Thousands of Vietnamese round-bellied pigs sniff and scream across Puerto Rico in what many fear has become an unstoppable quest to eat and breed on an island struggling to stop them.
They feed in gardens and farms, knock over trash cans and leave stinging trails of urine and feces, sometimes stopping to bathe if they find potholes full of rainwater. Former pets or descendants of former pets have bred at such an alarming rate that the U.S. Territory declared a health emergency last year so federal authorities could begin to eradicate them.
It is the last non-native species to invade communities in Puerto Rico like iguanas and caimans have done before them, although these have proven to be particularly difficult to control and cannot be killed for food as they are carriers of so many diseases.
Crews from Georgia, Alabama and Florida helped wipe out 500 pigs in four days last August, but the pigs are so numerous and scattered that officials had to come together and come up with a new plan that they launched it. several weeks ago, said Gustavo Olivieri, Caribbean District Assistant. Supervisor of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the United States Department of Agriculture.
It was out of control, he said of the hundreds of pigs concentrated in a single poor area in the capital of Puerto Ricos. We realized there were a lot more animals than we expected.
The problem started about five years ago after people started buying pigs as pets without knowing they would reach 250 pounds or more. Olivieri said the pigs multiplied after Hurricane Maria passed in September 2017 as a powerful Category 4 storm, as some escaped containment while others were released by their families.
Although there are no official figures, Olivieri said he estimates that there are now thousands of pigs roaming around Puerto Rico, with 67 of the island’s 78 municipalities reporting sightings.
He said that while feral pigs are a problem in the Americas, it is nowhere near the level of what is happening with Vietnamese pot bellied pigs in Puerto Rico. There are no species of pigs native to the island, whose signature dish is arguably lechn asado, or roast pig, thanks to the introduction of the species by the Spaniards in the early 1500s.
On a recent afternoon, pigs of all sizes rummaged through garbage piles and mingled with roosters and dogs in Cantera, a neighborhood in the capital of San Juan that has long been overlooked by the government. Broken glass tinkled under the tiny hoofs of the baby pigs as they scurried while the sows stood upright as nearby drivers slowed, some smiling.
Community leaders said they understand the attraction some people feel for pigs: when they are little they look really cute, said Valerie Figueroa, 31, adding that some Puerto Ricans living in Nearby pigs are using social media to give little ones those far away as pets.
So it’s hard to get people to understand the problems they cause, she said, opening a brochure she herself created and printed titled, Problems with Garbage? Problems with pigs? If you answered Yes, this document is for you.
Inside the brochure are pictures of a makeshift corral that tired neighbors have built to fencing pigs off and keeping them out of their community. To residents who insist on feeding the pigs despite being told that they are extremely intelligent and will return to the same place to feed, Figueroa encourages them to drop off the remains at the corral.
The problem goes beyond the smell and spilled trash cans. Figueroa said her aunt tripped when a pig chased her and then bit her knee, which required surgery. Another neighbor, Jess Laracuente, 52, said he invaded his garden, where he once grew pigeon peas, taro roots, tomatoes, pumpkins and cilantro.
I only have three little plantains left, he said.
A few blocks away, 36-year-old government worker Luis Melndez fixed a flat tire outside his house like a pig pollster rooting in an abandoned park, wagging their little short tails.
He shook his head.
They scream all the time, he says, adding that they don’t let him sleep. It’s a disaster.
Pigs start breeding before they are one year old, and they can give birth to up to 10 piglets at a time, Olivieri said. It’s a challenge, especially given their high survival rate, the lack of natural predators on the island, and their willingness to eat just about anything, he said, adding that they couldn’t not be killed for food as they carried around 30 different diseases including various types of herpes.
Given the intelligence of the animals, scientists have tried a new approach after the catches of recent years. They studied the habits and behaviors of pigs and the types of traps that worked best. They set up in the field, noting 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 trapped, Olivieri said, they are taken to a facility owned by the Puerto Ricos Department of Agriculture and humanely euthanized.
This process has drawn strong criticism from animal rights groups such as Women United for Animal Welfare, who speak out against the killing of pigs and demand that they be moved to a safe area until someone can. find them a home or a sanctuary to be built. Over 65,000 people have signed a petition supporting these proposals.
Meanwhile, the president of the Cantera neighborhood council says residents can only wait.
We realized that this situation had gotten out of hand, said Gertrudis Caldern. It has become a health problem.