The isle of hogs

The main residents of Ossabaw Island, off Savannah, Georgia, are a 100-year-old lady and small, feral, round-bellied hogs. Ariel Ramchandani goes in search of both

Ariel Ramchandani | July/August 2013

Past Tybee Island, past Little Tybee Island, which is actually bigger than Tybee Island, past Skidaway Island, past Wassaw Island, sits Ossabaw Island, a 26,000-acre paradise off the Georgia coast. Ossabaw, which you say with a soft, honeyed "uh" at the end, was the first heritage preserve in the state of Georgia, named in 1978, only a few years after Jimmy Carter started designating them. On the map, it tilts to the right and is roughly the shape of the human heart.

The string of islands clinging and breaking off this coast, Ossabaw included, are wild, two-faced things, with slick Atlantic sand on their east sides, dense marshy maritime forests on the west and sometimes meadows in between. Oaks live here, alongside saw-tooth palmettos, loblolly pines, peregrine falcons, egrets, alligators and a high density of loggerhead sea turtles. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), alongside the Ossabaw Island Foundation, fights to keep them alive, minutely regulating human access to the island.

But there’s another, less welcome guest: Ossabaw Island hogs, brought over by the Spanish settlers as they moved along the coast in the 1560s. These men came with Christianity, a hot, oppressive brand of it. They built missions and attempted to convert natives.

Recent genetic testing shows that Ossabaw hogs are distant cousins of pigs from the Canary Islands, suggesting that the Spanish stopped there for supplies on the way to the New World. True Ossabaw hogs are small in stature, with round little bellies, dark bristly hairs and ears that point forward like a terrier’s. The boars have small tusks. Their tails hang straight down like props in a game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Spanish settlement in this area was short-lived. The natives pushed back with bloody uprisings against the priests. Next came the English, who used Ossabaw as a hunting ground. Its plantation period followedthe slave quarters, built from oyster shells, still stand – and the forests gave way to indigo and other crops.

In the early 20th century Ossabaw became a retreat for the rich, until Dr Henry Norton Torrey from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, bought it in 1924. In the 1960s his daughter, Eleanor Torrey West, used it as an artists’ retreat. Ralph Ellison and Margaret Atwood were among those who came to write among the palmettos. Eleanor also began the Genesis project, inviting scientists to the island for research and to run education programmes. Through it all the pigs stayed on.

Evolution on a closed circuit like an island happens quickly and relentlessly. Ossabaw Island hogs developed the ability to drink seawater. Away from the plentiful scraps of domesticated life, these pigs lived through winters when the trees were heavy with acorns and others when there were none. They developed a thrifty genotype, an ability to hang on to food through body fat. Hogs with this genotype can store five times the fat of a regular pig. If inactive, they will develop obesity and type 2 diabetes, and be at risk of heart disease. On the island, these genes helped the pigs to survive. And multiply.

In his book "The Story of Ossabaw" (1926), H.N. Torrey, the patriarch of the family living on the island at the time, lamented the hogs: "In spite of the most strenuous advances we have only been able to keep down the natural increase." He worried that the hogs "make savage foes when at bay".

He also described slurping down turtle eggs in the moonlight. “Turtle eggs are considered a great delicacy, but like olives, they are an acquired taste.”

Times have changed. The DNR works to save the turtles and reconstitute the forests destroyed by logging and plantation crops. But it is much better than Torrey was at annihilating pigs, omnivores which, like Torrey, enjoy the taste of turtle eggs, bird eggs and snake eggs, endangered or not. The pigs root and destroy the salt-marsh ecology, even as their population dwindles. Although there are rumours that the DNR has thought about using poison, pig killing hasn’t changed much since Torrey’s day. They organise hunts by lottery and send out rangers: a man, a shotgun, maybe a truck. The island’s pig population is reckoned to have been reduced by 90%, though no one knows the exact number of remaining hogs.

To visit Ossabaw now, you need to clear it with the Ossabaw Island Foundation and charter a ride. I signed up for an eco day trip. Although there were no other guests, Elizabeth Johnson, the captain, agreed to take me. She was waiting for me in Savannah in a big, blue pick-up, with a cooler for fish in the back.

She’s nut-brown, thin, with particularly muscular legs, thick dark arm-hair and a wide Jack o' Lantern grin. Her hair is in a short spiky bob, auburn, red and orange. A feather, like a fishing fly, is attached somewhere to the back of her hair with wire. The whole time I spend with her, she wears a baby-pink Tybee Island Charters shirt and a Hawaiian print skirt. She’s from Iowa originally.

Elizabeth had insisted I stay at her house so we could head to Ossabaw early. The night before she took me to a family party. Dinner was a love letter from the area: boiled peanuts and then a Lowcountry boil, with potatoes, sausage and sweet Georgia shrimp. This is the Lowcountry, the flat, fertile, marshy in-land giving way to more flat, marshy land with rivers and silt and life, all the way to the Atlantic. Every day the tide rises and falls twice, six or seven feet. The tide will determine our route to Ossabaw.

Over a dessert of home-made lime squares and banana-pudding ice cream served in goblets, the talk turns to hogs. One man wants to know if they can swim (not much, is the answer). Elizabeth’s family has spent a lot of time on the island. Her brother-in-law saw hogs go after a pile of bones one time when he was there. His companion nudged him and said, laughing, "If you fall down they’ll eat you too."

Elizabeth turns to me. "No, you gotta be bleeding from everywhere," she says reassuringly.

Her sister-in-law brings a Ziploc bag to the table. It’s filled to the brim with Ossabaw Island hog tusks, about the size of finger puppets. Sometimes if you’re lucky you can find a bunch of tusks from a hog graveyard, where the DNR has carried out a mass killing.

They are mostly concerned that I might not even get to see any hogs. It’s not like it used to be. They tell me about a trooper whose sole mission was to kill the hogs. There used to be thousands on the island, now you’re lucky if you see one or two on a trip out there. But they place faith in Elizabeth. "If anyone can find hogs for you, Elizabeth can."

In the morning the air is cool. The sky is a contrast in blue, black and white, a Goya come to life.

It takes about two hours from Tybee to Ossabaw. There’s no direct route, you have to squiggle up and down around the other islands. "A nice, contemplative ride," says Elizabeth, raring the engine.

We see dolphins push through the surface of the water, slippery, grey and playful. Two adults come up against the edge of the boat with a baby in between.

The northern tip of Ossabaw appears in the Wassaw Sound as if we’re discovering it for the first time. We aren’t on the beach side, which is 13 miles long and hard-packed. The side we’re on is densely forested and alive. Not the side I’d imagine attacking the island from, if we were doing that kind of thing.

The opening road to Ossabaw is all Hollywood plantation: a line of palm trees fringing a sand path, with wild on either side. To our left two egrets, visible through a fanned palmetto leaf, bob into the marsh.

There are pig tracks on the ground. They’re delicate little marks, imprinted in the sand like shadows. And then, far into the marsh, hogs, a mother and two babies. She’s a low, black, furry cloud, almost disappearing into the muck. There’s evidence of the pigs everywhere, in the sucky holes in the mud where they’ve rooted down looking for acorns and insects.

We haven’t made it far when we run into Trey, the caretaker of Ossabaw. He’s driving to the dock in a dusty, red pickup with Toby, his terrier, in the passenger seat. Trey is bronzed, with a curly halo of dark hair and a crinkly smile. He has some bad news.

Up at the house they usually adopt a pig or two as pets. Recently they have been naming them after hairdressers. The latest pig pet, Paul Mitchell, just died. "He couldn’t get up," says Trey, shaking his head. Trey says he trapped a new Paul Mitchell, a little piglet. But then his mother came squealing and he couldn’t bear to separate them. "Besides," he says, "like I have time to bottle-feed it and look after it."

Trey looks after the property, but he also cares for the only full-time resident on the island, Eleanor, or Sandy West, the one who turned it into an artists’ retreat. She’s 100 years old. There are two other structures where visitors occasionally stay as well. Some hikers are assembling their stuff on the docks for a week’s stay.

We continue on, traversing a tiny corner of this humid island towards the main house. The birds are screaming in the dense woods. Next to where we walk is a soft unbroken S in the sand: rattlesnake tracks. I fondle a hog skullTrey puts everything he finds in the marsh on posts, and together they resemble a great tribal-looking sculpture. The skull is smooth, beige, with spaces for the horns. Pigs can use their snouts the way we use our fingers, to root around for buried food or water, or to pick locks in captivity. Fellow omnivores, they have molars that look just like ours.

The Torreys built their home on Ossabaw in 1926. The gates and the house are pink stucco, very solid. When Sandy’s mother was mistress of the house she loved gardening. She had a hothouse for her flowers and beds outside. But Sandy likes things to be more natural. She has let her mother’s Peter Pan pond moss over, and there may be an alligator in it.

The inside of the house, which hasn’t been altered since it was built, isn’t a relic exactly. It’s ornate and alive, and like everything else in this heat, rests comfortably somewhere between birth and decay.

Elizabeth goes upstairs to say hi to Sandy. They’ve been friends almost since Elizabeth moved to the area around 30 years ago and started leading trips. I sit in the great room on a wooden throne called the wishing chair. Trey’s doing yard work right outside. His dog, Toby, is lying down on the cool tiled floor. Bugs are slamming against the thick glass windows, and the whole place smells slightly, ever so slightly, of urine.

There are pictures of pigs, books about pigs, photo albums full of pigs. I spot a book of "Porcine Poetry", and dip in: "In jungle paths and glades where we could dig/the spicy roots that grew along the way,/delicious far beyond the dreams of pig." There’s a children’s book about a loving relationship between one of the pigs and the family dog; Sandy wrote it herself.

Humans forget sometimes, no matter how many times we’re told: pigs are smarter than dogs, cats and whatever else we keep as pets. They can remember things and solve problems, perform Houdini-like escapes, come back for their friends and deceive their enemies. They recognise themselves in the mirror, something only apes, dolphins and humans can do.

Pig circulatory systems mirror our circulatory systems, their hearts, our hearts. Drugs go through us the same way. They’re bingers, like us. An Ossabaw in captivity has to be watched to make sure it doesn’t over-eat sweets and go into a coma.

While I’m waiting, I receive a call from Dr Lehr Brisbin, an ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab. He has studied the pigs since 1967 and knows more about them than just about anyone else.

"I'm on Ossabaw," I shout, through a bad connection, when he asks where I am. He’s angry about what the state is doing to the hogs.

"Cussword on the DNR," he says. "Those yahoo stupid pig killers." His strong opinions have got him kicked off a number of boards, including that of Ossabaw Island and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC). He is the author of several  papers about the hog’s unique genetic abilities.

"In the Ossabaw pigs," he says, "we have caught the diabetes gene in the act of conferring a selective advantage." He thinks that the Ossabaws, with their feast-or-famine ability to store fat, may have lessons to teach us about the progression from obesity to diabetes and related complications. He thinks they may hold other secrets to our health we don’t even know about.

Brisbin would prefer that the live pigs were tagged and studied on the island. But even the way they kill the pigs, just throwing them into ditches, bothers him. It means we miss out on important data about what happens to them during lean and fat years. He worries that the selective advantages will disappear in the pig lines brought off the island years ago. "You have the pigs in the lab eating Purina pig chow."

And the pigs in farm captivity will become "plain old pigs, pigs in a pen, not pigs out there fighting for their lives". Brisbin’s tenure at the ALBC ended when he accused farmers either of stealing pigs off the island or not having genetically pure stock. There is no Ossabaw Breeders Association yet. The pigs are notoriously hard to track.

When pigs were brought off Ossabaw, they went directly from the boat to a truck, their trotters never touching down on Georgia soil. No pigs have been legally allowed off the island since the 1970s, because of the risk of transferring disease to mainland pigs. There’s talk at the ALBC of being able to bring more pigs off the island by removing a disease-free pregnant sow, but this hasn’t happened yet. Brisbin testified at the International Union for Conservation of Nature that Ossabaw pigs were one of two wild pig breeds worth saving. "Once the pig is gone, the pig is gone."

The DNR’s goal is to restore the island to its natural state. But what is natural? Before Sandy let everything grow back? Before Sandy’s mother planted all the flowers? Before the English, before the Spanish, before the Indians?

In America, feral hogs are a serious problem. Pigs are not indigenous to the United States, and are considered an invasive species. Wild boars brought over for hunting from Europe and Asia in the early 1900s mated with domestic pigs and formed a sort of super animal. They can live in almost any climate: between 1989 and 2009 the number of states reporting invasive wild pigs increased from 19 to 44. They reproduce faster than most mammals, and can eat almost anything. To kill one, you need a serious bullet.

Brisbin tells me to give Sandy "a hug from Bris" and just like that, I gain access upstairs.

In Sandy’s room, the windows are alight with sun, the fan is on, and the air-conditioning is blaring. It is the only room that seems to be in something other than complete stillness. Art covers the walls. I recognise her face from her portrait downstairs, hair falling almost rakishly down her forehead, blue eyes that slant downwards at the corners, the face of a Fitzgerald heroine. She calls us both "lovie", and has impossibly soft, translucent skin. When she hugs me and pulls me on to the bed, I’m worried I will crush her. I also can’t find her legs below her knees under the covers. Elizabeth informs me later that Sandy was sitting in the lotus position the whole time we talked.

"It’s a terrible thing what they’re doing." Her eyes go very wide. "The trouble is, I’m going to die soon."

Over lunch of hard-boiled eggs, watermelon and iced tea, Sandy details how she would kill the men (I assume she means the DNR, and anyone messing with her island). The first solution would be to shoot them all, but then she’d wind up in the clink. So, a better idea, take the batteries out of their phones and watch them drop dead. Elizabeth says later that when kids would come to the island for student programmes, Sandy would tell them if they wore headphones they wouldn’t be able to hear the snakes coming up.

She says Bris is the only one who knows how it really is. She just wants things to be the way they were, the island untouched, and people using it to learn. Nobody has told Sandy about the death of Paul Mitchell. They don’t want to upset her.

Not many farmers raise Ossabaw hogs on the American mainland. The ALBC estimates that there are fewer than 200. Access is the first issuesince the ban you have to buy them from another farm if you want them. Then they are much smaller than conventional pigs and take much longer to raise. A conventional pig raised in a factory farm takes about six months to grow to the desired weight for slaughter; the Ossabaw, like most heritage breeds, takes a year to 18 months. The natural lifespan for a pig is 10 to 15 years. If you raise them right they also require land to forage on. They’re tricky devils, and you have to cajole them to co-operate.

"They’re kind of crazy," says Bradley Newman. Newman has tattoos and floppy hair and is a heritage farmer with a herd of Ossabaws. He ate hog from Caw Caw Creek Farm and noticed how tasty the fat was: it didn’t taste like antibiotics, or leave grease in his mouth. The best part of the pork chop was the fat.

The Ossabaws’ ability to put on fat makes them highly edible. The fat marbles through the flesh, creating great chops, hams and sausages. If they eat something close to their natural diet and are allowed to forage on acorns and other plants, the flesh will take on a sweet taste and the fat a grassy aroma, like the best American or European pork.

When Newman set them up on his farm, he was surprised by how much forest the pigs could tear through at once. "I was impressed at their ability to forage." He raises his pigs on pine forests and pasture, "finishing them off" before slaughter with local grain to speed their growth.

His biggest worry is that there won’t be enough pigs to meet the demand. "My hogs only have two shoulders," he says when asked if he would ever sell to a restaurant. A barbecue joint will go through at least ten shoulders in a week. Newman doesn’t like to sell the whole hog: he’d rather sell sausage, because it gets more meat into people’s mouths and doesn’t destroy his supply.

In Savannah, Ossabaw Island hog is on the menu at Local 11Ten, one of the few restaurants to give the farm of origin for each ingredient. There’s a rooftop bar, very chi-chi. People stream in: Miami-looking socialites in heels and parrot-coloured dresses with dates in khakis, tourists in shorts and comfortable shoes.

I sit at the bar and order sangria and the pork chop. When it comes, I eat it slowly. I didn’t grow up with pork and I don’t really like it. To make matters worse, I’m unsure about the preparation of this pork chop: one sauce is over-salted, the other is under-salted, and the bean purée could have been sturdier. But the pork itself is amazing. Specifically, two parts of it: the pink raw centre and the hunk of fat rimming the bone. The raw part is delicate, like sashimi, and sweet. Then, the fat. I’d heard before that Ossabaw fat was liquid at room temperature; as with grass-fed beef, the particles are more similar to an unsaturated vegetable oil than animal fat. I had dismissed this, but eating it, I could see what they meant. It has a creamy feel and is grassy, almost floral. It doesn’t leave you sick afterwards. It stays in your mouth for days.

While I gnawed on the bone, a handsome couple sidled up next to me. She was thin and tanned. He was wearing a suit jacket and seersucker trousers, and I pegged him as a politician or a banker. I told them about the hogs. "Aren’t they boars?" he asked, his brow wrinkling behind Armani glasses. "I don’t understand how they aren’t just boars."

They didn’t seem wild about the hogs.

They told me that in Savannah there’s an annual kiss-a-pig contest, a fund-raising campaign run by the American Diabetes Association. People cast dollar votes for local officials and celebrities to be the one to kiss a pig. The event culminates in a gala, where the winner is announced and a smooch bestowed. The man sitting next to me had run in a recent year and won. He raised $80,000 by himself.

Why a pig? There was no cure or treatment for diabetes until 1921, when insulin was discovered and isolated from a pig pancreas.

On Ossabaw I noticed that Elizabeth picks up bits of things at old places. After we had visited Sandy that day, she took me for a tour of the inhabited part of the island. We saw donkeys, also brought over by the Torreys, escaping the heat in the remains of the old plantation buildings. As we walked she picked up at least a dozen pieces of old glass between where the plantation house once stood and the slave quarters, rubbing them with her thumbs before putting them in her bag. "You never know what you’re going to find here," she said more than once. I was amazed at how close the glass was to the surface of the soil: all it took to bring it up were our footsteps.

When we spotted those first pigs on Ossabaw, moving across the salt plain in a solid clump, I was excited. Here they were, the prophecy had been right: Elizabeth, able to make hogs appear where there were none. But then no more, the rest of the day. Nothing. Only those footprints in the sand, the ghostly cloven tracks of our brother animals. 

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