An unusual question surfaced amid America’s debate about gun violence last week. “If you’re on here arguing the definition of ‘assault weapon’ today you are part of the problem,” country musician Jason Isbell wrote on Twitter after the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. “You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one.” An Arkansas man replied with this counterpoint: “Legit question for rural Americans - How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”
Twitter users, myself included, had a field day with the bewildering question. But the man had touched on a genuine issue in America. One expert told Slate that wild pigs are “one of the world’s worst invasive species” because of the damage they can inflict on property and the risk to people and livestock. The Washington Post reported that an estimated six million feral hogs now live in four-fifths of the states, largely concentrated in the southern and central parts of the country. In 2011, Texas even passed a law allowing residents to hunt them from helicopters.
While the proliferation of feral hogs has little to do with the national debate about gun control, it does shed light on how Americans perceive their relationship with the natural world. By enforcing an artificial divide between human and animal environments, people may be doing more harm than good to both sides of the equation. And by trying to solve every perceived transgression of that boundary with violence, those who enforce it betray a lack of moral imagination.
There’s a certain amount of hubris that comes with assuming that wildlife is invading human spaces. In truth, the reverse is true. Since the arrival of European settlers, humans in America have sought to conquer, rather than adapt to, their surroundings; the expansion of human populations on the continent has caused the steady, and sometimes rapid, elimination of animal populations. Buffalo were hunted nearly to extinction in the nineteenth century, counting fewer than 1,000 at the turn of the century. Gray wolves faced a similar fate in the twentieth century. By the time the Endangered Species Act went into effect in 1973, fewer than 1,000 wolves lived in the lower 48 states.* (Both populations have since rebounded thanks to conservation efforts.)
Sometimes, these efforts to tame the natural world backfire spectacularly. Coyotes today, like wolves before them, face a similar effort to hunt them into submission. When under pressure by hunters and other ecological threats, however, coyotes tend to respond by breeding more often and bearing larger litters. The result has been an explosive growth in the coyote population nationwide. Rather than learn from this mistake, some communities are eager to repeat it. Urban hunters armed with AR-15s now prowl some major cities to check coyote populations that, as The New York Times put it, are “colonizing” urban centers.
Wild animals aren’t pets, of course, and they have to be treated carefully. Those concerned about the spread of urban wildlife often point to the health risks. Deer, whose numbers are surging across the eastern U.S. due to a lack of natural predators, host insects that carry Lyme disease. That’s a problem, but not an unmanageable one. The deer at least don’t know they’re playing a role in spreading disease. The same can’t be said for upper-middle-class suburban families that choose not to vaccinate their children. Their arrogance endangers the lives of immune-compromised kids and has led to the worst measles outbreak in a quarter century.
Wildlife is also nowhere near the worst threat to a human being; it’s usually just the one least capable of fighting back. Researchers who compiled data on coyote attacks found fewer than 400 injuries nationwide and only one fatality between 1970 and 2015. At the same time, the Times’ report on urban coyotes counted multiple instances where hunters harmed people as well. A New York man seriously wounded another person after shooting him during a hunt in 2017, while an Idaho hunter’s cyanide trap hospitalized a 14-year-old boy and killed his family dog that same year. The solution to coyotes might be as dangerous as the problem itself.
Not everyone who lives alongside wildlife wants it destroyed. New Jersey officials legalized periodic bear hunts to control the population, a strategy that garnered national attention after hunters killed Pedals, a popular bear with malformed front paws that learned to walk upright, during a cull in 2014. A state official confirmed his death by telling the Times that “the upright bear” had been “harvested.” Amid outrage over the hunts, Governor Phil Murphy suspended them last year.
Gunning down feral hogs is gratuitous, and possibly even ineffective: The Post noted that Texas wildlife officials have warned that .223 caliber ammunition—the kind typically used in AR-15-type rifles—“may not be enough to pierce [hogs’] tough hide.” Vox’s Dylan Matthews, who wrote about the feral hog tweet from a more philosophical standpoint last week, noted that more humane methods like contraceptives have been remarkably effective in managing other wild animal populations. That option doesn’t currently exist for feral hogs, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. Since humans helped create the feral hog problem in the first place, they have an obligation to solve it in an ethical manner.
Some invasive species are entirely of mankind’s making. One comes readily to mind. It is a peerless predator that’s choking the life out of cities, killing more than 6,200 innocent bystanders—a 30-year record—across the country just last year. The federal government bulldozed migratory paths for it through great American cities in the 1950s and 1960s, scarring their civic fabric forever. Its feeding habits are a major contributor to climate change, that great existential threat to man and beast alike. Few people suggest that we wipe out the automobile, though. That would be unnatural.
* A previous version of this article misstated the name of the Endangered Species Act and the year it went into effect.