Wet Sows And Sport Hunting Vs. Depredation

March 28, 2012

I’m always tickled when one of my friends tells me about a successful hunting trip, even if it  makes me a little jealous right now because I haven’t had time to do any hunting on my own.  So when I saw that my friend, Hank (blogger at The HunterAnglerGardenerCook… and author of Hunt Gather Cook, Finding The Forgotten Feast) had made the trip down near Paso Robles and brought home the bacon, I had to beat back the green-eyed monster and be happy for his success.  Of course, for Hank that success was way overdue… it’s been something like three years since he last shot a hog.  I’d be a basket case if I went that long without a good hog hunt!

Hank’s hunt sounds like a good one, as he was out on about 12,000 acres with RJ Waldron of Northwind Outfitters, a little north of Paso Robles, CA.  Success has reportedly been good there, and they did spot multiple hogs before Hank took the one he dubbed, “Matilda.”  You can read his story yourself, but in short, Matilda was a perfect meat pig…  a sow about 100 lbs and probably unbred (a gilt… which also makes her an ideal candidate for culling if you’re trying to manage the populations).

But in the hunt leading up to the kill, he was faced with an interesting and fairly common quandary.  Fairly early in the day, he had his crosshairs dead-on a big sow as she fed completely oblivious to the impending doom.  His guide held him up a second, and sure enough, the sow was “wet” (still nursing piglets).  Killing a wet sow isn’t the end of the world, but it usually means the death of the dependent piglets as well.  That’s a pretty hard thing to do on purpose, especially when the reason for the hunt is to fill the table, not to eradicate a pest animal.  I’ve witnessed it more than once, and there’s simply no way to maintain a detachment from the resulting, heart-rending scene.  We’re all human, despite what some folks would have you believe.

It reminds me of the significant divide between sport hunting and eradication/extermination.  I’ve often maintained the argument that sport hunters will never be effective at serious population reduction or elimination because they’re generally not willing to take the harsh measures it requires.  Most of them won’t (and some can’t) shoot the little, striped piglets.  Most of them won’t orphan a littler of piglets by shooting the wet sow… especially if they actually see the babies suckling.  Many of them won’t even kill more than they can process and eat.

But when it comes to an invasive, non-native species like the wild pig, those extreme measures are sometimes very necessary.  Hence, it justifies things like aerial shooting and corral traps… even when the meat is sometimes buried, left to rot, or sent to the tallow factory.  It’s hard to think of something as large, warm-blooded, and intelligent as a pig in the same way you’d think of ants or cockroaches, but to the depredation hunter that’s what they are.  It requires pragmatism and a somewhat, hardened heart.

This isn’t to imply a shortcoming on the part of the sport hunter, or vice versa.  Some of us are both, so the dichotomy isn’t even exclusive.  When I’m hunting for myself, I won’t shoot a wet sow.  It tears me up to think of the implications.   I’ve heard those little ones calling, and watched them climb over the carcass of a recently deceased mother, and even now I can feel the pangs of sorrow and regret… even though I’m not the one who killed her.  To inflict that for the sake of recreation and a freezer full of meat is simply beyond me.

But there’s another side.  When I’ve been asked to help with depredation, I’ve had to put those misgivings aside.  There are bigger considerations… the health of the habitat, or the success of a crop.  The idea is to eradicate, and in this light the animals are simply destructive vermin.  The reason for being there is different, so the justifications are different as well.  It isn’t always easy, or at least not for me (and I don’t think for anyone with a conscience).  You do it because it has to be done.

Anyway… just something I’ve been thinking about.

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well, then I contradict myself.

I am large.

I contain multitudes.”

Walt Whitman



5 Responses to “Wet Sows And Sport Hunting Vs. Depredation”

  1. shotgunner on March 28th, 2012 11:56

    I have yet to shoot a pig. Been out and had shots. In fact two opportunities on the same trip 15 minutes apart. First was a HUUUUGE boar. I could smell him before I saw him. He was forty yards. It was getting late and I was alone. I chose not to take the easy shot because it was getting late, he was HUUUGE. I don’t need that much pork! Truthfully, I was being lazy, knowing if I killed that monster I would not rest for many hours.

    The second was on the way back to the truck. It was a sow and her piglets. She was less than 100 yards from my truck. How awesome is that? I made the judgement call that her kids would likely not survive had I shot her, so I passed. Her I could have easily cleaned up and packed out to my waiting ice chest in an hour or two. No laziness this time. I have no issues with dead pigs. Just don’t think starvation/dehydration is the way I want to kill them.

    Dang, I still need to kill a pig.

  2. Jim Tantillo on March 28th, 2012 13:38

    Phillip, faced the same dilemma some years ago while deer-sniping for a neighbor of us who had just planted a couple of acres of new wine grapes, blogged about it on a blog I had that summer: Day 8. After that night I swore I would take the shot if she showed up again, even with such young fawns, and sure enough, she was the first deer I killed that summer (a href=””>Day 11. After it was all said and done, I was glad to have taken what was essentially the “three-for-one” shot, but the sportsman in me certainly struggled with that decision, and I still do in some ways. good post.

  3. Jim Tantillo on March 28th, 2012 13:38

    oops, screwed up the html for Day 11. sorry about that.

  4. ingrid on March 28th, 2012 15:32

    Phillip, thank you for this post. You know where I come down on all of this, but I wanted to pose a few questions. Can one make a distinction between hunting animals with visible signs of lactating and young (as in the case of the sow), and other forms of sport (not depredation) hunting which invariable orphan the young? I’m thinking of cottontails who breed year round, pigeons, squirrels, doves (which sometimes have nestlings or fledglings well into dove-hunting season. It’s often quite difficult to identity a female bear who’s nursing, and wildlife facilities will tell you they do get in bear cubs orphaned by hunters for this very reason … that’s if the babies are lucky enough to be found. The same is now true of wolf hunting into denning season — although I realize some would argue the wolf hunts qualify as depredation. I obviously have strong feelings on that issue.

    The point is, the examples are vast enough that I would think it would cause some reexamination of these hunting practices and also the length of the season. One could even argue that first-winter fawns who lose their mothers do not fare as well, since it’s not just the physiological dependence that’s important that first year, it’s also the education the mother gives to her young in terms of survival. This is, of course, coming from a non-hunter and rehabilitator and someone has worked, at times, with orphaned animals (from various causes). Orphaned squirrels are often so distressed upon arriving at a wildlife facility, they cry constantly, they won’t eat, and exhibit other manifestations of trauma. As such, I wonder (probably rhetorically) how these other forms of hunting are acceptable to the sport hunter, when the outcome for the young is virtually the same.

  5. Phillip on March 28th, 2012 20:15

    Ingrid, with some large mammals it’s very easy to tell. However, in most cases, hunting seasons for large mammals are timed so that the young are weaned prior to allowing hunters to kill the females. With pigs, as far as I know California is the only state to designate them as “big game” animals (NC recently removed hogs from the game animal list). With deer, it’s possible to find a doe that is still nursing a fawn during the early season. In states where it’s legal to shoot does that early in the season, the rationale is pure population control. In other words, the loss of a fawn is “acceptable”. Hard language, I know, but it’s the reality of overpopulation. Nevertheless, most hunters I know won’t shoot a doe with an obviously dependent youngster, even if it’s legal. I’ve personally witnessed it with many, many hunters back in North Carolina where, truth be told, they are simply not killing enough deer by any means.

    With small game, there’s no way to tell. Usually, seasons are scheduled so as not to overlap with the nesting/breeding seasons, but that’s not always possible. With rabbits, I expect the reality is that there’s no threat to the population if a littler is orphaned.

    With bears, the question opens a different discussion… namely the arguments about baiting for bears. Proponents will tell you that hunting over bait allows the hunter to determine with some certainty if the bear is a nursing female, or a cub before taking the shot… whereas hunters who hunt spot-and-stalk are often unsure until the animal is dead, since they often must shoot fast and at a distance. There’s a whole debate there, and huge disagreement even among hunters.

    As to the rehab animals, you have to also consider the stress of being brought into the rehab environment, surrounded and handled by large predators (which is how they see us… at least until they learn differently). That has to be pretty traumatic all in itself. Hard to objectively separate the cause of the trauma there, isn’t it? Heck, even a lost dog gets freaked out when he’s picked up by strangers and taken to the pound.

    All that aside, to be honest, I don’t think most hunters spend a lot of time or introspection on the issue. When they kill a squirrel or a rabbit, it’s just a squirrel or a rabbit… a dinner or two down the road. Most hunting seasons do not overlap the nesting season, so the odds of making a bunch of orphans with one shot are relatively slim. Most hunters trust that their wildlife agencies are making informed and educated decisions about seasons and such. And if there are no seasons, it’s because the species is considered vermin and expendable. Again, it’s a hard reality that I can’t begin to justify for your sensibilities (and I won’t try).

    Of course, when it comes to depredation, all bets are off. No one cries for the nest of baby cockroaches when mom checks into the Roach Motel. The same for rats, squirrels, rabbits, pigs, or deer.