No longer barefoot, living high on the hog

October 29, 2006|By New York Times News Service

ASPERMONT, Texas -- On a moonless October night, a burly man in overalls turned off the engine of his mud-caked white Toyota truck. Yelps from coyotes and an owl's hoot occasionally broke the West Texas silence. Then, from an open field, Bob Richardson heard the noise he had been awaiting.

Four of his short-haired scent hounds, which had been released earlier, began to bark from the darkness. Richardson jumped out of the truck and freed a black pit bull from a cage on the truck's flatbed. He chased after his pit bull into the darkness toward the barking hounds.

He tripped in a wet ditch but kept running through the milo stalks. When he got to the baying dogs, the light on his miner's hat revealed that the pit bull, trained for just this purpose, had clamped onto the face of a feral hog.

As he had done thousands of times before, Richardson, 58, pounced on the snorting beast and tied its feet together, immobilizing it. Within minutes, he had loaded the animal barehanded into a cage.

Richardson used to run through this brush land northwest of Abilene without any shoes, hence his nickname: "Barefoot Bob." But when he worked for the fire department in Abilene, his bosses demanded that he don footwear. Now, he wears sneakers, which he buys in bulk at Wal-Mart.

A lot of people in rural Texas catch wild hogs, which can grow to several hundred pounds. But there is sometimes a twist to Richardson's hunts - he spends a few nights a week cruising the dirt roads of Stonewall County, a place with more hogs than people, to run down the wild animals using only his dogs and his bare hands. "It's for fun," he said.

It has also become lucrative as Europeans and an increasing number of Americans clamor for wild boar. Richardson said he made $28,000 last year selling live feral hogs.

"I think it's a great health-conscious niche market," said Dick Koehler, one of Richardson's customers and the vice president of Frontier Meats, based in Fort Worth. "It has real potential for growth."

Koehler said that about 60 percent of the processed hog meat from his plant ended up on the tables of fancy restaurants in Europe but that its popularity is growing in the United States. Each year, his company ships more hog meat to American restaurants and specialty supermarkets to feed the demands for organic food, Koehler said.

The animals were introduced to North America as a food source in 1539 by the Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto, said Billy Higginbotham, a wildlife specialist with the Texas A&M Agricultural Research and Extension Center at Overton.

During the 1800s and 1900s, escaped domestic pigs became feral, sprouted tusks and grew coarse black hair. They crossbred with Russian boars, brought to North America for food and sport. The resulting hybrid wild boar has spread across the country, increasing in number to an estimated 4 million in 39 states, Higginbotham said.

The population of feral hogs has ballooned for a combination of reasons, Higginbotham said. For one, he said, they are intelligent animals. Also, they will eat just about anything and are highly adaptable to changing food sources.

Wild pigs are prolific breeders. A sow can be ready for her first litter of four to six offspring within six months, and a mature sow can produce two litters a year, Higginbotham said.

In Texas, hunters bait deer with 300 million pounds of corn annually, he said, and the hogs eat a large percentage of the bait. Hunters sometimes release feral hogs into areas of the state where they had not lived before.

Wild hogs can bring new problems. In Texas alone, the aggressive, omnivorous and razor-toothed animals cause nearly $52 million in damage a year to farmland, livestock and pastures, according to the Texas Cooperative Extension.

Jerry Eddins, the owner of the 10,000-acre J. Duke Ranch where Richardson hunts, is a serious quail hunter. Every year, he spreads grain to feed the birds, but hogs eat the bird food, along with whatever quail eggs they come across.

"They eat anything. They really don't have a natural predator," Eddins said. "So, Barefoot Bob Richardson is the natural predator."

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