Hal Shouse knows where to find the pigs. The proprietor of HogSWAT, a Georgia-based pig-control operation and outfitter, he’s riding in the back of a blacked-out Chevy Express van, somewhere between Americus and Albany, with three sound-suppressed AR-15 rifles racked and ready behind him. Shouse’s longtime buddy and top guide, Max Shifler, is at the wheel, navigating the back roads by headlights. There’s no music playing, but if there were, it would surely be Motörhead or, better yet, Slayer. Because tonight is going to be heavy. The goal: Lay waste to as many hogs as possible. No kill limits. No closed season. No problem.
Sometimes “our job is to shoot them from as far away as we can just to get them out of the field,” says Shouse, goateed and round at 47, with a mess of fading red hair tucked under a trucker hat. “Other times, you want to get in close and murder as many of them as you can before they leave.”
What Shouse and the handful of guys he employs intend to do this spring evening is not hunting, really. It’s eradication. It’s pest control. It’s war—or at least something kind of like it. Shouse, who began killing hogs professionally 10 years ago, after running an escort service and strip clubs in Arizona, is on the front lines of the battle against feral hogs, rogue descendants of domesticated farm animals and one of the top agricultural and environmental threats facing rural America, and the South, in particular. “A million pigs in Georgia are fucking right now,” he tells me, as the van tears down the road. “And in three months, three weeks, and three days, they’re all going to drop their babies, and within five months, all those babies are going to be pregnant with babies.”
States set strict kill limits for game and uniformly forbid hunting at night. But for hogs, almost anything goes, on private land anyway. As we ride, Shouse uses a PlayStation controller to pan and tilt a thermal-imaging camera on the van’s roof, a live feed from which plays on a 23-inch TV monitor mounted above him. Miles of dance-floor-flat farmland whip past in black and white. Shouse’s phone, meanwhile, keeps receiving photos from game cameras that he has set up across the 15,000 acres he patrols, alerting him to the hogs’ locations. A thousand-acre wooded lot along the Flint River has been particularly busy tonight, he says, so that’s where we’re headed.
Wild pigs, like the ones Shouse is after this evening, have roamed the U.S. since the 1500s. But they didn’t emerge as a serious concern until the 1990s, when their numbers exploded and they began to expand beyond their Deep South and California strongholds. The U.S. population now exceeds 6 million, ranging across at least 35 states. The problem is their appetites. Whereas deer nibble on crops, swine devour. And there’s little that they won’t eat. Here in southwest Georgia, they methodically work down field rows, inhaling freshly planted seeds. “It literally takes five minutes for them to fuck a field,” Shouse says. They also make meals of birds, frogs, snails, snakes, and even newborn deer, and root up native plants, threatening biological diversity. The Department of Agriculture estimates that pigs annually account for $1.5 billion in control efforts and damages, $800 million of which owes directly to agriculture losses.
Not only are hogs insatiable, but they also reproduce at such a rate that a landowner must remove 80 percent of those on his or her property just to keep the population level—a tall order. “Hogs are smart as fuck,” Shouse says. “They’ll see your trap and say, ‘Hey, fuck your trap. We’re not going in there.’” Rifles afford only a slightly better advantage. Shouse has seen pigs hit through the heart run 150 yards before expiring. “Their will to live is unmatched by any other animal I’ve ever shot,” he says.
Many farmers, in an effort to save their crops, have come to depend on professional hog killers like Shouse. Alex Harrell grows corn, soybeans, peanuts, and watermelons on 3,800 acres, and gives Shouse access to all of it. “None of the other outfitters are near as effective as Hal,” he says. “I know that for a fact.” But even with Shouse’s help, hogs cost him tens of thousands of dollars annually. “I’d hate to say it’s $100,000 each year, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it is.”
In exchange for protecting a farmer’s fields year-round, for no charge, Shouse gets to bring along paying clients—everyday guys who want to mow down some pigs—for the price of $500 a night. “Landowners want you out killing for them,” he explains. “They want to see buzzards. They want to see dead pigs.”
And he delivers.
At 9:30, we reach the tract by the river. Shifler eases the van down a trail lined with pecan trees; Shouse keeps the thermal trained forward, ready for whatever lies around the next bend. A night with HogSWAT, I discover, feels like a cross between a low-stakes surveillance mission and a video game. You roll up to a field in one of Shouse’s two vans, scope it out for 20 or 30 minutes, an hour maybe—bullshitting and munching on snacks all the while—and then continue to the next spot. The cycle repeats until about 4 in the morning, or until a hog emerges, at which point you slip into the night, sneak within range, and let the bullets fly. There’s no need for camo, I learned, after I arrived decked out in it earlier today. Given the outing’s modest demands, middle-aged guys compose the bulk of Shouse’s clientele, and they often bring along their children; business spikes whenever school is out.
We soon come upon a field, overgrown and encircled by pine and oak. Shouse moves the camera right to left. Then, suddenly, white blurs fill the screen. “Look, look, look!” he says. But the hogs vanish into the woods before he and Shifler can jump out. No big deal, Shouse says, as he settles back into his seat. There’ll be other chances.
Hog outfitting has become big business, with hundreds of guides across the country. But Shouse is an anomaly, and not just because of his tricked-out vans. For one thing, before he was a pig killer, he was a pimp. Or that’s his joke. But there’s some truth to it. In the late 1990s, after a stint in the Navy and running a window-covering company, he started an escort service in Phoenix, where he grew up and where such businesses can operate lawfully. He placed ads in the phone book and claims to have grossed north of $1 million within a year and a half in operation. He soon had “a handful of hand-job shacks by the airport and a topless bar up in Flagstaff,” he says. But after a decade or so, the bottom fell out. “Backpage fucked us,” he says of the classifieds website, popular for sex-work advertising. Plus, at the time, his girlfriend was pregnant with his daughter, who’s now 12, so he was looking for another line of work.
He landed on hog control almost by chance. He was unaware of the pig problem until one evening in 2008, when he happened to see a TV show about it. “I was like, ‘Holy shit,’ ” he recalls. Though he’d never been much of a hunter, he saw a business opportunity, and within months he moved his family to rural Georgia. The career change wasn’t drastic: “There’s really not that much difference between how I’m going to treat you over the course of a night and how I’d look out for my clients at the titty bar.” It’s all pretty much the same to him, he says.
We keep waiting and watching. Despite the photos from earlier, pigs elude us. Even so, Shouse makes for good company in the downtime. He follows politics closely and gets a kick out of debating why he thinks drugs and prostitution should be legal. He says that he wants to start a talk show, in which a Republican and a Democrat ride around in his van and find common ground between taking shots at hogs. Celebrities can join, too: “I’d like to get Killer Mike. I’d like to get Britney Spears.” He also tells stories about running his topless bars and about a piglet named Betty that he recently spared and keeps as a pet. During lulls, he uses FaceTime to check in on his daughter, who he’s raising by himself. “My primary job now is that I’m a dad,” he tells me. “I’ve got a little person that I have to raise and turn loose into the world, and I need her to be self-sufficient and not be an asshole.”
At 11 o’clock, with still no hog action, Shifler reverses the van and drives us to another spot. Shouse is eager to see a pig, especially after his younger half-brother—who, confusingly, is also named Hal Shouse (he goes by Junior)—calls and says that his team, while out patrolling in the other HogSWAT van, saw 10 and hit three. “We went out there and busted their ass,” he says over speakerphone. After another few minutes, Shifler, clearly restless, climbs out of the van and takes a walk. He returns quickly. Pigs are in an adjacent clearing. Game time.
Shouse slings a rifle around his shoulders and sets off down a dirt road, walking heel to toe to keep quiet. I follow behind in the darkness. When we reach a bluff, Shouse rests the rifle, equipped with a thermal-imaging scope, on a shooting stick and prepares to fire. I listen to the wind move through the trees, waiting for the shots to come. They never do. After a few moments, Shouse lowers the gun. “Two raccoons hugging,” he says. No pigs.
When we meet again the following evening, Shouse admits that last night didn’t go as planned. We stayed out until 3 a.m. and ended the night hogless. This wouldn’t feel like a major defeat if hogs weren’t, apparently, everywhere. But the fact that we didn’t kill a pig is, in a way, a testament to his work. “I’m not good at what I do because I kill more pigs than the next guy,” he says. “I’m good at what I do because of how I kill the pigs.”
Shouse is effective because, unlike most landowners, he and his team patrol nearly every night, modifying the animals’ behavior. Shooting a couple hogs every so often achieves nothing, he says. The reason: Wild pigs travel in groups of 10 or so, called sounders. And unless you wipe out a sounder, you’re effectively making the survivors extra wary and harder to kill next time. Wildlife biologists have come to stress the importance of whole-sounder removal. Consequently, in 2016, the Missouri Department of Conservation banned shooting hogs on land in its control, contending that hunting scatters hogs and makes whole-sounder trapping efforts more difficult, thereby exacerbating the problem.
But Shouse isn’t a casual hunter; he’s methodical, regimented. Aaron Cosby, a farmer who lives down the road from him, agrees that Shouse’s biggest benefit to farmers is pressure every night “to the point that the hogs have moved somewhere else,” he says. But, in doing so, “you’re pushing hogs back over to your neighbors.” But that’s not Shouse’s problem. He’s just looking out for his farmers.
Tonight, Shouse says, we’re going to cover more ground, hit more spots, stay moving. At 9, we start cruising, sweeping the fields with the thermal. Shouse spots a coyote, an armadillo, and a glowing mound of fresh chicken poop. Then, a mile down the road, a white blob appears. “Pigs,” Shouse says. And he’s right. There’s maybe a hundred in all. But he doesn’t have permission to hunt this particular farm; the owner denied him. We drive on.
Though Shouse helps keep the hogs at bay, the situation isn’t improving, he says, as evidenced by the mass. “Nothing we’re doing now will solve it,” he says, “because while we’re talking right now, they’re fucking.” Soon enough, he says, the infestation will become bad enough that farmers will have to invest in pig-proof fencing—which, according to several people I talked with, runs about $10,000 a mile. No surprise, it hasn’t caught on, at least not in Georgia. But Shouse will be ready when it does. He’s already set up as a dealer for a company called Stay-Tuff.
At midnight, we roll up to a field and park behind a row of single-story homes. Seven blurbs materialize on the screen. “It’s time for some gangster shit,” Shouse says, as he and Shifler jump out.
Shouse grabs a rifle, and he and Shifler move silently into the field; I trail behind, each step sinking into the soft red clay. The night is moonless, and I can’t see my feet, much less Shouse and Shifler, 10 paces ahead. I follow an inch-wide circle of light from a thermal monocular that Shifler has raised to his face.
We walk a couple of hundred yards, then stop. Shifler hands me the monocular. The pigs are within a hundred yards, snouts down and feeding. A big sow and maybe a half-dozen smaller hogs. Shouse rests the rifle on a shooting stick and shoulders the gun. He lowers his head to a thermal scope and waits a beat. Exhales.
The rifle cracks—the shot connects with a thud. The sow squeals, but the other pigs have already split. Shouse keeps firing, one loud hiss after the next from the sound-suppressed muzzle. Three pigs break right toward the woods, the other three left. He connects with a small hog, and it drops in the dirt.
He squeezes off a few last rounds before the field is empty save for the two hit hogs. The night is alive now with dogs barking and coyotes howling and the cries of the dying pigs. Our headlamps come on. “Good shooting,” I say, obligatorily. “Not really,” Shouse says. “But that’s how it goes sometimes.”
As Shouse fetches the van, Shifler takes off across the field to recover the animals. By the time I catch up with him, the small hog, a 30-pounder, has expired. Shifler walks toward the woods, where the big sow, despite a couple of gunshot wounds, has disappeared. It’s fatally hit and not far. But Shifler isn’t about to traipse after a 90-plus-pound pissed-off, injured hog in thick brush.
Shifler drags the small hog over to where Shouse parks the van, and soon Junior and his crew show up. The guys break down the pig and drop the meat into plastic bags. They insist on sending me home with loin, the prime cut. Shouse, meanwhile, stands over the animal, his headlamp shining down. “It got shot through the guts and it still kept going,” he says. He can’t help but respect it for that. “They’re amazing animals.”
He says that when he was deciding whether to break in to pig control, he didn’t want to invest if the business didn’t have longevity. By all accounts, it will. But the market will shift. He guesses that, inside of three years, killing a few hogs each night will no longer be enough and that he’ll be selling fence full-time. Because tonight, as this pig was busy dying, somewhere in the distance, scores of others were busy being born.
This story appears in the print edition of the October 2018 issue, with the headline “The Pig Patrol.”