Rufus and Ramona Make Pigs Of Themselves
at the Babcock Ranch (1995-96)
by Mark Renz
All good things must end, including fun jobs. Even then, the end was another new beginning. I had been a Fort Myers Beach reporter only eight months when my editor quit and I got a new hard-nosed “chief” who wanted me out chasing ambulances and calling firemen at home to see if I could find some dirt on the local fire chief. So I retired without a pension or a good reference.
Luckily, my Babcock boss Steve was in a bind and asked if I would consider becoming a full-time salaried employee. In addition to guiding, I would be taking on the glamorous role of emptying the trash, planting trees, servicing the swamp buggies, feeding the bison and cleaning the cat pens. I hated manual labor. But in a short time I was doing all my jobs well enough that the company president promoted me to supervisor of the guides. Within a few months, he called me into his office and asked me to take over as tour manager as well. Steve moved over to handle public relations.
I would now be responsible for overseeing the five guides, our restaurant and gift shop employees, the bison, big cats, buggies and tour route maintenance.
Marisa and I moved onto the ranch and were given free use of a new three bedroom home, plus a company swamp buggy. There were only eight families, including us, sharing the entire 90,000 acres.
I loved to drive to the Gator Bridge, shut off my swamp buggy motor and just listen. Especially at night. It was the first time in my life I’ve ever been somewhere and not heard any man-made, mechanical sounds such as car or truck motors, or air conditioning units.
Now the natural sounds really stood out. Like a gator’s jaws slapping together and splashing the water as it bit down on a tasty catfish. Or two egrets squawking and flapping their wings in a nearby tree, jostling for a better position on a branch. Or what sounded like raindrops on the water’s surface as hundreds of small fish plucked insects from the surface.
Now that we were part of the management team and had our own home on the ranch, Marisa and I took advantage of the company swamp buggy. On our days off we’d grab some cheese and chips, a small cooler of beer or wine, pick a direction and take off. The other ranch hands took their rifles with them when they were out. We were armed with a 35mm Pentax loaded with high-caliber Kodak film. We would drive for hours through pine flatwoods and cypress swamps without ever seeing another human being. I couldn’t believe how peaceful it was.
Occasionally we encountered wild hogs but they wanted nothing to do with us. "Wild," is really not the right word. To be accurate, what Florida has are feral hogs, which means they're neither wild nor domestic. Chris Columbus delivered domestic pigs to the West Indies in 1493, and Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto brought about 300 of them to Florida in 1539.
Breeding pairs of pigs were given to friendly Calusa Indian chiefs, while others escaped during skirmishes between the Spaniards and Calusas. After 450 years in the wild, the pigs developed an attitude, which is why people refer to them as wild. Today, there are over 500,000 feral hogs throughout Florida.
One day on the ranch, I found two baby hogs that had somehow been separated from their mother. They couldn’t have been more than a few weeks old. I took them home and Marisa and I began feeding them – first through a bottle and then with pig pellets. We named them Rufus and Ramona.
Coonie and Baby Rufus
Coonie and Baby Rufus
Coonie and Kayla
We also adopted two young cattle dogs (sometimes called “heelers”) from a ranch hand who had an unexpected litter to deal with. We named the blue-colored female Coonie and her redheaded sister Kayla. Coonie loved to play with Rufus (the female hog) and Ramona (the male hog), until they outgrew her and began to play too rough. So we moved them into a one-acre compound to be part of the public tour.
The pigs were loving and smart. When I pulled my buggy up to their pen during public tours, I’d turn on the microphone and yell, "Hey Rufus, Romona, would you mind coming over here for a minute?" Out they would run from behind a horse stall, oinking the whole way. I’d hop the fence and they would roll over onto their backs so I could rub their bellies.
Our house was only a few hundred feet from their pen. I was able to visit them off and on throughout the day. They could see me coming from a distance and at first would freeze as the hair stood straight up on their backs. Once they saw it was only me, the hair dropped and their heads rocked up and down. You never heard such happy grunting.
We adopted a total of four dogs: Coonie and her sister Kayla, as well as a cur dog we named Fossil and a wolf hybrid we named Mammoth. The late great Bo Slater won Mammoth in a card game and didn’t know what to do with him.
I don’t know how we talked ourselves into it, but we also adopted a gray squirrel named Miss Updown and a gray fox we called Pepe LaPew. Someone had them as pets since they were a few weeks old and could no longer keep them. The animals were going to be set free, but we figured they would never make it in the wild with no formal training.
Miss Updown sat on Marisa’s shoulders, where she would also sometimes do her business. Pepe was so tame he would give us little kisses. We had permits to keep them and did some research to find out what we should feed them so they would stay healthy.
The fatter the pigs got, the more fearful I was that a hunter would mistakenly--or purposefully--consider them for supper. When it came time to leave the ranch for a new job, we suspected it was just a matter of time before they were served on someone’s table as fresh bacon. For a number of years, every time I saw a hog that resembled Rufus or Ramona along Highway 31 and the ranch, I’d wonder if it might be our sweet pigs’ cousin or other family member.
To this day, I still find myself driving up 31 with my window down and head out, oinking in the direction where I first scooped them up...half expecting to see their chubby little faces come bounding out of the woods, oinking back.