By Michael E. Miller
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The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission first declared hogs wild game in the Everglades in 1956, but as time went on, animal rights groups and environmentalists wrested some control from hunters.
State rules became more restrictive. By the Eighties, hunters had to apply and pay for licenses; they were permitted to use only certain weapons, and could hunt for only a few months of the year in regulated areas. "It became clear we needed to manage wildlife using science," says Henry Cabbage, who has worked at the commission for about 25 years. "But now it's more or less micromanaged."
In 1996, Charlotte County hog territory became the setting for a murder mystery, as investigators contemplated whether human bones had been dragged to a semi-rural area by a boar or dumped by a killer. After months of research, they dismissed the hog theory and collared former Navy officer Daniel Owen Conahan Jr. for tying naked homeless men to trees, sexually mutilating them, and killing them. He was sentenced to death.
Then in February 2004, Central Florida hunter Gary McQuiston caused a stir by shooting and killing a 400-pound endangered black bear, which he mistook for a giant boar. A part-time taxidermist, McQuiston was sentenced to 11 months in Pasco County jail. "All I could see was the silhouette," he told the court. "And I wanted that pig. It was the biggest of them all."
The same year, 31-year-old hunting guide Chris Griffin shot an 800-pound hog in Alapaha, Georgia, near the Florida border. A photograph of the mammoth animal, hung by its hind legs, circulated among small-town hunters, and it became known as "Hogzilla." The story was broadcast around the world, and Griffin was even invited to appear on The Tonight Show. The following year, National Geographic Explorer dug up the creature for a documentary. An independent film company soon held auditions for Legend of Hogzilla, a horror flick loosely based on the true story.
In 2005, a fireman trumped Hogzilla, bagging a 1,200-pounder near a pond on a farm in Okahumpka that was nicknamed Hog Kong. The shooter, 39-year-old Larry Early, told the Florida Times-Union he first thought it was a cow but then "saw an eight-inch tusk."
Wild hogs munch on seedlings, young domesticated livestock, and even alligator and sea turtle eggs. Each year, they do $100 to $200 million in damage to land in Florida, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and their rooting looks something like a drunken tractor plow. They also carry 45 parasitic and infectious diseases such as pseudorabies, which can spread to hunting dogs and domesticated swine.
Experts estimate the wild boar population in Florida to be between 500,000 and 1 million. The animals live in all 67 counties, with populations most dense in the areas immediately west and north of Lake Okeechobee.
It's not as easy as you'd expect to kill them. Their keen sense of smell helps them avoid detection; hunters bag almost three times as many deer as hogs. Restrictions also play a role. On public land, only one boar can be taken a day. To skirt the rules, some enthusiasts pay a guide to hunt on private property, where almost anything goes. In the past few years, more hunters have flocked to guides such as Clemons, who leases about 6,500 acres south of Clewiston.
The lack of rules has allowed some horrendous practices. Everglades hunting clubs have begun offering cage hunts, in which animals are trapped and shot in large fenced-off areas. Some people even use helicopters to shoot them from above. Extreme hunters use spears and knives, sometimes flipping a boar by its hooves and stabbing it in the heart.
Ron Oizzo, who runs Ron's Guide Service in Lakeport, near Lake Okeechobee, says he sees several knife hunts a year, usually from Hispanic clients. "You got blood squirting all over the place, and you gotta try not to get bit doing it. It's a gruesome way of killing 'em, and I think you have to be a little sadistic to do it. You have to have a little Jeffrey Dahmer in you."
On a damp, chilly morning in February 2005, as the clouds rolled in over the flat, swampy land a few miles northeast of Big Cypress National Preserve, Clemons led a brawny, gray-haired 64-year-old former racecar driver named Gary Roubinek on a boar hunt. They brought along a .45-70-caliber rifle that was big enough to kill a large bear.
About 9 a.m., they spotted a five-foot-long, 250-pound beast of a pig. Roubinek shot it in the head and then through the chest. But, for some reason, "he just wouldn't die," Clemons recalls.
So the men pushed a few yards through the prickly underbrush to finish the job. They didn't expect a fight.
But bloody, angry, and seeking revenge, the hog snorted and stormed Clemons. He pulled out his pistol and aimed. Then ... click. The gun wasn't loaded.
This is it, Clemons thought. This is how I'm gonna die. With the hog in pursuit, Clemons sprinted to a palmetto tree and fumbled to the top, where the boar couldn't reach him. But the animal didn't give up. It butted the flimsy plant, which began to give way as Clemons hopped to another. For five minutes, the game continued. Roubinek scrambled to find ammo in his pocket and popped another bullet into the rifle's chamber. He shot the attacker between the eyes.