James Gill: As hogs run wild, Lee sorely missed

When Harry Lee was Jefferson Parish sheriff, his SWAT teams shot a lot of nutria.

Their efforts were a great blessing to mankind. The destruction of suburban canal banks was arrested, and newspaper reporters quit filing stories in which nutria were invariably and excruciatingly described as “orange-toothed rodents.”

The evident success of the nutria purge does not bode well for feral hogs, which are undermining the levees as they root around for food. The local levee authority has concluded that off-duty deputies equipped with night vision scopes and thermal imaging cameras are probably the answer, and Sheriff Newell Normand is on board.

Feral hogs are an even bigger menace nationwide than nutria, causing $1.5 billion in damage yearly, according to the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture. Descended from Eurasian boar, which were apparently imported for sport and interbred with fugitive domestic swine, they now number about five million across the country, tearing up crop fields, parks and gardens. In Louisiana their assaults on levees are thorough enough to pose a flood threat.

They are prolific breeders, producing two litters of up to 14 annually, a rate that more or less matches even the polyphiloprogenitive nutria. The levee authority has employed trappers to some effect, but it seems that JPSO sharpshooters, who have apparently also dispatched a few coyotes in recent years, are the levees’ most likely saviors.

If bullets seem the obvious answer now, it was not so when the parish council almost 20 years ago decided the time had come, after $6 million had been spent to repair canal banks, to halt the nutria’s depredations. Various ingenious ideas were floated. One was to dispatch miniature rafts down the canals bearing sweet potatoes. The nutria would swim out for a tasty snack only to ingest a fatal dose of the zinc phosphide with which they were coated.

Another was to erect little nooses that were supposed to trap the nutria as they emerged from their burrows and hold them underwater until they drowned.

Such proposals were rejected not because they were an insanely elaborate method of pest control, but because animal lovers raised a stink. One of them wanted the nutria rounded up and transported to a place, unspecified, where they could retire happily. Another, slightly less radical, proposed they be carted off for humane execution.

When the voice of reason was finally heard at a parish council meeting, it belonged to Lee. At first nobody took him seriously when he observed that it would easier and cheaper to have his deputies dispatch nutria with a .22, but he was so obviously right that the council soon accepted his offer. In no time night patrols were raking the canal banks with gunfire.

Local animal rights campaigners have been quieter this time, although PETA has taken a predictable stance on hog culls and some local protest might be expected.

Although Lee’s snipers proved highly effective in Jefferson Parish, it was not possible to shoot all the nutria in Louisiana, so other methods of controlling their numbers were sought. A campaign to make us all eat nutria meat, and possibly have it frenchified on restaurant menus as Ragondin, was not a great success.

Wild boar, by contrast, is well established as a gourmet’s delight. Yours truly had some experience several years ago of hunting hogs in Bayou Sauvage — not perhaps in strict accordance with the law – and found the meat lean and toothsome. The Naval Air Station in Belle Chasse organizes hog hunts, with service members sometimes getting a decent dinner for their pains. The navy has also donated feral hog meat to a substance abuse clinic.

Feral hogs, however, sometimes carry diseases that can be transmitted to humans through undercooked meat, so eating them may not be a feasible solution. That would be a great shame, because, otherwise, pigs would be a much easier sell than orange-toothed rodents.

James Gill’s email address is jgill@theadvocate.com.