Puerto Rico is coping with COVID-19, runaway debt, earthquakes, and now an invasive species that threatens agriculture and communities across the Island. Specifically, Puerto Rico is dealing with feral potbellied pigs.
Gustavo Olivieri, Caribbean district assistant supervisor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, estimates that there are now thousands of the pigs in Puerto Rico. They damage gardens and crops, pollute water sources, and spread garbage and excrement in towns. Puerto Rico declared an official public health disaster based on these pigs.
The problem began in 2015, when people bought the pigs as pets. They are cute when they’re small, but families didn’t realize their pigs could top 250 pounds when fully grown. They begin reproducing before they are a year old, and can have 10 piglets at a time. During and after Hurricane Maria, many pet pigs escaped from or were released by their owners, intensifying the problem.
Feral swine in the United States
Feral swine have been reported in at least 35 states, and the USDA estimates the population of wild pigs in the states at six million. These swine are descendants of the pigs brought by European explorers in the 1500s and European wild boars brought into the states for sport hunting in the 1900s. It is estimated that they create $800 million of environmental and crop destruction every year. This includes only primary damage. The pigs also spread disease, prey on farm animals, and attack human beings.
Like other invasive species, feral pigs destroy the habitats of native species of plants and animals, and compete with native animals, reducing the populations of native species. Sea turtles are one species that may be threatened in Puerto Rico.
In Puerto Rico, the secondary damage to income from tourism and the health effects may increase the costs beyond the direct damage to the environment. The pigs cannot be eaten because they carry so many diseases and parasites that they are not safe to eat. They also hav e no native predators, which is nit the case for feral swine in the states.
While the USDA is working on sterilizing feral swine in the states, the drugs involved must be injected, which is not practical on a large scale. So far, hunting or trapping and killing the pigs is the only practical means of reducing the population. In Puerto Rico, as in many states, animal rights activists protest these actions.
States vs. Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is included in the USDA’s national plan to cope with feral swine. However, the projects are focused in areas where feral swine cause the greatest damage. Specifically, the program is currently providing funding for projects in Alabama, Hawaii, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Texas. Previous funding also established projects in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, which are ongoing. Neighboring states are working together to maximize effectiveness.
Puerto Rico does not currently have the kind of large-scale agriculture these states have, so the current level of damage in Puerto Rico is not as great as in the states. That means that Puerto Rico is not eligible for direct federal support of this kind, though the USDA cooperates with territorial officials.
In July of 2019, the federal government responded to a request from Puerto Rico to remove the pigs from communities in San Juan. A task force was able to remove 500 feral pigs from the city. Unfortunately, the population has continued to increase, in San Juan and elsewhere on the Island. Current efforts include trying to trap the pigs and corral them until they can be euthanized.