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Pork chopper

4/10/2008

Florida Marlins relief pitcher Logan Kensing is at the moment staring down maybe the most active environmental group in his part of the world, and could face protests at games.

Members of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition are threatening a public relations storm because they object to Kensing's shooting feral hogs on ranchland he manages. They say by discussing it, Kensing is glorifying indiscriminate killing.

The group has written to the Marlins, and at its next scheduled meeting on April 7, it will discuss what further steps, if any, its members will take.

Read letter sent to Marlins

"They came at us hard," Kensing said. "I didn't do anything wrong."

To understand how the 25-year-old landed in this predicament, it's useful to talk with his best friend and former Texas A&M roommate, Jeff Lang, who with Kensing manages and guides hunts on five ranches in the Texas Hill Country and south-central part of the state.

Their duties include scoping deer on the property, counting the buck-to-doe ratio and generally keeping the 11,000 acres of ranchland hospitable for game animals.

Lang recently tried to explain what it feels like to shoot feral hogs, as he and Kensing did for the first time this year — from a helicopter. "It's almost indescribable," he said, but here's what he finally came up with.

"Being up in a helicopter, it is absolutely unlike anything you've ever done before," he said. "To have a pilot that's very good, to be able to be going just as fast as those things can run, 12 or 15 feet above the ground, staying right on them — and just being in the helicopter itself and seeing the land from above at that range, whether you're hunting or not, is almost indescribable itself.

"The predator control is definitely a bonus, to get to hunt from a chopper. I guess it's like anything else, as far as adrenaline goes, but when you're leaning over the ground 30 or 40 feet, going 30 or 40 mph, trying to keep aim — absolutely, the adrenaline's flowing."

In interviews this winter, Kensing was open about what a rush the experience was. That's when trouble began to brew.

'Conservation nightmare'

The feral razorback hogs at issue are not the native javelinas of the American Southwest. Tough, big, smart and omnivorous, feral pigs impose themselves on other animals, food sources and the land itself as an unnnatural, invasive species.

The hogs running around Texas and the American Southeast, often referred to as "wild," descended from swine imported from Russia and Europe. The very qualities that earned their ancestors a ride to the New World as a food source — durability, adaptability and rapid reproduction — now make them one of the most reviled invasive species in the world.

"They are a conservation nightmare," said Mike Bodenchuk, director of Texas' Wildlife Services Program, a joint state-federal service that manages wildlife problems, including the couple million or so feral hogs in the state. "The joke in Texas is, the average litter size is six — and 10 survive."

In January, Kensing and Lang surveyed a ranch in a hired helicopter. For the first couple of hours, they took stock of the deer.

See Palm Beach Post video.

With that accomplished and an hour left on the meter, the pilot asked them whether they'd like to use the time to shoot some hogs, which of course they did.

"I'm not going to lie," Kensing told ESPNOutdoors.com. "It's bad-ass. It's one of the best things I've ever got to do. From a management standpoint, we're doing a month's work in two hours."

The press in South Florida already knows Kensing as a hunter; after Dick Cheney peppered a hunting partner with birdshot in Texas, reporters asked for the Texan pitcher's opinion on the matter.

Kensing has been hunting since he was about 5 years old, when he would nap on the floor of the deer stand while his granddad hunted. The first thing he remembers shooting with a .22 was a rabbit that he proudly carried around until it was cold and stiff — and he remembers his mom removing all the ticks that had crawled off the rabbit and onto him.

That was 18 years ago, and he has been a sportsman ever since.

Still, he appeared to catch a Palm Beach Post reporter off-guard when he was asked what was the most interesting thing he'd done in the off-season. "Shot pigs out of a helicopter," Kensing said.

To which the follow-up question was, naturally, "Did you say, 'Shot pigs out of a helicopter'?"

'Rather perverse'

He did, and it irked some Floridians. On March 9, when the team was still in spring training, Barry Silver, the co-chair of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, sent a letter to Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria and general manager Michael Hill, demanding the team "reprimand" Kensing for behavior Silver said was unbecoming a role model.

"[T]he last thing our youth needs in this violence-prone era is a Marlins pitcher who tells our youth unabashedly that killing is thrilling, and that a gun is fun," wrote Silver, an attorney, rabbi and former Florida state representative.

In an interview soon afterward with the Palm Beach Post, Silver mentioned that 27 members of the Coalition had been arrested just weeks earlier while protesting the construction of a natural gas power plant. The message was plain: They're committed, and unafraid.

Since then, Kensing said, no one among the Marlins management has told him to curb his pig extermination. Hogs in Texas aren't protected as a game animal — they're considered the property of the land-owner — so shooting them from the air isn't regulated as a "hunt." It's not only legal for pilots with permits, it's a common way for Texans to thin out hogs.

Reached at his Boca Raton office, Silver explained that his revulsion at the shooting wasn't so much the killing, but Kensing's apparent enthusiasm.

"I consider that rather perverse, that someone would get a charge out of killing something," Silver said told ESPNOutdoors.com.

'A very efficient tool'

To a reasonable person, rousting hogs with a flying metal bird and shooting them from the air could seem like overkill. But Texans involved in land management argue it's a fast, efficient and ultimately merciful way to accomplish an unpleasant duty.

"It's not really an evil, in my opinion," Lang said. "But if they want to look at it as that, it's a necessary evil from my standpoint."

Hogs' effects on the ecosystem in Texas are multifold. Some of their distinctions include the following:

  • They eat anything and everything, and on a ranch where the goal is to nurture game animals, that has serious consequences. They eat corn from feeders. They vacuum up acorns deer and turkey require, and at an intake rate of 3 percent of their body mass daily, a single hog may pound 6 pounds of acorns daily.

    They'll eat a fawn, if times are hard, but no animals have it worse than ground birds such as turkey and quail — unless, perhaps, it's the sea turtles whose nests they turn up and devour along the Texas coast.

    "Ecologically speaking, native animals have not evolved having to avoid feral hogs," said Dale Prochaska, a wildlife biologist with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department whose expertise Lang occasionally seeks. "Hogs were not part of this system originally. For humans to have introduced them, basically that's a huge problem."

    In west Texas, they're so prolific, said Bodenchuk, they sustain mountain lions who otherwise might die or disperse. Those lions in turn add pressure to deer populations, further throwing the natural balance out of whack.

  • They carry diseases such as leptospirosis and brucellosis, making them unsafe around livestock and even for humans to handle without protection, and their waste contains E. coli. Three Texas watersheds are approaching EPA minimum levels of that bacteria strictly because of hog pollution, Bodenchuk said.

  • They're physically destructive, ravaging fences and corn feeders, and churning up the ground.
    "They just root up acres and acres and acres," said Kerry Cornelius, the director of the Ranch Management Program at Texas Christian University in Forth Worth. "If you have to go in and farm that, then, it's extremely rough. It tears up equipment. You could equate it to someone ransacking your house. They didn't take anything, but you have to pay to clean it up."

  • They're awesome survivors, reproducing quickly enough that one pregnant sow in three years can become a colony of 500 offspring.

They also learn quickly to avoid traps and snares, two of the other methods used in controlling them. (And trapping means facing a large, scared hog. "When we used to trap them," Kensing said, "my mom used to get pissed. We'd grab them by the back legs, and she'd be like, 'You guys are going to get torn up.'")

"It is a very real ecological control situation that needs to be implemented," Bodenchuk said. "We have people trapping pigs and, I keep telling people, you can't barbecue your way out of this problem. We've got 2 million pigs breeding all the time, and we're not going to eat enough to control them."

That leaves hunting them with dogs — which is better described as a hunt rather than an efficient management technique — and poisoning them with cyanide, which has its obvious drawbacks.

Snares and poison, Kensing said, are "not very empathetic to the animals."

Nor do those practices kill hogs as efficiently as shooting, which Bodenchuk said is the most effective method of control over the three-quarters of Texas not canopied with tall timber. His agency recently "removed" 1,500 pigs from a 10,000-acre stretch in one week of aerial shooting.

"You don't go up for hours on end and maim everything in sight," Lang said. "You shoot until you know it's dead. That's why it's efficient and humane. They can't get away from you. People see that as an unfair advantage, but in all honesty, sir, it's not a hunt — it's a control deal. It's a tool to keep our livelihood going in the right direction."

"It's a very necessary tool, and it's a very efficient tool," Lang continued. "But that doesn't take away from the fun of it."

Vick's shadow

A question arises: Should a person who derives any sort of excitement from shooting an animal describe that feeling in polite company?

And in the wake of Michael Vick's dog fighting crimes, how delicately must professional athletes discuss the harming of animals?

Ana Rodriguez, a resident of Lake Worth, Fla., and a member of the Palm Beach County Environmental Coalition, said she knows enough about the effects of unchecked hogs in the Everglades to realize the necessity of controlling them. But she felt Kensing conveyed a coarse attitude toward animals when he told the Palm Beach Post, "You can shoot bobcats, wild dogs, coyotes, pigs. Anything that's considered native."

She worries that children who admire Major League ballplayers would interpret that as license to shoot any native species.

"The team management should make sure they don't condone that kind of attitude," Rodriguez said in an interview. "We're definitely not anti-hunting. We've got members who hunt. We're not just a bunch of overemotional vegetarians. It's got to do with promoting (the shooting of animals) indiscriminately for fun."

Silver said he did receive a call from Marlins president David Samson in response to his letter. "He was very polite," Silver said. "He said he spoke to Mr. Kensing about it, and he explained our point of view, but he was also emphatic that he wasn't going to tell him what to do or curb his behavior in any way."