Thirty to 50 unkillable feral hogs may or may not be terrorizing one Arkansas man’s backyard, but they’ve definitely infiltrated Twitter. They’ve invaded the lyrics of songs from “Do Re Mi” to “Milkshake.”
They’ve reminded people of their dating histories, and of bizarre medieval paintings. They’ve inspired strange hypothetical chat rooms, and porcine updates to classic pieces of writing. (My favorite: “For sale/30-50 feral hogs/Never shot.”) The feral hogs, all 30 to 50 of them, are just the kind of meme Twitterati are wont to latch onto—one so absurd that it’s hilarious, and so hilarious that you’ll almost forget it’s macabre as hell.
It started on Sunday, while the United States was reeling from back-to-back tragedies: mass shootings in both El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which combined accounted for at least 31 deaths. As devastated citizens and celebrities took to social media to express heartbreak and frustration over America’s gun control laws and with legislators who put politics ahead of public safety, musician Jason Isbell tweeted the following: “If you’re on here arguing the definition of ‘assault weapon’ today, you are part of the problem. You know what an assault weapon is, and you know you don’t need one.”
The tweet quickly racked up likes, retweets, and responses—but one comment stood out over all the rest. “Legit question for rural Americans,” Arkansas dad William McNabb tweeted. “How do I kill the 30-50 feral hogs that run into my yard within 3-5 mins while my small kids play?”
It’s one of those sentences that gets stranger with each syllable. Twitter users became besotted with its imagery, and seemingly within three to five minutes, sent their feral hog jokes running across timelines everywhere.
Acting weird to avoid one’s own intense sadness is longstanding internet tradition, but the feral hogs belong to a narrower, bitterer class of those “lol nothing matters” memes. In the United States, debate about gun control following a mass shooting has taken on the tone of a Samuel Beckett play, and so have the memes about it. Everyone’s just reading lines from the script and waiting. The point is that there is no point.
The reigning absurdist mass shooting response meme has been “thoughts and prayers,” which politicians—many of whom don’t support stricter gun laws—offer as a wan attempt at comforting their constituents. For advocates of gun control, it’s a meaningless platitude that is a poor substitute for legislative action. “Thoughts and prayers” has been festering in the zeitgeist since at least 2012, in the wake of the Aurora movie theater shooting, but reached its pinnacle last year after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting, when meme-makers started putting the phrase on the side of dump trucks to show its hollowness. (It also was the subject of a particularly insightful episode of BoJack Horseman.) Yet, the internet backlash didn’t stop GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and President Trump, from tweeting they’d be sending thoughts and prayers to the people of Texas and Ohio just this week. The feral hogs fill a similarly metaphoric role, but for citizen-level debate—both sides of it.
Emma Grey Ellis covers memes, trolls, and other elements of Internet culture for WIRED.
If you’re in a mixed pro- and anti-gun control group and the discussion stays civil, it’s something like “people are dying” versus “there are actual use cases for guns.” Team Gun Control is used to those uses cases being edge cases. Team Gun Rights is used to those use cases being dismissed out of hand. Enter hog-beset citizen Wiliam McNabb. To some, especially in rural areas of Texas or neighboring states like Arkansas, McNabb is raising a reasonable safety concern and being roasted for it. To a (coastal) city slicker, needing to defend your family against feral hogs seems fantastical and worthy of spoofing, and, admittedly, McNabb’s hog count seems high.
Feral hogs are real problem for much of the United States. The one- to four-hundred pound pigs have been spreading across the country since they were introduced by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. But since the 1990s, sport hunters have encouraged the populations of their favored prey. It’s a lucrative business. A helicopter hog hunting trip is a popular Texas pastime that can set you back a few grand per outing. The result: about six million invasive hogs causing millions of dollars of crop damage and driving native species to extinction, along with occasionally scaring the bejeezus out of people. (I have encountered one such a hog and it was like coming across a sabertooth mastiff.)
The WIRED Guide to Memes
Let’s not get falsely equivalent here: A plague of swine is not a reason to dispense with gun control regulations, nor a justification for owning an assault rifle. Feral hogs have only killed four people in United States history, and the most recent attack was over 30 years ago. Mass shootings have killed 253 United States residents this year. Besides, according to the US Department of Agriculture, shooting into a large group of swine is not recommended, since it’s liable to send them stampeding in every direction, causing further damage.
Still, it’s important to have that perspective while out there among the 30 to 50 million feral hog jokes. The banality of mass shootings and politicians’ callous response is brain-breaking, and so is the diversity of experience in America. It’s hard to find consensus when one person’s absurdist image is another person’s backyard.