Riding in a four-wheeler, sloshing along a muddy access road behind a long procession of mounted hunters, it’s not easy to tell what’s going on. Presumably the dogs have scented hogs, because the riders suddenly gallop off into the trees. Unable to follow on wheels, we drive around the edge of the woods and find a trail leading in. Dogs are baying in the middle distance. Gunshots ring out. Bubba Weeks’ son Jerry appears on foot. He has a bloody knife in one hand and a young dead hog in the other. “If y’all don’t mind,” he says, and slings it in the back of the four-wheeler.
We find out later what has been happening. The initial charge flushed out a herd of more than 20 hogs. The riders rode after them as they scattered, shooting them down with pistols. The dogs killed the piglets. Then the dogs started baying because they had cornered a mature hog. He was backed up against a tree, gnashing his tusks together to sharpen them, ready to fight to the death. As Bubba Weeks says, “A hog ain’t got no quit in him.”
His American bulldogs leapt at the hog, and clamped their teeth onto its ears and head. The hog thrashed from side to side, swinging its head, trying to shake the dogs off and stab them with its tusks. Dogs often get injured or killed in this phase of the hunt, so when they hear baying, the hunters get there as quickly as they can. Normally one hunter will grab the hog by the back legs and flip it over, and another will stab it, but Bubba Weeks likes to do it all by himself.
He dismounted from his horse, waded into the snarling, roaring, squealing melee, grabbed one of the hog’s back legs with his left hand, and used his right hand to plunge the knife through the animal’s ribs and into the heart. Weeks is 69 years old, with rheumatoid arthritis, and he finds it extremely painful and difficult to walk. But he can ride a horse all day, and loves nothing more than grappling in mortal combat with big, dangerous hogs. He kills four with his knife in the first two hours of the hunt, and four more later in the day.
In the late morning, the people on the four-wheelers lose all track of the horses and dogs. They start drinking and telling stories. A woman called Bobby Jo McConnell is drinking beer with a dash of Bloody Mary mix from a plastic cup that says “Betty Ford Clinic Outpatient.” She remembers the time a hunter stripped down to his long johns on a freezing cold winter day, swam across a river after his dogs, stabbed a hog on the far bank, swam back towing the hog, put on his clothes, and got straight back on his horse.
Inevitably, all this derring-do sometimes leads to unhappy endings. Two weeks ago, a hunter from Cleveland, Miss., was gored by a hog and died in the hospital of a blood clot. Another hunter was gored a week ago by a 280-pound sow, and this was after he emptied his .357 pistol into her at point-blank range. He took a tusk through the lip. Another tusk pierced his leg, narrowly missing the femoral artery. They sewed him up at the emergency room, and he’s expected to be hunting hogs again next weekend.
The second round of drinks have just been poured when we spot two orange shapes moving toward us on horseback, crossing a broad marshy area. We jump back in the four-wheelers and race over there. It’s Hank Burdine and one of Bubba’s stalwarts, and they appear to be riding after a hog. It’s my first opportunity to maybe see how a hog is killed, rather than just hearing about it. When the four-wheeler gets stuck, I jump out and run through the mud and puddles. Hank bellows out my name, and I run faster, suddenly realizing that if the hog charges me I have no way to defend myself.
When I get there, Hank wheels around on his horse, and hands down the big curved kukri knife. “Stick him!" he roars. Bubba’s man has the hog flipped over and held by the back legs. It’s not big, it’s not fighting; it’s completely helpless. Those are the last thoughts in my mind before I grab the knife, plunge it into the hog’s heart, and feel the shuddering death throes transfer into my arm.
I stand back shaking, looking at the last muscle twitches of an 80-pound sow. She’d already been shot twice, so it was a mercy killing in a way, but it didn’t feel like that. It felt like I’d been overtaken by some ancient human instinct, and I was so drenched with adrenaline that none of it felt entirely real. People say the hog let out a death squeal, but I don’t remember hearing it.
Critics of hog hunting call it cruel and barbaric. Animal rights groups want it banned, but they recognize that an uncontrolled wild hog population would be an environmental disaster. Their solution is to vastly increase the trapping of hogs. Instead of shooting trapped hogs, as we do now, one idea is to sterilize them and release them to die of natural causes. To the hog hunters at Panther Tract, this is a ridiculous idea from some alien universe. Not only is it mollycoddling a wild animal, and depriving hunters of their sport, it’s a colossal waste of meat.
After the hunt, Howard Brent lays on a barbecue of domestic pork ribs and chicken. A live band plays music, and hunters tell stories of horses that liked Scotch whiskey but not bourbon, 535-pound hogs killed single-handedly, a dog that had more heart than a country cur’s got fleas. Over at the skinning station, men with knives and a Sawzall get to work on a big pile of dead hogs.
None of the meat from the hunt is wasted. All 34 hogs killed today will be expertly butchered. “Cruel is how they raise that factory-farmed meat,” says Hank Burdine, as we watch the men cut up my dead sow. “This is better meat and better for you. Barbecue the ribs. Roast the tenderloin. Get the rest made into wild boar sausage. Once you taste that stuff, you’ll be back.”