“Exsanguination due to feral hog assault” was the official cause of death for 59-year-old Christine Rawlings as determined by the local medical examiner and announced by Sheriff Brian Hawthorne of Chambers County, Texas.
She had been set upon around 6 a.m. on Nov. 22 as she arrived at the residence where she worked as a home care attendant for an elderly couple.
“It was probably still dark and that is when hogs normally move, in the dark hours,” Hawthorne told a press conference the next day. “She had gotten out of her car and locked it.”
In the next moment, the feral hogs, also called feral pigs, were on her, slashing with curved lower teeth kept razor sharp by grinding them against the uppers.
“Multiple animals,” Hawthorne said. “We can kind of tell that from the different sizes of the bites.”
He noted that an attack by any number of feral pigs on a human is unusual.
“This is very rare,” Hawthorne said. “Less than six in the nation over many years.”
He added, “I don’t know how many we’ve had in Texas. I hope we don’t have another one in Chambers County.”
Hawthorne said that the couple who employed Rawlings lived on “10 or 12 acres of pasture and woods.”
“Obviously, the feral hogs have taken over some of their family land,” he said.
He described the area in front of the house where the creatures attacked as “what we thought might have been a crime scene.”
“It’s clearly an assault but it will be ruled an accident because it was not a human,” he said. “So it was not a homicide.”
What precipitated the feral pig attack remained difficult to determine. The leading expert on the animals, research scientist Jack Mayer of the Savannah River National Laboratory South Carolina, senior author of Wild Pigs in the United States, suggests that the exact cause may remain a mystery.
“I have no idea what might have possessed the pigs to do that,” Mayer said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever know.”
Mayer confirmed that such attacks are unusual, though less rare than shark attacks. Sharks average about six fatal attacks a year globally. Feral pigs are at that now.
“But you never read about them,” Mayer said.
Steven Spielberg made a movie called Jaws, not Tusks. But feral pigs have multiplied into the millions and are hugely destructive, ravenous omnivores rooting through fields to farms to lawns in their endless search for food.
“It’s a crazy situation,” Mayer said, “with everything that’s happened in what I call the Pig Bomb, which has exploded in North America.”
Male pigs are generally solitary, so the multiple bites of various sizes reported by Hawthorne in Texas suggest the attack involved a sow and her young, which can number as many as 20, with the “little ones” weighing 40 or 50 pounds.
“A basic family unit,” Mayer said.
Often, an attacking pig has been wounded by hunters.
“Obviously, that’s not the case here,” Mayer said.
Sometimes a pig has been hit by a car or otherwise injured.
“They’re hurt, they’re trying to escape, then suddenly they come upon a person,” Mayer said. “From the person’s perspective, this was an unprovoked attack.”
Or maybe the feral pigs in the Texas attack had been shot at or chased by dogs.
“And suddenly they come upon this poor woman, “ Mayer said.
Or the pigs may have been startled or otherwise felt threatened for reasons that are not immediately apparent.
“They are very capable of defending themselves,” Mayer said. “They’re large, muscular animals. They have sharp teeth.”
He added, “Trauma to the victim is pretty horrific.”
Whatever triggered this tragedy, there are likely to be ever more encounters with humans as the feral pig population in the United States grows.
A sow can conceive her first litter at 3 months old and keep doing so twice a year, usually producing five to six offspring, but sometimes as many as 12 at a time.
“There’s not another animal that can put little feet on the ground quicker than a wild pig,” Mayer said.
And climate change may be a further population booster. Scientific studies in Europe have determined that generally milder winters encourage feral pig reproduction and increase the survival rate of newborns. Warmer springs encourage production of acorns, the feral pig’s favorite food. And prolonged wet periods increase the supply of delicacies: bulbs and roots and tubers.
The population growth may at times outstrip the abundance of immediately available foods, sending the omnivores in search of alternative such as whatever is to be found in garbage cans.
At present, there are as many as 6 million wild pigs in the U.S.. There may be 2 million or more in Texas alone.
“We are starting to see wild pigs move into suburban and even urban areas of late,” Mayer said.
The pigs root up not only crops, but also gardens and parks, and golf courses and athletic fields. They have become second only to deer in popularity among big game hunters. Some ranchers offer helicopter hunts for as much as $1,000 a person.
“There’s a lot of people in Texas making a lot of money off wild pigs,” Mayer said.
Entrepreneurs are even raising wild pigs within the supposedly secure perimeters of private hunting preserves. Pigs often opt not to stick around.
“There is no such thing as a pig-proof fence,” Mayer observed.
All of which makes wild pigs an invasive species that is both remarkably destructive and extremely difficult to control.
“Nobody is making money off fire ants or zebra mussels,” Mayer said.
Add to that the possibility that wild pigs could become a vector for the African swine fever virus that U.S. officials are desperate to keep from our shores. The disease has either killed or caused to be euthanized half of the 600 million agricultural pigs in China in the past 13 months. The virus can live for more than a week in meats, which explains the pork-sniffing dogs that are welcoming passengers arriving from China at our airports.
Pork confiscated at California’s San Jose Airport has apparently been ending up with the rest of its garbage at the nearby Guadalupe landfill. Mayer noted that YouTube videos show numerous wild pigs foraging there. He said all you would need would be for a wild pig to gobble something infected. The disease would quickly spread to other wild pigs, which interact with farm pigs through fence lines.
“If that happens, it’s all over,” Mayer said, “We’ll never get it under control… You’re not going to be able to afford bacon or pork chops after that.”
The first wild pigs were introduced to the New World by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to the Caribbean in 1493. The explorer Hernando de Soto brought them to Florida in 1538. Mayer and his wife have in recent years raised some from piglets as pets and found them easier to paper train than puppies, and at least as smart as dogs.
“We kept them until they go so big they were turning over furniture,” Mayer said. “Then we gave them to friends with farms on the condition they didn’t butcher them.”
One friend let a sow live on a couch out front and fed it donuts.
“She apparently was a very big guard pig,” Mayer said. “When someone pulled up to the front yard, she used to get up and growl at them. She was 300 pounds. Not something you’d want to just push your way by.”
But in the wild, and multiplying into the millions, feral pigs represent a seemingly intractable problem. Kill three-quarters of them and they will restore their full population within three years.
Of course, the wrecked vegetation and even the African swine virus are nothing compared to what happened to Christine Rawlings. Mayer advises anybody who encounters wild pigs to do their best to keep at a distance.
“They’re not cute little pigs, they’re wild animals, and they would hurt you,” he said. “I’d try to avoid them, either back away or walk around them.”
If they start coming at you, look for something to climb upon.
“Get up on something high,” Mayer said
He suggested that might have saved Rawlings.
“If she’d been able to get on the car, climbed up on the trunk or the roof, she absolutely would have been safe up there,” he said.
Otherwise, the pigs will seek to knock you down.
“If they get you on the ground, it’s not going to be good,” Mayer said. “They'll start with your legs until they get you down and then they’ll go after everything. You’re likely going to end up with injuries to every part of your body.”
A common result of such uncommon attacks is bleeding to death, or as the coroner reported in Texas, “Exsanguination due to feral hog assault.”
As if things in this country were not nuts enough.