of the hungry sows,'' he says, "but when the acorns are falling, they're hard to get in traps.''
Contact Philip Morgan at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3435.