Butler County owner still looking for Pig Farm’s escapees
March 13, 2016 12:49 AM
Boars wander in the property owned by Larry Lint of The Pig Farm in Six Points, Pa., on Tuesday, March 1, 2016.
By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PARKER, Pa. — On a muddy dirt road in northern Butler County, Larry Lint stood silently staring at the clipped wires of his cut chain-link fence.
A New Year’s Eve act of sabotage at his farm resulted in the escape of hundreds of valuable livestock.
“I could lose my business,” he said. “This farm, these animals — this is all I know.”
Mr. Lint isn’t an ordinary farmer. In addition to managing agricultural land, he’s the proprietor of The Pig Farm, a fenced exotic hunting preserve located about 60 miles north of Pittsburgh. For a fee, clients can target Eurasian razorback boars, Mouflon rams, trophy-size white-tailed deer and other big game animals.
But a rural mystery is afoot at The Pig Farm. Mr. Lint said he’s suspicious of the way the fences were strategically cut, suggesting a plan to easily herd animals toward the exits. Wildlife management authorities and state police say it’s odd that they can’t find a trace of the escapees. Managers of other hunting preserves and animal handlers said The Pig Farm incident is uncommon in the industry, and the chief veterinarian for the state Department of Agriculture called it a “highly unusual situation.”
With a mortgage payment due, unpaid loans, intense pressure from family members who cautioned him against making the investment and a recent serious injury, Mr. Lint said his options are limited. In total, about 150 boars escaped, though nearly 75 have since returned, Mr. Lint said.
“See where these fences were cut? They knew what they were doing,” said Mr. Lint, pointing to clipped wires, since repaired, near a corner of an 80-acre boar confinement, and at spots strategically near an access road. “At first I thought it was some animal rights thing, but now I think the deer and a lot of the hogs were stolen. Maybe by another operation, maybe hunters who want to hunt them — I don’t know.”
Harris Glass, Pennsylvania director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services, said a helicopter, airplane, night-vision optics, ATVs and officers from his group, the Game Commission and police have searched for weeks for the swine. They have yet to find a trace.
“That’s really unusual, for a large group like that to remain undetected for so long,” he said.
Animal rights supporters generally loath the trophy-hunting preserves, and many sport hunters are uncomfortable with the fences and absence of fair chase.
The preserves are legal in Pennsylvania, however, and dozens are in operation. But some confined animals present special risks.
Fenced white-tailed deer risk contracting chronic wasting disease, an always fatal easily transmitted malady of deer and elk that in recent years was confirmed on two Pennsylvania deer farms. CWD has since spread to wild deer, and the state Game Commission is adamant about keeping fenced deer out of the wild population.
Escaped swine can be just as dangerous to wildlife. Pigs are not native to North America. Originally imported by Spanish explorers in the 1500s, they’ve been escaping from enclosures ever since.
Cute curly-tailed domestic pigs that escape enclosures devolve in about a month into bristly haired, sharply tusked omnivores that can reach 400 pounds and will eat anything — plant or animal — and are not shy about tearing up fields or crashing through fences to get to food.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 5 million feral swine in at least 35 states cost an estimated $1.5 billion in damages and preventive efforts each year. They can carry more than 30 diseases and 37 parasites that can be transmitted to livestock, people, pets and wildlife.
Feral swine are calculating, aggressive and prolific, birthing five to 12 piglets at least twice a year. Sows are sexually mature at 10 months. Quick to scatter, when cornered they can attack viciously.
The state Department of Agriculture worries that escaped domestic pigs, or razorbacks, legally imported for the hunting preserves could threaten Pennsylvania’s $350 million pork industry.
Dr. Craig Shultz, a veterinarian and director of the state Agriculture Department’s animal health and diagnostic services, said he was consulted about the problem at The Pig Farm. The escape of these particular species, he said, presents a danger to the region’s environmental health.
“Mr. Lint’s deer had been certified disease free, but he ended that level of monitoring several years ago,” he said. “We have voluntary swine certification programs, but they’re not mandatory. Ninety percent of swine farmers are not in the program, and Mr. Lint was not.”
The Game Commission said it wants to avoid the problems feral swine wreak on wildlife in the South. Neither the Game Commission nor the Agriculture Department savors oversight responsibility.
But in 2007 the state Supreme Court placed the regulatory burden on the Pennsylvania Game Commission. An executive order permits hunters to shoot feral swine on sight most of the time, but the agency discourages creating a culture of swine sport hunting.
“It’s an invasive species,” said commission northwest region information officer Regis Senko, whose office investigated the escape at The Pig Farm. “We don’t want them here. The policy was eradication.”
Two years ago state lawmakers attempted to narrow a regulatory gray area by more closely defining the parameters of agency oversight. An initial bill, supported by the commission, would have banned all possession of exotic boars within the the state. But in a compromise crafted to protect hunting preserves, legislators decided the Department of Agriculture would have authority when boars or domestic pigs are inside the fence. If they get out, they’re under the jurisdiction of the state Game Commission.
“That’s my problem,” said Mr. Lint. “I had 150 [boars] get out and about half came back. I want to trap them and get them back inside. The Game Commission and [U.S. Department of Agriculture] Wildlife Services want to just shoot them. They’re worth $750 a piece to me. I can’t afford to lose that much.”
Mr. Glass of Wildlife Services said he understands Mr. Lint’s predicament.
“But the way we see it, the risk of starting a new swine colony in Butler County is too great,” he said. “These pigs have to go away.”
Mr. Lint says neighbors have spotted his hogs crossing a road and walking in a distant field. Most of the boars, he suspects, are clustered on the adjacent wooded property of a neighbor who has denied entry to wildlife authorities while Mr. Lint tries to lure his property back to The Pig Farm.
If he had lost sheep or cattle, he said, the authorities might help him round them up. But government policies on the disposition of escaped deer and exotic game animals could put an end to his business.
“I’m praying every day for the best,” he said, “but I’m not counting on it.”
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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