Long Read: 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
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, 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 followed—the 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.