One morning in the spring of 2002, a barge shoved off from the blustery docks of Ossabaw Island, towed by a little boat called the Eleanor, and headed for the mainland. It did not carry any of its usual cargo. In place of the oil drums, tractors, pickup trucks and pallets of milk or frozen beef that constantly had to be ferried between the sea-locked island and the Georgia coast, there was only a makeshift wooden enclosure in the center of the deck, out of which emanated the occasional clatter of hooves, snorts and oinks.
As the ship motored slowly through swaths of sawgrass dancing in the breeze, a small team of scientists, researchers and graduate students huddled in the cabin, muddy and exhausted. They kept watch over the living cargo they had painstakingly captured over the span of a month. They were busy preserving the precious bounty of their catch: pig blood, dried on special paper that would lock in viable DNA samples for many years.
Among the scientists, one was warier than the rest, keeping an eye on the island, scanning the horizon for boats giving chase. It was Dr. I. Lehr Brisbin, a rabble-rouser of sorts, and leader of one of the more unusual animal abductions in history. Brisbin, a senior research scientist and adjunct professor at UGA, knew more about the feral Ossabaw Island hogs they were carrying than any other person on earth. He knew that they lived only on this island and that they were some of the most vital research specimens in the world. A professor and medical researcher, Dr. Michael Sturek, had approached him about using the hogs to study diabetes, obesity and heart disease in humans.
But Brisbin was also convinced that the owner of the island, the state of Georgia, and its overseer, the Department of Natural Resources, were not going to let any of the pigs onto the Georgia mainland, dead or alive. The DNR had been treating the pigs as a dangerous invasive species, killing them off at an aggressive rate. They believed that any pigs let loose on the mainland would spread diseases, breed prolifically, and destroy crops and native species.
The state had approved the scientists’ removal of the pigs — but with plenty of red tape and caveats that Brisbin believed were intended to doom the mission. The scientists were expected to carry out a series of weeks-long quarantines using their own private veterinarians. The operation had only been possible thanks to the help of Eleanor “Sandy” Torrey West, the former owner of the island and its only full-time resident, who housed and fed the scientists, let them use her land for their quarantine enclosures, and lent them her barge, and the Eleanor, in which they were now making their getaway.
All 26 of the hogs onboard the barge had passed the quarantine with clean bills of health. But now, Brisbin wasn’t quite sure what to do. The state’s final demand loomed like a brick wall: the DNR had deemed that not a single live Ossabaw Island hog could set foot on the mainland of Georgia. Brisbin had hoped to dock in South Carolina, just a short distance away, but that state’s Department of Natural Resources had denied him; they didn’t want to be part of any operation that angered their neighboring state.
So Brisbin decided to take a risk. “We had one of these big livestock trailers,” Brisbin said, “and we just backed it up on the Ossabaw dock. The pigs walked straight across from that barge across the dock — in the inland waterway, which is not the mainland — into that livestock truck. They never set foot on Georgian ground.”
The truck and its load rumbled off toward their final destination, the University of Missouri, where a full research facility, helmed by Sturek, awaited them. But Brisbin wasn’t done worrying. “Maybe I’m paranoid,” he said, “but I just knew we were gonna pull onto the highway with our tractor-trailer, and the state troopers would be waiting to pull us over and confiscate those pigs.” The troopers never materialized.
No hogs have been brought off the island alive since. Brisbin and Sturek’s pigs have become a potent weapon in the fight to cure some of America’s deadliest diseases, but in recent years their future has become unsure. On the mainland, a micro-culture of farming the pigs has sprung up, raising questions of cross-breeding; their pork has become the darling of some of America’s greatest chefs. And the state of Georgia, meanwhile, has set a course to destroy the last of the breed on the island.
Combined, this unfortunate mixture of good intentions, human folly, and natural selection might have ensured the demise of a precious breed. It could soon be that the only pure remnant of the Ossabaw Island hog — pest, delicacy, and cure — is the dried blood Brisbin and his scientists collected on slips of special paper in 2002.
At 40 square miles, Ossabaw Island is nearly twice the size of Manhattan. Its undeveloped wilderness is crowded with live oak groves, swarms of insects, flat expanses of saltmarsh, the occasional alligator, and thousands of feral hogs.
There are many sun-dappled clearings among the live oaks, palmettos and loblolly pines on Ossabaw Island. But on a sunny day in March, only one held a screaming-mad hog. From inside a heavy steel live-trap cage, the pig eyed its captors suspiciously, every minute or so dropping its head and charging into the side of the cage with the force of a SWAT team battering ram. It made the cage jump a few feet — its captors, too.
The hog’s captors — and soon-to-be executioners — were Eric Esser and Kara Day, both employees of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, which owns and oversees this near-deserted island 20 miles south of Savannah. Day, a young wildlife biologist, wore tall rubber field boots to guard against snakes. Esser, a brawny Floridian in a tan DNR polo, carried a .22 pistol and tried to keep his little terrier, Kenya, away from the pig. Both were self-professed lovers of the island. Day was tasked with overseeing the preservation of its native species; Esser had lived on the island alone between 2009 and 2011 as a state employee, fixing roads and overseeing organized hunts and supply shipments. His main job had been killing hogs. For the last 16 years, members of the DNR have spent every day killing them in an effort to control their damage to the island’s ecosystem.
On the day of my visit, Esser and Day gave a tour of the heart-shaped island. It’s no quick job: at 40 square miles, Ossabaw is nearly twice the size of Manhattan. There are few roads here, and even fewer destinations. On the south end is the hunting camp, a ramshackle open-air garage used for skinning and butchering, surrounded by brush-cleared woods for camping. On the north side are the fuel pump, the old slave huts, the utility shed and the clubhouse, a small bed-and-breakfast for temporary visitors. Smack dab in the middle of the island, down old Hell Hole Road (known to kill truck suspensions and throw out backs), is the old plantation, where slaves used to pick sea island cotton.
The rest of Ossabaw is crowded with live oak groves, thickets of palmettos roaring with insect hordes, and flat expanses of salt marsh where alligators lounge beside waterholes the color of over-brewed tea. It’s only a 20-minute boat ride to Ossabaw from the coast, and just 30 miles south as the crow flies from Savannah. But it feels a lot farther away.
Esser had set and baited the steel trap with dried corn less than 24 hours ago. The pig caught inside was a fine example of one of the roughly 5,000 pigs on Ossabaw. Ossabaw hogs are one of the smallest pigs in the world; this one weighed less than 100 pounds, about half the size of the largest pigs on the island. Its wiry pelt was jet black, its snout long, with small, snaggly tusks perfect for rooting (the ripping and tearing of the earth that destroys undergrowth and makes the island’s dirt roads impassable). Its body was compact and squat, its hind legs longer than its front, so that its shoulders stooped like a dog-sized defensive lineman in a full crouch, ready to spring.
The dense little pig was far from what I’d expected: something bigger and nastier, with a bristling spine, bloodshot red eyes and vicious tusks. This is the specter of the common feral hog, considered a scourge from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park of Tennessee to the vineyards of Tuscany. The ultimate survivalists, they are the descendants of domesticated pigs that have adapted extremely well to living in the wild; they breed fast, escape from predators in a flash and eat just about anything in their path. In America, the Department of Agriculture estimates they number 5 million, spread throughout 39 states. They cause roughly $1.5 billion in damages annually.
The large population of unique feral hogs on Ossabaw, though they look different than their cousins on the mainland, behave in the same way: they tear up the forest’s undergrowth and damage roadways with rooting, starve out whitetail deer and turkeys by eating every acorn in sight, and gorge on the eggs of the endangered loggerhead sea turtles that build their nests on Ossabaw’s beaches. The pigs have no natural predators, save for the occasional alligator. So the DNR treats them much the same as the mainland contingent: they’ve enacted a “feral hog eradication procedure, beginning with an immediate goal of reducing the feral hog population to a level at which there is no measurable impact on the environment.” Ostensibly, that ends in a stark equation: zero hogs equals zero impact.
Which is why a handful of DNR employees who live on the island wage a constant war, killing roughly 2,500 hogs every year using rifles, as well as steel cage traps — the next generation of which includes a camera, and can be snapped shut using a smartphone app. During seven public hunts a year on the island, small groups of men with rifles are encouraged to kill as many hogs as they can. (In the 2013-2014 season, they killed 474.)
The DNR reports that their culling has led to fewer, and more healthy, pigs, a 95 percent decrease in sea turtle egg loss, and a much more robust island ecosystem on the whole. By killing 2,500 pigs a year, it claims, based on anecdotal evidence, that it’s mostly just keeping up with the prolific breeding of the hogs.
There is little else to the plan. The DNR doesn’t even know how many pigs remain, since they have not established a population estimate, which conservationists stress as the first step in an effective wildlife management plan.
If the DNR employees walked into certain well-regarded restaurants in Savannah, Charleston, or Atlanta, they might read a menu and see Ossabaw hog listed proudly at the top of the expensive entrees; if they Googled the animal, they might see that it’s being used for research by one of the world’s top heart disease scientists, or that, in 1991, thanks to research done by Brisbin and others, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the “UN of wildlife conservation,” recognized Ossabaws as one of only two breeds of feral hogs worth preserving worldwide.
But if they have discovered these things, they keep it to themselves.
“A hog is a hog is a hog,” Day said. “We’re gonna spend taxpayer dollars on research related to native species.” The Ossabaw Island hog, though it’s been living on this island for some 500 years — beginning 130 years or so before the state of Georgia existed — does not fall into that category.
Some of the pigs killed on the island are eaten by the hunters who shoot them during the public hunts; sometimes the DNR employees who live on the island will eat a pig they trap and shoot. But the population of the island is one or two men — and they can only eat so many hogs. Removing the carcasses of the pigs killed on the island is not a practical option, given the DNR’s limited resources. So, the vast majority of pigs that are shot are left in the woods. This makes most people, Esser and Day included, squirm.
And there are whispers: some say these hogs are the fattest terrestrial animals on earth, or that they are related to the black Iberian hogs raised in Spain and prized for their $100-per-pound pork; some say their fat is healthier than olive oil, that it melts at room temperature. There are rumors about Sturek and Brisbin’s use of Ossabaw hogs in scientific testing, that they hold some sort of miracle cure for diabetes and heart disease. Some say the pigs are too stubbornly a part of the island to ever disappear; others say that if you look closely, you’ll see that they’re already gone.
As for the truth to those claims, well — depends who you’re asking.
The story of Esser, his .22, and the pig in his trap began more than 500 years ago, when Christopher Columbus, on at least one of his voyages to the Americas, brought with him a small breed of hog from the Canary Islands. He left them in Cuba, and Spanish missionaries later brought them to the coast of Georgia and the Carolinas as a renewable food source for their expeditions. On the mainland, the pigs crossbred with other wild pigs; on Ossabaw, they remained unique and quickly adapted to their island home.Fast forward to 25 years ago, when the state of Georgia purchased the island from Sandy West. West is the white-haired maven of the island, Ossabaw’s most enduring resident. Her family — enormously wealthy from her mother’s stake in Pittsburgh Plate Glass — purchased the island for $150,000 in 1924. They built a 15-bedroom pink stucco mansion among the Spanish moss and threw black-tie affairs with the fellow robber barons who owned other sea islands nearby. West, rambunctious and strong-willed, often slipped away to explore the island. “I learned so much by being outside. So much more than I could learn out of books,” she said in her biography, The Woman Who Saved an Island.
West inherited the island in 1959. She has since fought viciously to preserve it. In the 1960s, she invited artists of all stripes to take part in an artists’ program called the Ossabaw Island Project. In 1970, she started the Genesis Project to give young graduate students in biology and other fields a chance to live in the wild and study a unique ecosystem. “We built treehouses and thatched-roof palm huts and lived off the land,” said Brisbin, the very first member of the Genesis Project, where his lifelong interest in the island’s pigs began.
The study of the island’s animals, and especially its most prolific beast, seemed to suit West. The pigs were her muse. On her estate’s 30 acres, the hogs roamed unafraid; she named them, fed them by hand, and coddled them like children. Occasionally, she caught piglets and raised them in bathtubs in her 23-room mansion. “You’d be in the kitchen,” Brisbin said, “and you’d hear the little clatter of pig hooves going down the hallway, pushing the screen door open and going outside to pee.”
When West’s family fortune ran dry in 1978, spent in large part protecting the island, she sold the island to the state of Georgia. Passing up larger bids from the private sector, she sold to Georgia for $8 million, with the agreement that the island would be made the state’s first “Heritage Preserve.” West was allowed to remain in her mansion and keep her 30 acres until the day she died, secure in the promise that the island would be maintained “in its natural state” by its new owners.
When, in the early 1980s, the state declared Ossabaw’s hogs a destructive invasive species and set about culling them, West was shocked. And angry.
“The agreement said ‘The island shall be kept in its natural state.’ To me and her, that meant pigs!” said Brisbin, now 76 and retired from UGA, and still close friend of West. (West, in poor health, was unavailable for comment.) “I was careless,” Brisbin said sadly. He’d read over the 1978 agreement and told West it was a good deal.
On the island, in one of the state’s dusty 4x4s, Esser told me that the effort to entirely wipe out the pig population was essentially a pipe dream. “I think it’s impossible, to be honest with you. The new technology — night-vision scopes, traps you can set with your cell phone — is helping. But it’s not gonna catch ‘em all.”
Poison, which Brisbin, West and others have fought vigorously against, is not currently legal in the United States, though it has been used successfully on feral hogs in New Zealand, and the US Department of Agriculture has tested its use with discriminating feeder machines that recognize the distinct grunting and rooting of hogs. Those machines could be part of a $20 million federal program aimed at wiping out pigs in two to three states every three to five years.
“Now, I’m not saying we won’t [use poison], if they come up with an effective method,” said David Mixon, the Coastal Region Supervisor of Game Management for the Georgia DNR. “It could be a much easier solution to the problem.” Even then, it would still be tough to deliver the poison to isolated herds in the deep, thickly forested interior of the island.
Not everyone appears content with the killing status quo. Esser said certain people have been known to let hogs out of the traps, though he wouldn’t say who. He and other officers have found and dismantled mysterious traps set on a remote part of the island, which they believe were the work of someone trying to capture hogs alive and take them to the mainland, likely to raise and sell.
There are already around 90 farmers in the Georgia and South Carolina coastal area raising the offspring of Ossabaws that were brought off the island in the 1970s. The state keeps close watch over them, worried at the prospect of escaped pigs turning feral and overwhelming the mainland.
The stance of some DNR employees is that the unique breed of pig loses its unique traits when it’s removed from its unique habitat. It’s a stark nature versus nurture argument. “An Ossabaw hog is an Ossabaw hog until it’s not on Ossabaw Island. Then it’s not,” Day said.
Back in the clearing, the hog stopped charging the cage. Kenya stopped barking. Esser trained his pistol on a small spot just behind the hog’s ear and flicked off the safety. The grove was quiet. Then it wasn’t. Then it was quiet again.
Long after the hog’s brain stopped working, its legs were still kicking up the island’s dirt.
Esser removed the hog from the cage, to Kenya’s delight. She licked the blood off the pig’s head.
“I don’t get a thrill out of that,” Esser said. “After a while it just becomes a job.”
“Especially when you have to kill the piglets, it’s hard,” Day said. “But I just say to myself, ‘Think about the baby sea turtles.'”
With a yell for Kenya to stay, Esser grabbed the hog by its back legs and dragged it into the woods to rot.
There are roughly 5,000 feral hogs on Ossabaw Island. Because they tear up the island’s native flora and starve out its native fauna, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has enacted an “eradication procedure” that kills approximately 2,500 hogs a year using traps, rifles and pistols. But some scientists urge that the pigs are a unique breed vital for research and testing in the search for cures to type-2 diabetes and heart disease.
The years leading up to 2002 were frustrating ones for Dr. Michael Sturek. A leading researcher of cardiovascular disease, he’d changed his research focus after his son, Josh, developed type 1 diabetes at the age of three. It was a devastating diagnosis for a father. “I wanted to figure out why this occurred, and more importantly to learn how to prevent diabetes and its long-term complications, like cardiovascular disease, in other children,” Sturek told me over the phone recently.
Type 1 diabetes is caused by an inability to produce insulin and largely afflicts juveniles; type 2 is more closely related to a sedentary, overweight lifestyle and afflicts both children and adults. But both diseases are linked to high risks of obesity and cardiovascular disease. This is what Sturek wanted to know: how to prevent those devastating finalities?
But research for diabetes was slow. The traditional test subject — rats, with their tiny bodies and hearts firing like machine guns — were anatomically miles away from humans, making them difficult models for studies. Sturek identified pigs as the best animal for testing due to their coronary circulation systems, metabolism and blood lipids, but there was one big problem: Barnyard pigs wouldn’t contract the disease.
In 2001, Sturek read an article in the journal Science that told of an island’s worth of prediabetic pigs off the coast of Georgia. “I thought, these could be the perfect, naturally developed thing for my research,” he said.
The author of that article was Dr. I Lehr Brisbin. “Sturek called me, and said he didn’t believe me,” Brisbin said. “So I told him to come on out and see for himself.”
Then, the two scientists removed their 26 pigs in 2002.
Brisbin remains the world’s foremost expert on Ossabaw hogs. In the years following their removal of the research herd, he and his colleagues have unlocked a trove of the animal’s secrets. First, its true source, discovered thanks to a total genome sequencing: not the Iberian Peninsula of Spain but the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. The black pigs of that island, like the Ossabaws, have since become extremely endangered.
Second, a series of evolutionary forces, much like those at work in the Galápagos, have given Ossabaws a special set of adaptations that seem to be the porcine version of superpowers. They can drink higher concentrations of saltwater than any other animal — a trait developed from living among the island’s vast swaths of salt marsh. They are also the fattest terrestrial mammal on earth, a result of the bust-and-boom cycle of oak tree acorns on the island, their main source of food; as farmers, chefs and diners have known for some time, the pigs carry fat like a camel carries water.
When Sturek dug into this trait, he uncovered something much more important for humans than a tendency toward scrumptiousness: a connection between the pig’s enormous fat reserves and a genetic mutation that causes diabetes. In fact, this “thrifty gene,” as it’s been labeled, uses obesity as a survival tool.
The biggest problem the pigs faced over their 500 years on the island was starvation. The main dietary staple on Ossabaw is acorns. But oak trees have a natural tendency toward good acorn production years and bad ones. During bad acorn years, Ossabaws whose bodies had not stockpiled fat — that lacked the “thrifty genotype” — starved to death. “It’s an extremely strong source of natural selection,” Brisbin said.
The downsides of that gene are obesity and type 2 diabetes, which can lead to heart disease. But the pigs’ form of prediabetes could reverse itself when the pigs stopped gorging and started living lean again. They gained the survival benefits of nearly getting type 2 diabetes, but didn’t actually suffer from the disease.
Brisbin compares the trade-offs of their diabetes to sickle cell anemia. “In Africa, the genetic mutation that causes the disease was advantageous because of its resistance to malaria, even though it messed up circulation. The advantage you gained from not dying by malaria was more than worth it.” It wasn’t until Africans arrived in the New World, without its malarial scourge, that the mutation became a detriment.What Sturek recognized was that the Ossabaw Island hog’s natural genetic mutations made it an invaluable tool in researching a disease that afflicts 9 percent of Americans. Twenty-nine million people in the US have diabetes, and 171 million have it worldwide. According to the American Diabetes Association, 86 million Americans have prediabetes; unlike the Ossabaws, their bodies are not equipped to reverse the disease. Which means that in five years’ time, approximately 30 percent of them, or 20 million more people, will develop type 2 diabetes.
In humans, the disease causes blindness, heart disease, obesity, fatty liver, and polycystic ovary syndrome. That the pigs have coped with the disease — that they have used it as a way to survive — could provide the key to a cure in humans. They are the only pigs in the world that offer this opportunity.
As Brisbin put it: “We wanted to find out why the Ossabaw pig with diabetes is doing just fine, thank you, while humans with diabetes are going blind, becoming immensely obese and having their feet amputated.”
Today, Sturek’s herd resides at Purdue University, with a smaller testing facility at Indiana University School of Medicine. Purdue’s facility, a group of small, narrow buildings, houses around 200 pigs and is the only research and large-scale breeding colony of Ossabaw pigs of its kind in the world. Scientists there make sure the pigs’ eating habits closely resemble those of Americans’, which is to say, constant gorging. Those not in control groups are fed the equivalent of a 60-egg omelette a day, a cholesterol bomb that ensures they develop full-on diabetes and heart disease (which happens with about 50 percent consistency).
Sturek has sold pigs to over 140 private research institutions, and to a number of private farmers raising herds on the mainland for eating. His research has spilled over into the realm of heart disease, the leading cause of death in America, which those with diabetes are four times more likely to develop. Because Ossabaws’ hearts and guts are extraordinarily similar to humans’, they have been used to test new types of bariatric surgery and new methods of detecting and solving heart disease, such as positron emission tomography, which allows doctors to look at early stages of calcification in the arteries. Today the method is used successfully in humans. They are, Sturek said, “the best large animal for scientific testing.”
“I believe that within ten years, Ossabaws will make a major impact in the reduction and treatment of cardiovascular disease,” Sturek told me. Those treatments could save countless lives. One in four deaths in America is caused by heart disease, or over 610,000 deaths a year. The pigs have been used in testing for over 34 different diseases, from polycystic ovary syndrome to kidney disease to diabetic eye disease.
But there is no sure thing in the research world, which relies on grants, successful studies and the good graces of universities. Sturek said he is currently attempting to privatize the research herd. The Indiana University School of Medicine Laboratory Animal Department took over in 2014, purportedly resulting in a tenfold increase in costs that could lead to what Sturek calls a “death spiral” for the hogs and their facility.
Later, Sturek, all bragging father, sent me photos of his son, Josh, now 28 years old: as a tiny smiling child, a high schooler in full football pads, then a grown man, shirt off, flexing, ripped. He brought to mind the phrase “healthy as an ox.” The treatments that had helped Josh grow up healthy in spite of living with diabetes for 25 years, Sturek said, had been perfected and confirmed by his work with Ossabaw pigs.
Chef Sean Brock, the current don of Southern cooking, calls Ossabaw “the most genuine and pure form of pork, period.” Over 50 farmers raise the breed on the mainland and sell their pork to chefs in Charleston, Savannah and Atlanta.
“It’s a conundrum of a pig,” said chef Craig Deihl, his voice echoing through the bowels of his empty restaurant, Cypress, in downtown Charleston. He was cutting what appeared to be a large chunk of quartz on a commercial slicer. It was actually an Ossabaw hog’s ham, smothered in greasy white wax and strung with twine grown crystalline with age and fat. As the sliced pork fell off the blade and into his hands, it took on the pall of pure white milk. At its lowest fringes, red meat shone like a vein of some strange gem. And it was; some would argue that, at that moment, Deihl was holding the single most delicious piece of meat in Charleston.
Deihl had dug the ham out of his aging closet like a family heirloom. Aside from Cypress, Deihl is also the mind behind Artisan Meat Share, Charleston’s top charcuterie spot; Southern Living called him Charleston’s “Artisan Butcher.” His obsession is curing. It’s a sort of magic: the same rot that turns a dead pig on the forest floor of Ossabaw Island into a stinking pile transforms Deihl’s cut into a delicacy.
Among the burgeoning movement to return to “heritage pork,” as lesser-known, small-farm-raised breeds are called, the Ossabaw hog reigns supreme. Everyone in the South clamors to get ahold of one. Ask any chef, and they’ll tell you: the best-tasting among breeds, the best pork in all America, is a close competition between the Ossabaw and another small-sized offshoot, the American Guinea hog. The Guinea hog is rare, but it doesn’t have nearly the restrictions that face the Ossabaw — contained to an isolated, uninhabited island, hunted by death squads. The Livestock Conservancy, a group that focuses on saving endangered and rare breeds of farm animals by helping small farmers raise herds, lists the guinea hog as “threatened.” The Ossabaw is “critical.”
Chef Sean Brock, the current don of Southern cooking, calls Ossabaw “the most genuine and pure form of pork, period.” He recently told the Charleston City Paper the difference between factory-raised pork and Ossabaw “is almost like the difference between an heirloom tomato and a tomato you’d find on a sandwich at Wendy’s.” An entire episode of Brock’s season on Mind of a Chef was devoted to barbecuing a whole Ossabaw, pit-style, finished off with a vinegar-based sauce applied with a janitorial mop.
Chefs have the pigs’ fat to thank for their incredible flavor. It does melt at room temperature; some say it’s as healthy as olive oil, thanks to its omega-3 fatty acids; and it occurs in massive quantities on farmed pigs, which feast themselves more than wild ones. Deihl said his Ossabaws often had a 60/40 fat-to-meat ratio. And, as he sing-songed with the reminding tone of a professor, “fat is flavor.”
In his book, Pig Perfect, chef, food critic and author Peter Kaminsky ends his search for an American version of the famed Spanish Iberian pig by buying a truckload of Ossabaws from Sturek’s lab, then at the University of Missouri. He spends an extraordinary amount of time examining what makes their pork delectable. For one, their fat is not processed in a second stomach, as it is in cows. This draws forth the flavors of the acorns and other nuts Ossabaws eat. Ossabaws also have high levels of intramuscular fat, which flavors their muscle tissue. It’s the same distribution of meat and fat that makes a heavily marbled Wagyu ribeye taste like heaven.
Deihl dangled a piece of milky-white fat from his fingers, gazing at it with bemused contentment. “Now, a piece like that, you taste it and go, ‘That’s amazing,'” Deihl said. “You might not want another piece. But you’re gonna remember that flavor. You’ll never forget it.”
The pig’s superlative status on the menu is important for more than just chefs and farmers. “The chefs are important for the breed because they provide outreach and PR to a segment of the well-off public, who might want to donate money someday,” Brisbin said. Putting on a BBQ with the most delicious pork in the world is a great way to grab the attention of rich donors who can fund research. “For something like research on diabetes, that’s how science works — you need curiosity.”
Farmers have been raising Ossabaws on the mainland since the 1970s. When Sandy West still owned the island, her herdsman, Roger Parker, would take some of the pigs he caught on the island to market on the mainland. Though the DNR has since stopped the practice, there are around 1,000 registered Ossabaw Island hogs on the mainland in Georgia and South Carolina today. Around 90 farmers raise Ossabaws in America, though only 50 to 60 of them have been in the business for more than five years. There’s lots of turnaround in the industry, in part because of a supply-demand relationship that changes like a flag flapping in the breeze, and in part because the animal’s delicious fat is so prevalent as to be inefficient for chefs who need cuts of muscle.
It’s also because the state is exceptionally hard on farmers raising the breed.
Marc Mousseau owns 400 hogs, the largest herd of Ossabaws in America. He’s become the de-facto leader of Ossabaw farmers, which has in some ways put him on a collision course with the state. “I was talking to this guy from the DNR, and he was absolutely certain: an Ossabaw pig is not an Ossabaw pig when it leaves the island,” Mousseau told me. “I was like, ‘Dude, your ass is showing.'”
Despite Mousseau’s insistence, I understood the state’s viewpoint. It boiled down to the classic debate over nature versus nurture. And, frankly, the pigs on the mainland looked different than the island pigs. At farmer Tank Jackson’s farm, Holy City Hogs, on Wadmalaw Island outside of Charleston, the pigs that frolicked in a muddy wallow alongside other heritage breeds resembled Ossabaws that had taken the Super Size Me challenge; they were overflowing with huge layers of extra fat. To the eyes of a layman, they looked a lot like Jackson’s other pigs.
Some serious farmers have kept close watch over their hogs since they were brought off the island in the 1970s, under the pressure of both the wary state and wary chefs. At the Livestock Conservancy, which keeps the “stud book” for the breed, Jeannette Beranger registers hogs based on their appearance and parentage. “It’s been a challenge,” she said. A lot of farmers slip from registering. She estimated a total of 600 to 800 hogs are registered, in the US. “Those folks walk a fine line because there are a lot of states out there developing feral hog regulations. And a typical Fish and Wildlife officer does not know the difference between an Ossabaw and a feral hog,” she said. State wildlife management officers tend to want to shoot feral hogs on sight.
Jackson and Mousseau can both track their hogs back at least three generations, as required to register their pigs in the stud book. Of course, at Jackson’s farm they also intermix with all Jackson’s other hog breeds, which raises the question of interbreeding; and Mousseau admitted he’d seen pigs that weren’t Ossabaws advertised as such online.
The concern about crossbreeding on the mainland — and subsequently losing the breed’s favorable traits — is a real one. Over the phone, Brisbin, who has worked extensively with Mousseau and other farmers to foster the breed on the mainland, admitted that one of the Ossabaw farmers on the mainland had just received a nasty present: a striped piglet. Stripes at birth are the porcine version of a black mark; it meant the Ossabaw had crossbred with a common Russian boar, one of the harmful feral hog breeds targeted by the state. It was disastrous proof of impure breeding that could ruin a herder’s reputation. “I told him to kill the piglet, kill the parents, and don’t ever breed that line again,” Brisbin said.
Mousseau is insistent. He started his herd with just 39 pigs and, in spite of the state’s intolerance toward the breed, increased its size tenfold. He believes a careful breeding regimen has kept every pig pure; he has trademarked the term “registered Ossabaw Island pork.” In fact, his close relationship with the state government and its leadership, like the agricultural commissioner and state veterinarian, has given him a leg up over other farmers.
“The problem [farmers have] is that the state of Georgia is not a fan of the Ossabaw Island pig,” Mousseau said. Though he understands their concern, he’s seen officials “going after farmers, quarantining herds” and “using strong-arm tactics” against farmers trying to raise the breed legally. He’s responded by complying with their demands for bio-security and testing, and by winning over the former executive chef of the Georgia governor’s mansion, Holly Chute, with prime cuts. Chute cooked one of Mousseau’s hogs at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City; another one of Mousseau’s pigs was used in the winning dish at the Golden Onion Professional Chefs Challenge, a beloved Georgia culinary event held yearly in Vidalia, Georgia. Mousseau feels he’s made significant strides in getting his hogs into the state’s good graces.
It’s all part of making the Ossabaw Island hog synonymous with the Georgian culinary experience. “It may not be in our generation,” Mousseau said. “But the idea is that just like you go to Maine to eat the lobster, you’d go to Georgia to eat the Ossabaw pig.”
Brisbin speaks of the hogs in a wistful tone. He has not lost his penchant for mischief; he reminisces about his time as a young scientist, but it’s obvious he is still out to raise hell for the pigs he has spent his life researching.
Brisbin remains a major opponent to the state’s “shotgun” management of the island. He agrees with the aggressive population control measures, including trapping and shooting the pigs, but only in order to keep their population healthy. “As far as them eating sea turtle nests, well, you have one endangered species eating another,” he said. “But there are lots of islands up and down the coast that have loggerhead sea turtle nests. If asked to pick between the two on Ossabaw, I’m picking the hog.”
Brisbin also said he regrets what he calls the state’s lack of support for scientists, given the pigs’ massive importance to the research community. “Every pig that’s removed should yield data, not be thrown in a pit,” Brisbin said. “I’m not against killing pigs. I am against killing pigs and wasting worthwhile data from them when we need it so badly.”
The island should be managed by scientists and wildlife managers working together, Brisbin argued. In an ideal world, the island would be closed to the public, its pig population controlled by a small army of private hunters and graduate students tasked with “blowing the stew out of [the pigs] every fall, gathering all the data, and maybe cooking one or two for a barbecue.” The aim would be to support the research Sturek and others are doing, and to keep the breed alive and at healthy numbers on the island.
“It breaks my heart when I hear you tell me that,” he said when I told him about seeing the hog trapped and killed on the island, then dragged off into the woods. “I should’ve been there with a clipboard and camera and sent Mike Sturek a blood and tissue sample to run DNA.”
But the greatest danger to the hogs isn’t the state’s kill program, Brisbin said. It’s the state-sponsored hunting program, which he and Sandy West have always believed violated the agreement the state signed when West sold them the island.
That seemed odd, given that the hunters only kill around 500 hogs a year — a small dent compared to the trapping and shooting done by DNR employees. But it isn’t the number of pigs hunters take out every year that could ring the Ossabaw hog’s death knell, he said. It’s the hogs they bring in.
Brisbin said that, over beers, hunters, including West’s former herdsman, Roger Parker, had told Brisbin that in order to make the relatively small Ossabaws bigger and “better” for hunting, they’d brought larger wild boars to the island. He blamed the state. “If [the state] didn’t let the public come out and hunt pigs, the good ol’ boys wouldn’t be coming out to the island and dumping wild boars,” he said. (In a phone interview, Parker denied the claim, saying he only brought several domesticated hogs to the island in the 1970s. Mixon also denied Brisbin’s claim, and said that “there have been no hogs killed on the island that had indicated that has taken place.”)
In other words, the state’s darkest fear — feral hogs escaping the island and running rampant on the mainland, contaminating other breeds — might be happening in reverse. The question is no longer whether an Ossabaw hog remains an Ossabaw hog off the island. It’s whether it remains one while it’s still living there.
According to Brisbin, there might not be a single purebred Ossabaw hog left on the island because of intermixing. “When I heard that, I said, ‘that’s it.’ The Ossabaw pig has gone extinct. It’s been extinguished by hybridization. All we have left that’s pure is Sturek’s colony.”
But even that is not a sure thing. Lately, pigs in Sturek’s herd have begun to lose their ability to drink saltwater — perhaps because of inbreeding, perhaps because it’s no longer a necessity for survival. Sturek says he’s unconcerned that the pigs will lose their prediabetic trait. Still, it raises the question Kara Day voiced as we stared down the pig in the trap: Is it still an Ossabaw Island hog once it’s been taken off Ossabaw Island?
In the spring of 2016, laid low by failing health and an empty bank account, Sandy West left her island and entered a nursing home on the mainland. Several members of the Ossabaw Island foundation started a GoFundMe campaign to raise $200,000 to help her die where she wanted to. They failed. It is safe to assume she will never return to what was once her island. She is 103 years old.
“You just can’t always let the bad guys win every time,” West had said of the state’s hog management program in a story by the Associated Press in 2001. She was still feeding her babies by hand off her front porch then. “I refuse to give up.”
When she dies, West’s 30 acres and her pink stucco mansion, with its sculpture garden and two ponds, becomes the property of the state.
The state DNR plans few changes to their management in the future. They won’t “actively pursue” any scientific testing on the pigs, Mixon said. They will continue to field proposals from scientists, but they balk at the idea of removing live hogs. “People are wanting to raise Ossabaw hogs to sell,” which is strictly against state policy, Mixon said. “I haven’t seen a proposal get past our policies yet.”
The DNR will not take the pigs’ scientific importance into account in their management plan. “We’ve put a lot of resources into removing the pigs, to keep them from damaging other resources,” Mixon said. “We treat them all as feral pigs in that process, and not as a unique breed.”
Brisbin has lately rekindled his hope for a major research project with Sturek and others. Their plan is to gather the total genome sequences of 30 hogs: 10 from Mousseau’s herd, 10 from Sturek’s and 10 from the island. Then they can compare all three with the blood the scientists preserved when they removed the pigs from the island in 2002. By comparing the different DNA chains, scientists could tell how different each herd is from the others, and whether the mainland hogs were losing their unique characteristics. “We would also hope to find out if there are any pure hogs left out there. And if there are, good God! Get them off the island to Sturek!” Brisbin said.
“Maybe,” Brisbin said toward the end of our discussions, his voice’s reedy pitch rising with excitement, “we could poison the island and get it clean of those impure hogs. We’d have to finish off the last of them with dogs.”
Here was a man who’d worked his whole life to stop this very thing from happening. Why?
“Then we’d just have to take Sturek’s hogs from his facility. We’d reintroduce them onto the island.”
He was getting excited now; his slight drawl started to creep in, lapping at his vowels like a rising tide.
“We could keep checking them, to see if they’d regain the gene that allows them to drink saltwater. You’d just have to watch. It would be excellent proof of the selective forces behind evolution.”
I imagined the hogs pouring over the island again in historic numbers, looking much like they do today and causing all the same problems, yet different: a breed once again unblemished by the work of generations of slave owners, robber barons, chefs, farmers, wildlife lovers and DNR killers.
“Yes. I think that would be very interesting,” he said. And then, as a quiet afterthought, almost whispered: “But I’m sure I won’t live to see it.”
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