Feral pigs flummox Puerto Rico, invading communities and reproducing rapidly
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Thousands of fat belly Vietnamese pigs snort and squeal across Puerto Rico in what many fear will become an unstoppable search for food and reproduction on an island struggling to stop it.
They rummage in gardens and farms, knock over trash cans and leave sharp traces of urine and excrement. They occasionally stop to bathe when they find potholes full of rainwater. The ex-pets - or descendants of ex-pets - have been proliferating at such an alarming rate that the U.S. Territory declared a health emergency last year so federal officials can begin eradicating them.
It is the newest alien species to invade communities in Puerto Rico like iguanas and caimans, although these are particularly difficult to control and cannot be killed for food because they carry so many diseases.
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Crews from Georgia, Alabama, and Florida helped remove 500 pigs over four days last August, but the pigs are so numerous and dispersed that officers had to gather and work out a new plan that they launched a few weeks ago said Gustavo Olivieri, assistant to the Caribbean District Supervisor for the Animal and Phytosanitary Inspection Service for the US Department of Agriculture.
"It was out of control," he said of the hundreds of pigs concentrated in just one impoverished area in Puerto Rico's capital. "We found that there are far more animals than we expected."
The problem started about five years ago after people started buying the pigs as pets, unaware that they would weigh 250 pounds or more. Olivieri said the pigs multiplied after Hurricane Maria unleashed a strong Category 4 storm in September 2017 as some escaped from their custody while others were released by their families.
Although there are no official figures, Olivieri estimates that there are now thousands of pigs roaming Puerto Rico. 67 of the island's 78 communities report sightings.
Image: (Carlos Giusti / AP)
He said that while wild boars are a problem in mainland America, they are nowhere near the level of Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs in Puerto Rico. There are no native pigs on the island whose signature dish is arguably lechón asado or roast pork, thanks to the Spaniards who introduced the species in the early 16th century.
One final afternoon, pigs of all sizes rummaged through piles of rubbish and mixed with roosters and dogs in Cantera, a neighborhood in the capital, San Juan, long neglected by the government. Broken glass clinked beneath baby pigs' tiny hooves as they scuttled around, while sows held their own as nearby drivers slowed down and some smiled.
Community leaders said they understood the attraction some people have towards the pigs: "When they're little, they look really cute," said 31-year-old Valerie Figueroa, adding that some Puerto Ricans who live near the Pigs live, social media use the little ones as pets to give away.
So it is a struggle to make people understand how much trouble they are causing, she said as they came up with a booklet called "Trash Problems? Pig Problems? If you answered yes, this document is for you . "
The brochure includes pictures of a makeshift horse that the fed up neighbors built to fence the pigs in and keep them from entering their community. For residents who insist on feeding the pigs even though they are told they are extremely smart and return to the same place to feed, Figueroa recommends that they drop the leftovers in the barn.
The problem goes beyond the smell and the overturned trash cans. Figueroa said her aunt stumbled when a pig was chasing her and then bit her knee, which required surgery. Another neighbor, 52-year-old Jesús Laracuente, said they invaded his garden, where he once grew pigeon peas, taro roots, tomatoes, pumpkins and coriander.
"I only have three small plantain trees left," he said.
A few blocks away, 36-year-old government worker Luis Meléndez was fixing a flat tire in front of his house when an echo sounder of pigs was rummaging through an abandoned park, snapping their short little tails.
He shook his head.
"They squeak all the time," he said, adding that they won't let him sleep. "You are a disaster."
The pigs start reproducing before they are a year old and they can give birth to up to 10 piglets at a time, Olivieri said. This is a challenge, especially given their high survival rate, lack of natural predators on the island and willingness to eat almost anything, he said, adding that they cannot be killed for food as they carry around 30 different diseases , including different types of herpes.
Given the intelligence of the animals, the scientists tried a new approach after last year's recordings. They examined the pigs' habits and behaviors and what type of traps worked best. They staked out in the field and found that some groups of pigs were only attracted to corn while others were attracted to fruit.
The project to eradicate them could take a few years. Once the pigs are captured, Olivieri says they will be taken to a facility owned by the Puerto Rico Department of Agriculture and humanely euthanized.
This process has been sharply criticized by animal rights groups like Women United for Animal Welfare, who oppose the killing of pigs and are demanding that they be moved to a safe area until someone can find a home for them or a sanctuary can be built. More than 65,000 people have signed a petition in support of such proposals.
Meanwhile, the president of Cantera's neighborhood council says residents can only wait.
"We found that this situation is out of control," said Gertrudis Calderón. "It has become a health problem."
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