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There are more than a million-and-a-half wild hogs roaming around Texas, and some are up to no good. Every year, these hogs damage about $400 million worth of crops. They're such a nuisance that the state allows hunters to kill wild hogs year-round without limits. Reporter Brenda Salinas has this story about one company that is capitalizing on the problem by letting tourists shoot pigs from helicopters.
BRENDA SALINAS, BYLINE: Here in this part of east Texas near College Station, wild pigs like to do one thing - root around in rice fields. Farmer Scott Savage says they can destroy four acres of his crops every night. That's why he keeps a military-style rifle in his combine.
SCOTT SAVAGE: If I see them out in the field, I'll stop and shoot them.
SALINAS: But no matter how many he shoots and kills, it's never enough, so he's offered up his land to a company called Helibacon. Helibacon flies hunting enthusiasts several times a week over this field and a few others. The helicopter skims a few dozen feet off the ground as hunters Howard Melnick and John Mofit lean out. They're ear, nose and throat doctors visiting from Pennsylvania.
JOHN DUMONT: Good hit, good hit - yeah, that's going to kill him. What do you guys think of that?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: That was freaking so exciting.
SALINAS: After a training course, pilot John Dumont gives Melnick and Mofit two high-powered rifles and helps them strap into his doorless helicopter. That way, they can slide out and shoot as soon as they get the all clear. Dumont uses the sound and the chopper's downdraft to herd the pigs right into the open.
DUMONT: Yeah, clear to fire. Try to get the big one in the front first. Yeah, he's hit now. Yeah, we lost that little piglet, but that's OK.
SALINAS: The company goes to sportsman shows all over the country to convince tourists to book hunting trips. Wild hogs are edible, but a Texas A&M study found many carry infectious diseases. That's why Helibacon leaves the carcasses to the buzzards. In 48 hours, they'll be gone. Melnick and Mofit paid 3,000 dollars for this experience. Back on the ground, I ask them, was it worth it?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Oh, it was a hoot. It was crazy. It was neat.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Absolutely worth every second of it - I mean, totally exciting, you know, totally exciting - loved it, loved it. I wanted more.
SALINAS: Many Helibacon clients are military veterans who miss the adrenaline of shooting moving targets, but many are just people who like riding in helicopters and firing guns.
Some animal rights activists say shooting pigs out of a helicopter isn't right. Skip Trimble with the Texas Human Legislation Network says it's ineffective and inhumane.
SKIP TRIMBLE: They generally don't kill them with the first shot. They're injured. And they hit other parts of their body, and then they suffer for a long time. And it's not really a way of really eradicating these things.
SALINAS: Finger on the trigger, even a seasoned hunter like Howard Melnick had second thoughts.
HOWARD MELNICK: I could not shoot the piglet. (Laughter). I just couldn't do it. And I'm looking at him like - that's just not sporting. I'm not doing it (laughter).
SALINAS: In the two hours Melnick and Mofit were in the air, they shot about a dozen wild pigs. That's pretty standard for a helicopter hunt. With more than a million-and-a-half wild pigs in Texas, shooting them from the sky won't eradicate them, but it's boosting tourism and awareness of the problem. Helibacon is booked up until February. For NPR News, I'm Brenda Salinas in College Station, Texas.
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