Greg Whidden has earned his nickname.Dogs wailing, Spook jumps on his horse and vanishes into the woods, chasing down elusive and wily wild hogs, bound for someone's dinner table. They do not go gently into that good night.
By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published May 7, 2006
OKEECHOBEE -- Greg Whidden is a rubbernecking driver whose head spends as much time outside the truck as in. He pokes his head out the truck window when he is trying to catch wild hogs. "Whooooop!" he shrieks, watching his dogs. "Whoooop! Whoooop!”
The dogs, trotting next to the truck in the predawn fog, suddenly bolt into the woods.
"Thooo-ugg!" Whidden yells, sounding like Louis Armstrong with a sore throat. "Thooo-ugg!"
Maybe somebody else would go with "Sooey" while calling a pig. For whatever reason, Whidden has been hollering "Thooo-ugg!" at pigs for the three decades he has been catching them by hand.
He is 44 now, all sinew and brown skin with the Mount Rushmore of Adam’s apples. He is 6 feet 2 or so but weighs about 160 pounds in his dungarees, work shirt, ball cap, cowboy boots and three-day beard. His jaws munch reflexively on a huge plug of Red Man.
"Thooo-ugg!” he grunts again and spits a projectile at an unfortunate oak.
"I’m telling my dogs to get me a hog," he yells over the hellish squeal of his truck’s frazzled shock absorbers.
As the day breaks at Kissimmee Prairie State Preserve, halfway between the Central Florida cities of Okeechobee and Sebring, Whidden could hardly be happier. At 54,000 acres, the preserve is a showcase of delicate wire grass, banana-colored wildflowers, gator-infested sloughs and mysterious hammocks that serve as a veritable box of animal crackers for endangered species.
Hogs are anything but endangered. In Florida, they are something like the computer virus of the mammal world, known for a voracious appetite for fragile native plants, birds, snakes and small animals. A couple of hungry hogs, rooting for vittles during the wee hours, can turn a lush field into a moonscape by sunrise. The state hires folks such as Whidden to get rid of them.
"Hear my dogs?" Whidden yells, steering his truck between craters dug by hogs with tusks like Turkish scimitars. He has trained his dogs never to bark unless they are hot on the trail of a hog. They are howling now.
"They’re back in the hammock!" he says, gesturing out the window. The truncated ring finger on the pointing hand appears to have been gnawed by a wild animal.
"Hogs don’t surrender easy," he says by way of explanation. "They’re kind of like O.J. They’ll do anything to stay out of the pen."
* * *
The brakes on Whidden’s grape jam-colored Dodge Ram 1500 V8 Magnum four-wheel-drive pickup work perfectly well. He doesn’t always use them. When his dogs set off howling, Whidden frequently leaps from the rolling truck. He bounds to the trailer behind it and releases his quarter horse, Trigger. Moments later, astride Trigger, he vanishes into the woods like a ghost. Whidden has earned his nickname, Spook.
Born and reared in the cattle country near Lake Okeechobee, he learned to hunt and fish and ride horses at an early age. He remembers catching his first hog when he was 7.
He has steady work catching hogs because Hernando de Soto brought them to Florida when he came calling in 1539. Now hogs are found in 31 states. Hunters shoot about 100,000 hogs a year in Florida. Hog removal specialists eliminate an additional 3,300 wild hogs from state property. The hogs are gaining ground anyway.
Spook catches hogs the hard way: by hand. He has nothing against guns but finds it more exciting to grab one while it is otherwise engaged by his dogs. Even so, the outcome is in doubt, since the hog is often a good deal larger than Spook, boasts bigger teeth and fears for its life.
Spook sells his hogs at livestock markets. He receives $30 to $50 for female hogs. Sows are the easiest to catch and the best for eating. Boars are craftier, grow larger and are harder to catch. Their meat verges on unpalatable. Spook sells them for $150 and up to hunting clubs that agree never to release the boars into the wild.
Wild hogs don’t look like Porky Pig. They are usually covered by brown or black bristles. They avoid contact with people and are dangerous when cornered.
* * *
Spook owns what must be the Marines of dogdom. They’re mutts, they’re curs, they’re Heinz 57 variety canines. Many people who watch them in action wish their children were as disciplined.
Spook began raising dogs for the purpose of catching swine two decades ago. His father-in-law, Mabry Murphy, who accompanies Spook on the expeditions, has raised hog-catching dogs for nearly half a century.
"A good hog dog has to have heart," Mabry says. A moment later, Spook comes on the radio to say the boar hog is still on the loose.
"A good dog has endurance," Mabry goes on. "It has courage. Any dog will chase a hog, but the trick is cornering the hog, and then knowing when to pull away. You don’t want a dog that’s going to run off on you. You’re looking for a businesslike dog that knows what’s he’s there for."
Mabry and his son-in-law sell hog dogs for as much as $1,500. On workdays, their dogs, which weigh anywhere from 40 to 80 pounds, receive 2 gallons of the best food they can eat. They have monthly appointments with the vet.
"We care about our dogs, but we don’t treat them like pets," Mabry says. On those rare occasions when a dog won’t jump into the truck bed on command — a puppy is usually the culprit — Mabry grabs it by the scruff of the neck and pitches it into his vehicle.
Mabry’s father was a hog man too. So were his granddaddy and great-granddaddy. His 19th century kin drove hogs, by horseback, from Lake Okeechobee to the shipping port in Tampa. Outside the city limits, Mabry’s relatives poured molasses on the sand. When the hogs consumed the molasses, they also swallowed sand that made them heavier on the scales at the market.
A 500-pound wild hog is an enormous, formidable animal. Spook and Mabry dismiss stories they hear from braggarts or read in Boar Hunter magazine about monstrous hogs as beefy as VW Beetles.
The Internet has made it easier for hog hunters to prevaricate. Several years ago, a Web site announced that a hunter had killed the Hogzilla of all wild hogs in Georgia. The photo revealed a hog that looked more like a monstrous thatch of Donald Trump’s hair than Sus scrofa.
The hog (read about it at www.snopes.com/photos/animals/hogzilla.asp ) reportedly weighed more than 1,000 pounds and measured 12 feet. The hog hunter, however, had buried his trophy after taking measurements. Surely an oversight. Then National Geographic dispatched a film crew and a pathologist who brought a shovel. Hogzilla’s exhumed corpse turned out to be 71/2 feet long. The pathologist estimated its living weight at 800 pounds and pronounced it a well-fed domestic hog.
Spook once nabbed a 473-pounder. "I got him off a dairy," he says. "He was domestic, so he don’t count." His largest wild hog was 416 pounds. "A wild hog don’t sit around waiting to be fed. A wild hog, he’s always on the move, always looking for something to eat. That keeps the weight off him."
A wild hog’s favorite food is probably the acorn. Hogs also devour palmetto berries. They consume newborn deer. They eat reptiles, including protected indigos, and even rattlesnakes. They consider frogs and toads a delicacy. At Cape Canaveral National Seashore, they eat endangered sea turtle eggs and even turtle hatchlings. At Kissimmee Prairie, they eat quail. Biologists wonder if hogs are devouring the eggs and chicks of the ground-dwelling Florida grasshopper sparrow, another endangered species.
"Whenever Spook and Mabry catch a hog is a happy day for me," says Charles Brown, the preserve manager. Last year, Spook and Mabry harvested 249 hogs at the preserve. They got 136 in 2004. Their banner year was 2001, when 463 hogs were removed from the fragile environment.
Shooting on sight is probably the most efficient way to eliminate a hog. That may be possible on a private ranch, but it seldom happens in state or national parks. Gunfire, squealing hogs and blood on the ground might disturb sensitive visitors. Hogs are quietly trapped in politically correct baited cages in parks near urban areas. The method is somewhat effective, but it’s inefficient because somebody has to check every trap in the park every day. However it is harvested, the story ends the same way for the hog. Sausage, roast or ham.
In South Florida, Spook Whidden’s talents are in high demand. He catches hogs not only at state parks but on Audubon sanctuaries and at dozens of private ranches. Hired by Monroe County, he caught 69 hogs one week on Little Pine Key. Yes, hogs swim out to islands. In Pinellas, the state’s most urban county, hogs are unwanted visitors at Brooker Creek Preserve.
* * *
Alligators love to eat dogs. When Spook is hog-hunting in the spring, he frets whenever his dogs swim across a pond. When a gator takes a dog, which happens once or twice a year, it often consumes the dog’s expensive radio collar. Between the dog and the radio collar, Spook is out nearly two grand.
"Everything has dried up except for a couple holes, and they’re filled with gators," he informs his father-in-law over the radio.
Shifting into four-wheel-drive, Mabry Murphy drives through a creek. Alligators scramble out of his way. A moment later, a dog emerges from the woods and swims the same creek. The oblivious dog makes it to the bank without becoming a meal.
The lucky dog is Charley, born the year a notorious hurricane by the same name clobbered the state. Two years old, Charley loves chasing hogs.
Last year, Charley had a nice boar cornered and was waiting for Spook to arrive on horseback. Before Spook could get there, the hog disemboweled Charley.
"His guts was hanging out," Spook tells people now. Spook tucked the guts back into Charley’s abdomen and used a surgical stapler to close the wound. Years ago, he sutured his dogs, but the stapler is quicker.
Less fortunate was the dog known as Buster, who chased an enormous boar into the palmettos a few years back. Spook lost radio contact. It took him a while to find Buster. Buster was alive, just barely, his windpipe punctured. But he still had a hold on the boar.
Spook lost Buster but got the hog.
* * *
Spook, whose red eyes might disturb the slumber of Count Dracula, seldom gets enough sleep. Hog-catching is only one way he makes a living. His day job is supervising construction crews for the city of Okeechobee’s utility department. On weekends, he is the senior bronc rider at the rodeo. "I’m the oldest guy by a good 20 years," he says. He has broken both legs, an ankle, an arm and every finger.
He may look weary, but he doesn’t act it. Every once in a while, he rides out of the woods dragging a protesting pig behind the horse.
He gives his father-in-law a brief account, jumps on Trigger and disappears once more. Within minutes, Mabry hears squealing.
So far Spook has caught a couple of female hogs. They’re nice sows, 60 pounds or so, perfect for grinding into sausages. But the boar has eluded the dogs. Some people believe dogs, or possibly dolphins, or mules, are the most intelligent critters in the animal kingdom. Spook will tell you different. His candidate for the animal with the highest IQ is a wild boar.
"Real wary," he says. A boar avoids other hogs except when looking for a mate — or when being pursued by dogs. "A boar will run right straight through a herd of sows and confuse the dogs. They won’t know who to chase." Boars never run in a straight line. Boars zigzag, change directions completely, end up behind the dogs.
In Spook’s opinion, the most challenging boar typically weighs about 150 pounds. Such a boar is fearsome, energetic and agile. "A dog killin’ machine."
A dog howls.
"Thooo-ugg!" Spook shouts. Go catch that hog.
An hour passes. Two hours. Spook keeps in touch over radio. Almost got him. Nope. Lost him. Sometimes the dogs bark along the road. Then their barks fade away.
The hog jumps the road once. Twice. Hog scrambles through a pond, sprints across a prairie, sneaks back into the hammock, tries his luck in Duck Slough.
Three dogs catch up. Defiant or exhausted, the boar stays put.
The dogs don’t rush the hog until Spook leaps off his horse. Then they charge, dodge, retreat, charge again, baring teeth and snapping. The hog growls, hisses, squeals, slashes air with those lethal yellow tusks.
All the while, Spook is drawing closer, an inch at a time, to those tusks. Not yet. Not yet. Spook has been battered and torn by many a hog in his career. That 5-inch scar on his right inner thigh is proof.
The idea is to grab the hog by the leg and pull it off its feet. Easier said than done, but that’s what he does. Wham! The boar is on its back, jaws popping with rage.
Grabbing a hog is like catching a rattlesnake, is what he tells people. "If you’re gonna catch him, your heart better be in it. If you turn loose his head and just hold him by the tail, things ain’t gonna be pretty."
Spook kneels on the boar’s shoulder below the neck. He carries cord. He reaches, somehow, past the boar’s frantic tusks and loops the cord around the front hooves. He ties what must be the fastest double half hitch in history. He pulls the knot tight and uses the momentum to reach back and tie the rear legs. The hog-tied hog squeals.
Now Spook loops a rope around the tail. He drags the boar from the woods to the trailer. Trigger, the horse, sweats profusely. The dogs pant. Spook looks relieved too.
The boar is black. It has tiny eyes and an uninviting personality. Spook kneels on the 160-pound boar once more.
As it pops its jaws, Spook unties his knots. For spectators it is always an unpleasant moment. He tells his father-in-law to get ready. Open the trailer door.
The trick is not hesitating, not giving the boar a nanosecond of hope. Spook grabs one back leg and one front leg. Swings the hog into the trailer lickety-split.
No bones broken. No gutted dogs. No fingertip deficit like that one terrible time.
Spook shrugs, looks sheepish, as he tells the story about the revenge of the boar.
"The dogs had him bayed up on the edge of palmettos. I got out to catch him. He turned, he was in there, and he turned , and when he turned he seen me, and I was way too close at the time, and he run at me, and I put my hands out to grab him by the ears to keep him off of me, but he was faster’n me. Bone was stuck out there, and the fingernail was lifted up, bitted at an angle. Didn’t hurt till I got back to the house."
For the love of heaven, what happened to the doomed fingertip?
"I hunted for the piece. God give me that finger, and I wanted to leave there with what God give me."
Spook had to leave the fingertip out there next to the palmettos. The boar got away too.
-- Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or firstname.lastname@example.org.