An Argument for Wearing Gloves While Cleaning Hogs


Like most landowners who have dealt with feral hogs, James Belcher carries a grudge against the wild swine population that has over the past two decades exploded and swarmed like furry locusts across the Texas landscape.

They’ve pillaged Belcher’s 115 acres in Cherokee County, ceaselessly rooting his pastures and timberland and turning them into rutted messes. They destroy wildlife food plots and deer feeders, or seize control of those feeding areas to the exclusion of other wildlife.

But the 76-year-old Tomball resident’s reason for antipathy toward feral hogs goes deeper than just the damage they do to his land and the wildlife on it. Feral hogs have significantly damaged his health, and he wants other Texas hunters to learn the simple steps they should take to protect themselves from similar experiences.

“People need to know that they should be cautious when they handle those pigs, and always wear gloves,” Belcher said. “I wouldn’t want what’s happened to me to happen to anybody.”

Belcher contracted brucellosis while cleaning a feral hog, and has been battling the disease’s debilitating effects for months and faces many more months of treatment and health challenges.

“It has been a nightmare,” he said.

Belcher’s experience with the bacteria-caused disease is a cautionary tale for hunters and others who handle some of the estimated 1.5 million to 2 million feral hogs infesting Texas.

Brucellosis is one of several transmissible diseases feral hogs can carry, and is fairly common in the animal’s population

Research indicates about 10 percent of Texas feral hogs test positive for brucellosis bacteria. But in some pockets of the state — East Texas in particular — brucellosis infection rates as high as 20-25 percent have been documented.

Brucellosis bacteria is found in bodily fluids, concentrating in reproductive organs, milk and viscera. Brucellosis in animals generally causes spontaneous abortions and other health-related problems.

Feels like the flu

In humans, the bacteria causes severe flu-like symptoms — fever, chills, aching muscles, intense joint pain, nausea and fatigue. And it can progress to chronic conditions — infections, arthritis, lung and liver problems to name a few.

Belcher has suffered all of that, and more.

His painful journey began this past March when he and his son butchered one of the many feral hogs they have shot or trapped.

Health officials and wildlife managers have for years strongly recommended hunters wear protective gloves — latex or heavy rubber gloves — when cleaning feral hogs to help prevent getting blood or other bodily fluids on hands or arms. They also recommend wearing protective eye wear.

The brucellosis bacteria can enter one’s body through slight nicks, cuts, abrasions or other breaks in the skin.

“I never used gloves when I cleaned hogs,” Belcher said. “I sure wish I had, now.”

Brucellosis can have a long incubation period — as long as two months or sometimes more. Belcher had no immediate symptoms, but they came on like a freight train a couple of months later, as he recovered at home following major surgery to address an aortic aneurysm.

“All of a sudden, I had (a) fever — 103.5 degrees — chills, sweating, shivering, every joint hurt, and I couldn’t be still,” Belcher said. “The pain was incredible. That first week, I honestly can say I didn’t care if I lived of died — it was that bad.”

It took doctors five days to diagnose brucellosis. Luckily for Belcher, a doctor at the hospital he went to had experience with brucellosis in South America, where most human cases of the disease are caused by consuming dairy products — milk and cheese — from infected animals.

“He asked me if I’d been around any wild hogs,” Belcher said. “I told him I’d cleaned a wild hog back in March.”

Blood tests confirmed brucellosis.

Massive intravenous doses of antibiotics helped. But Belcher spent more time in the hospital, and also nearly a month in a long-term care facility before he could return home.

Soon afterward, he was back in the hospital after the brucellosis had somehow slipped from his bloodstream and triggered an infection on his spine.

The infection is not easily attacked with antibiotics, and, doctors told Belcher, surgery to remove the infection would be difficult and potentially dangerous.

Belcher is taking multiple daily antibiotic treatments and pain medication when needed. He has lost almost 40 pounds. Pain in his joints, particularly his hips, keeps him from sleeping and makes it hard to walk.

“Shuffling is about all I can do,” he said.

Belcher said his prognosis remains unclear; doctors are hoping to somehow knock out the infection and avoid a decision on the dangerous surgery. Regardless, he faces many more months of treatment.

Odds low, but wear gloves

Admittedly, Belcher’s experience is very rare. Texas health officials document only 10-40 cases of brucellosis a year, and, if promptly and properly diagnosed, infections can be fairly quickly controlled with antibiotics. Human fatalities from brucellosis are extremely rare — 2-5 percent of cases. But chronic problems are not uncommon with those contracting the disease.

(Despite brucellosis being a mandatory “reportable” disease under state and federal rules, there is some suspicion that some human brucellosis cases are underreported or misdiagnosed as the flu.)

Considering Texas hunters annually field-dress and butcher hundreds of thousands of feral hogs and the state sees only 10-40 brucellosis cases a year, it’s obvious that odds of a hunter being stricken with the bacterial disease are quite low.

But that’s of little consolation to those who do contract the disease.

Avoiding contracting brucellosis is very easy: wear protective gloves when handling, field-dressing or butchering feral hogs, and properly dispose of the gloves after the chore.

The thin latex medical gloves work fine; some extra-cautious hunters double-glove their hands. The heavier “dishwashing” rubber gloves may offer better protection but reduce dexterity.

“I’d recommend the heavier gloves; I just don’t trust those thin ones not to tear,” Belcher said. “But whatever they do, no one should clean a wild hog without wearing gloves. I’m proof of that.”

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Bible Verse of the Day

If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.