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wild boar

15 october 2017

I live near the epicenter of wild-boar panic in the United States. Boar roam the parks of my home city (Arlington, Texas) and indeed much of my vast home state. But I have never run across a wild boar; you are much likelier to see a coyote or a bobcat in these parts. To a large extent, that's because wild boar, as Dorothy Yamamoto observes in her new book on the beasts, are shy and nocturnal creatures – and though omnivores, are not very likely to leap your backyard fence and attack your pets.

Nevertheless, if you google "wild boar" or "feral hogs" (more on that distinction in a minute), you will experience a strong dose of textual hysteria. "Invasive Wild Pigs Leave a Swath of Destruction; Wild Pigs Are Taking Over America; Can Wild Pigs Ravaging the U.S. Be Stopped; A Plague of Pigs in Texas." Holy moly, I don't know if I should leave home without my crossbow.

Yamamoto does not underplay the damage that razorbacks can do to crops, and she is not anti-hunting, as long as the culling of boar populations is done by competent, humane hunters. But she looks skeptically at the divisive wild-boar wars that wrack Britain at the moment (hunters, farmers, and animal advocates warring over the mostly-reclusive pigs). And she comments wryly on the American tendency to make the boar into "Hogzilla," a crypto-pig that has become the Sasquatch of the South.

Boars seem to have unduly impressed humans since the dawn of legend. Hercules wrassled the Erymanthian Boar and took it home to his patron Eurystheus, who promptly freaked out and hid in a large clay pot. Atalanta and Meleager, among others, tracked the Calydonian Boar across the pages of Ovid and other fabulists. Adonis was done in by a tusky pig. Even earlier, boar were imposing subjects for cave painters. They number among the earliest of all topics for art.

Boar-hunting, in turn, was a royal amusement across many cultures. Like quite a few aristocratic pastimes, it was less dangerous than it looked, giving leaders a chance to vaunt their prowess under controlled conditions. Boars can be quite dangerous – I wouldn't suggest going all Hercules on the feral hogs of River Legacy Park in Arlington – but riding out with your royal entourage to ritually slay a boar weakened by your pack of hounds was risky mainly for the hounds.

The remarkable lines of boars have inspired artists from Altamira to Arkansas to create beautifully stylized images of the creatures in clay, bronze, and pigment. Wild Boar is lovingly illustrated with plates of archaic jewelry, medieval manuscripts, and modern photographs. Not least among pictured boar is Heiko Cordt's pet Schnitzel. Much of Germany is as overrun with boar as Texas is, but Cordt chose the most peaceful option for one piglet, integrating him into his household of pet dogs.

So are these Texas critters wild or feral, boar or hogs? It doesn't matter much, biologically. Domestic pigs descend from wild boar so recently that they continue to interbreed quite liberally. One tendency that puzzled even Charles Darwin (29-31) continues to be something of a mystery today. Kept on farms, pigs quickly lose their tusks, most of their bristles, and their boarish profiles. Escaped and gone feral, they recover those features in a generation or two. Some process triggered by developmental environments or epigenesis produces quite different phenotypes (though perhaps in very superficial ways, from a pig's perspective) between domestic and wild populations.

Yamamoto, Dorothy. Wild Boar. London: Reaktion, 2017.