Apr 14, 2015

Nonprofit Group Unites around Food, Faith and Feral Hogs

Hunters with Hogs for a Cause stand in front of the organization's refrigerated hog meat transport trailer. Photo Courtesy of Hunters for Hogs.

Members of Hogs for a Cause gave away 38,000 pounds of hog meat in Bell County last year. Photo courtesy of Hunters for Hogs.

By Darby Kendall
For Reporting Texas

Feral hogs die when the helicopters fly.

Shooting porky pests from helicopters is helping a nonprofit organization called Hogs for a Cause feed hungry people in Central Texas.

Founder David Haehn said the group is “devoted to two great passions: the love for the great outdoors and sharing our faith with others.” Last year, he said, Hogs for a Cause gave away 38,000 pounds of the invasive species’ meat to the hungry in Bell County, midway between Austin and Waco.

Haehn’s group hunts in several ways. The hogs are “eradicated” from helicopters, captured in high-tech traps or shot on the ground. Eager to rid their land of animals that destroy crops, some ranchers allow the hunting on private property.

“If you’re hanging in a helicopter going 100 mph, it gets pretty intense,” Haehn said. “Ranches invite us onto their properties to try and mitigate their hog issues. During our helicopter eradications, we can kill hundreds in a day. We have ground crews that then go out and collect the animals and put them into a freezer trailer.”

Heli-Hunter, the company Haehn uses to shoot the hogs, equips its helicopters with two harnesses to keep shooters from falling out. Company owner Craig Meyer said his shooters only use shotguns because the weapons are safer when flying around livestock and houses. “They don’t cause ricochets, and they don’t go very far,” Meyer said.

He views it as “a win-win-win situation,” adding that “land owners get free population control. We save farm owners from tons of damage. And we give the people who fly with us a great life experience.”

Hogs for a Cause also uses traps with cameras that automatically snap photos when animal motion is detected. The photos are sent to Haehn’s phone. When he decides that enough boars are in a trap, he remotely closes it.

The organization is building a feral pig processing plant in Bell County so it can more easily give out meat to the needy – and spread the Gospel while doing so. Churches, such as the Milam County Cowboy Church, sometimes sponsor hog hunts and send a pastor to address the participants. Kirk Glasby, leader of the men’s outdoor ministry at the church, said he teamed with Haehn’s organization because he needed a way to responsibly dispose of the meat after their hunts.

“Hogs are typically seen as a nuisance, so people just shoot them and do nothing with the meat,” Glasby said. “Since Dave was willing to clean them [and] we had a lot of hogs at our disposal to provide, we joined up with him.”

Haehn also talks religion when he teaches supporters how to clean the boars so that the meat they take home is safe for eating. “We are feeding thousands of people hogs,” he said. “We teach people how to become self-sufficient through butchering and processing their own animals, and then they take the meat home for themselves.”

At the same time, the group is helping out Texas farmers and ranchers.

Since the early 1900s feral hogs have been ruining crops and spreading disease to livestock across the United States. The Texas feral hog population has exploded over the past few decades, with estimates ranging from 1 million to 4 million.

John Kinsey, a biologist for Texas Park & Wildlife Department, said feral hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damages across the United States annually. In addition to Texas, California and Florida have large hog populations, according to the National Feral Swine Mapping System.

“The first pigs that came to the States were domestic pigs that were brought by Europeans during their settlement,” Kinsey said. “They were used as a food source, but the settlers didn’t have any fencing, so some of the pigs ended up not coming back home.”

In the 1900s, the Russian boar was brought over for sport hunting.

“Feral pigs are the descendents of both,” Kinsey said. “Now, people mostly have issues with them in Southeast Texas where there are lots of crops.”

To prevent Texas’ hog population from growing, 70 percent of the hogs must be eliminated annually, according to state reports. Haehn said only 30 percent are being killed off  each year, so the number is still growing exponentially.

Other groups also are doing their best to slow down that growth.

The Broken Arrow Ranch in Kerr County, northwest of San Antonio, sells wild hog meat online that is delivered by mail.

“We want to provide sustainable meat,” said Chris Hughes, the owner of the ranch. “And wild boar certainly are, just by their very nature of being an invasive species. This is one part of the solution.”

Broken Arrow hires contractors to pick up and process boars trapped on several dozen ranches. Last year they captured 2,700 hogs.

That’s about 138,000 pounds of meat, which Hughes said “tastes like pork used to taste.”

“We’ve got to keep them less than 200 pounds because then they start to taste a little musky,” Hughes said of the feral hogs that are slaughtered. “But if it’s below that it’s got a very sweet flavor. It tastes great.”

Dai Due, a butcher shop and restaurant in Austin, has taught customers how to prepare their own meat for the past five years at their “hog school.”

The sessions are held four weekends a year, from November through February, at Madroño Ranch. Attendees are taught how to hunt for, clean and cook feral hogs.

“We’ve always done butchering classes, and we wanted to expand that into a fuller event,” said Jesse Griffiths, the creator of the school.  “Hogs are very readily available. I think using them is the right thing to do, and they’re a very good protein. The benefits of using hogs is pretty cut and dried.”

Kinsey, the parks and wildlife biologist, is developing a species-specific poison to attempt to control the number of feral hogs in Texas.

But Kinsey said he applauds any efforts to rid our country of the boars, especially in cases where they can be used for food.

Hughes suggests a less toxic solution to help out Texas farmers and ranchers: “Eat more wild boar.”