Jane Rule Burdine for Al Jazeera America

Hog wild in Mississippi

Hunting wild hogs is surging in popularity. Aficionados say it’s the best hunting in North America. Critics call it cruel and bloodthirsty. Richard Grant joins a hog hunt in the Mississippi Delta to see for himself


PANTHER TRACT, Miss. — The hog hunters arrive in a cavalcade of pickup trucks and horse trailers on a cold, bright morning. “Tally ho, you sumbitches!” calls out Howard Brent, the owner of this 4,500-acre hunting preserve near Yazoo City. He used to run a tugboat business on the Mississippi River. Now retired, he devotes himself full time to hunting, fishing and conservation.

“See, the way we hunt these wild hogs, with horses and dogs, is a little bit like an English fox hunt,” he says. “But these hogs get up around 300 pounds with 5-inch tusks, and they turn around and fight. And we’ve got people here who kill them with knives. Are you going to give it a try? We can find you a good hog-sticking knife about 16 inches long.”

Howard Brent
Jane Rule Burdine for Al Jazeera America

“No thanks,” I reply, “I’ll just be making notes and asking questions.”

“I don’t blame you,” he says. “When it comes to hogs, I leave the hunting to other people. What I love is the camaraderie, the characters, the storytelling. We have a real fun time, and it’s a great way to control the hogs.”

In 1990, when Howard Brent bought this property, it was low-grade farmland, too muddy to produce good crops. Working with conservation agencies, he reforested large areas with native hardwood trees, restored wetlands and grasslands, planted cornfields to attract deer and ducks, and sunflowers to bring the doves in. Eight years later, Panther Tract was a hunter’s paradise, and a model conservation success story.


One morning in 1998, Brent’s land manager found a 10-acre cornfield that had been completely destroyed. All the corn was gone, and a nearby access road had been rooted up. Wild hogs from nearby Panther Swamp had moved in. “They are voracious,” says Brent. “They eat corn, clover, grasses, saplings, acorns, nuts — and I mean all of it. They take baby fawns, baby rabbits, snakes, frogs, bird eggs, you name it. The females start breeding when they’re 6 months old, and they have two or three litters a year. That’s some scary math, and they have no natural predators here except us.”

North America evolved without any native pigs. They arrived as pork on the hoof for the Spanish and English colonists. Today’s wild hogs, also known as feral pigs, razorbacks or wild boars, are all descended from domestic swine that got loose and turned wild. In some parts of the country they have interbred with escaped Eurasian boars introduced decades ago for sport hunting. Nationwide, they number about 6 million, and cause billions of dollars of damage to croplands and wildlife habitat every year.

In the Deep South, there’s a long tradition of hunting hogs with horses and dogs. The Plott hound, blackmouth cur, Catahoula hound and other breeds were developed specifically for hog hunting. In recent years, the sport has become popularized by reality TV shows like “American Hoggers,” and with wild hog populations exploding, more people are out hunting them than ever before. Most hunters prefer to shoot the beasts, but it’s considered bolder and more sporting to use a knife, and less likely to get a dog killed by accident.

Outside the Panther Tract camp house, various breeds and crossbreeds of hound, cur and bulldog are milling around with radio antennae and shock boxes on their collars. People are saddling and mounting horses, fiddling with two-way radios, loading pistols and shotguns. Others are strapping rifles and beer coolers into all-terrain vehicles, known as four-wheelers in this part of the country. They will follow the mounted hunters, carry out the dead hogs and hopefully get me and the photographer close to the action.

Except for a few elegantly dressed horsewomen, people are wearing their roughest, toughest gear — leather, heavy-duty canvas, camouflage and bright orange vests so they don’t shoot each other in the fray. They have huge knives on their belts or saddles, shotguns in their saddle scabbards, and more than a few of them are drinking beer, moonshine whiskey or Bloody Marys in Styrofoam cups.

Eighty or 90 people are here, and except for one Mexican, they all seem to be white Mississippians. They include retired businessmen, doctors, lawyers, contractors, blue-blood farmers, redneck mechanics and plenty of women and children. One 8-year-old boy has an AR-15 rifle over his shoulder and a look of grim determination on his face.

Carrie Cooper, wearing a black Western hat and riding a black Tennessee walking horse, works for a plastic surgeon in Vicksburg. “There’s a few women here who stick hogs, or shoot them, but I don’t,” she says. “I’m practically a tree-hugger, but I love the cast of characters here, and it’s a real test of your horse skills, riding after those dogs just hell-for-leather through the sloughs and woods. There aren’t many places left where you can ride so tough.”

Melvin "Bubba" Weeks and one of his dogs
Jane Rule Burdine for Al Jazeera America

Melvin “Bubba” Weeks, the leader of the hunt, arrives in a battered old Penske moving van. He rolls up its rear door to reveal a gray horse and 11 hog dogs chained up on a bed of straw. He has a white Amish-style beard with no mustache, and he’s wearing a long, ragged oilcloth coat. Known as one of the best hog hunters in Mississippi — and a man you should never cross — he supports himself by selling meat from the goats that graze his ramshackle 40 acres in the hills.

“I used to fix propellers for Howard Brent,” he says. “Now I get to carry my 10-dollar ass up here and hunt with the million-dollar people. I get on fine with them. They know I’ll bust their goddamn ass if they give me any shit.” Bubba Weeks is here with his son Jerry, who has duct tape around his pistol holster, and a band of rugged-looking stalwarts who will do most of the killing today.

“When Bubba’s ass hits that saddle, be ready to go,” says Hank Burdine, a writer and Levee Board commissioner who invited me to the hunt. He hands me a 13-inch knife with an incurving blade. “This a kukri knife, made in India, and just right for a hog,” he says. “You want to stick him just inside his armpit. Then give it a twist.”

I shake my head, smile and hand the knife back.

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.”

Jane Rule Burdine for Al Jazeera America

Recipe for Wild Boar Carnitas

2 lbs diced hog shoulder

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp Mexican oregano

¼ tsp ground coriander

2 tsps chipotle chile powder

Juice and zest of 1 orange

Pre-heat oven to 225 degrees. Combine ingredients in ovenproof pot. Cook 6 hours until tender and crisp. Serve with tortillas, fresh jalapeno salsa, beer.

Adapted from “Jesse Griffiths: Afield, A Chef’s Guide to Preparing and Cooking Wild Game and Fish”