Big belly wild Vietnamese pigs roam the Cantera district in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Photo / AP
Thousands of fat belly Vietnamese pigs snort and squeal across Puerto Rico in what many fear will become an unstoppable search for food and brood on an island struggling to hold them back.
They rummage through gardens and farms, knocking over trash cans and leaving sharp traces of urine and feces. Every now and then they stop to bathe when they find pits full of rainwater.
The ex-pets – or descendants of ex-pets – have spawned at such an alarming rate that the U.S. Territory declared a health emergency last year for federal officials to exterminate.
It is the newest alien species to invade communities in Puerto Rico, like iguanas and caimans, although these prove particularly difficult to control and cannot be killed for food because of the many diseases they bring with them.
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 reunite and come up with a new plan that they put in place a few weeks ago said Gustavo Olivieri, district assistant for the Caribbean. Supervisor of the US Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Regulatory Agency.
“Things have gotten out of hand,” he said of the hundreds of pigs concentrated in just one impoverished area in the capital of Puerto Rico.
“We found that there are many 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 emerged as a major Category 4 storm in September 2017, as some escaped from 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.
He said that while wild boars are a problem in the US mainland, they are nowhere near the level of what happens to the Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs in Puerto Rico.
There are no species of pork native to the island whose main dish may be lechón asado, or roast pork, thanks to the Spaniards who introduced the style in the early 16th century.
One afternoon, pigs of all shapes and sizes were rummaging through piles of rubbish in Cantera, a long-neglected government district in the capital, San Juan, mingling with roosters and dogs.
Broken glass rattled under the tiny hooves of baby pigs as they ran around while sows held their own, while nearby drivers slowed down and some smiled.
Community leaders said they understood that some people are attracted to the pigs: “When they are small, they look really cute,” said 31-year-old Valerie Figueroa, adding that some Puerto Ricans live near the pigs , using social media. give away as pets.
So it is a struggle to get people to understand how much trouble they are causing, she said, opening a leaflet called “Trash Problems? Problems with pigs? If you answered yes, then this is it. ” this document for you. “
The brochure includes pictures of a makeshift kraal that tired neighbors built to contain the pigs and keep them from entering their community.
Figueroa encourages residents who insist on feeding the pigs, although they are told they are extremely smart and return to the same place to eat, to hand over the leftovers in the kraal.
The problem goes beyond the smell and the overturned trash cans.
Figueroa said her aunt tripped when a pig was chasing her and then bit her knee, which required surgery. Another neighbor, 52-year-old Jesús Laracuente, said they searched 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 a swind cheater was rummaging through an abandoned park and patting their short tails.
He shook his head.
“They scream all the time,” he said, adding that they wouldn’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 several types. Herpes.
Given the animals’ intelligence, the scientists tried a new approach after catching them last year. They examined the pigs’ habits and behavior and which traps worked best.
They went on field trips and found that some groups of pigs were only attracted to corn while others were attracted to fruit.
The project to eradicate them can 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 euthanized there.
This process has been harshly criticized by animal rights groups such as Women United for Animal Welfare, who disapprove of the killing of pigs and are demanding that they be moved to a safe area until someone can find a home for them or until an animal shelter can be built.
More than 65,000 people have signed a petition in support of such proposals.
Meanwhile, the chairman of Cantera’s neighborhood council says residents can only wait.
“We realized that this situation is out of control,” said Gertrudis Calderón. “It has become a health problem.”