Creature of the Cactus
No animal is more symbolic of the arid regions of Texas than the collared peccary more commonly known as javelina. An animal enshrouded in mystery, these medium-sized mammals have a reputation that precedes them.
For starters, they have an identity crisis. Lumped in with feral hogs as a species of swine, they are not pigs in the sense we think of pigs. According to biologists with Texas A&M University at Kingsville, a “javelina is not a pig, a feral hog or a wild boar. Although similar in appearance to a pig, it is a collared peccary.”
Both javelinas and pigs are members of the order artiodactyla and the suborder suiformes and share a common ancestry. Because of key anatomical and genetic differences, however taxonomists placed them in separate families: javelina in tayassuidae and pigs in suidae.
Texas A&M, Kingsville biologists said the confusion probably started as soon as European explorers arrived in the New World.
“The javelina is native to the Western Hemisphere, while true pigs developed in the Eastern Hemisphere,” the biologists said. “Distinguishing characteristics include size. Javelinas are small and compact, weighing from 30 to 55 pounds, while adult feral hogs can reach 100 pounds or more.
“Javelinas are a grizzled brown and black with a white band of coarse hair, its ‘collar,’ around the neck. Feral hogs come in a variety of colors and combinations of colors. Less obvious differences include that the javelina has four-hoofed toes on its front feet, but only three-hoofed toes on the hind feet, where the outer dewclaw present on a pig is absent in javelinas. Javelinas also have shorter tails and their canine teeth or ‘tusks’ grow vertically rather than away from the face.”
Javelinas weigh from 30-60 pounds and stand about 1.5 feet tall at maturity. When seen at a distance they look much larger, but upon closer examination their diminutive size is obvious. They range from southern Texas across the deserts to Arizona, throughout Mexico and into the northern tier of South America.
The name “javelina” comes from the word Spanish word “javelin” which they used to describe the teeth of the animal. “Peccary” comes from a Brazilian tribal word meaning “many paths through the woods.” Anyone who hunts in javelina country can attest to the myriad well-worn paths dotted by tiny hoof prints.
According to the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department’s (TPWD) official profile of the species, “Javelinas have long held an undeserved reputation for ferocity.”
“They have poor eyesight and will often remain around humans longer than other wildlife when startled. When cornered, they can defend themselves very effectively with sharp canine teeth or ‘tusks.’ Many dogs have been crippled or killed while trying to attack javelinas. Yet aggressive encounters with humans are very, very rare.”
Despite a nasty reputation, I have only seen one javelina charge a human, and it was well deserved.
It was back in 1995, and my family was visiting Choke Canyon State Park to shoot wildlife photos. I located a big male javelina rooting around in a drainage ditch there. While I was shooting the impressive beast, a young pre-teen boy rolled up on a bicycle. He pulled some rocks out of his pocket and began throwing them at the animal.
“Hey kid, you better not do that. You’re going to get yourself in trouble,” I said.
“No, I won’t,” the boy replied snidely.
The first rock missed the javelina as the boy who despite being big quite large threw like a little girl. In fact, my daughter Faith who is five at the time of this writing throws much better than this kid does.
“I’ll get him this time,” he said.
The rock connected with the javelina spurring it to instantly bristle up its back hairs, pop its his teeth and charge the perpetrator.
I am not sure what the record for a 100-yard dash is on a bicycle but I have a good idea he would have been a contender that day. I still laugh out loud thinking about it, although some incidents involving javelinas are not funny at all.
An article in the December 8, 2006 edition of the Arizona Daily Star details a super rare attack that was more serious.
“It was supposed to be a 15-minute walk down East Snyder Road with the dogs before taking off to yoga class,” Tracy Gordon said.
“But Gordon’s quick morning trip turned into a day-long nightmare. At 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, Gordon and her three Chihuahuas were attacked by a pack of javelinas. It was an unusual moment because Gordon’s previous encounters with javelinas on her daily walks were always uneventful.
It started with one sighting on Snyder, near North Sabino Canyon Road. A javelina charged across the street, and though it seemed that the animal wasn’t about to attack them, Gordon’s dogs had assumed a confrontational stance.”
“The hair went up on their backs, and they had puffed up their chests,” Gordon said.
Seconds after she picked up her dogs to protect them, 11 more javelinas seemed to appear out of thin air and surrounded Gordon.
“The attack was a blur, she said. One javelina bit her leg, which caused her to fall and drop the dogs. One or more javelinas had trampled her. Noticing that one of the dogs, Peatree, became a main target and was “being thrown like a rag doll,” Gordon ran to a neighbor’s home to call her husband, Greg, for help. Another dog, Tino, suffered a large bite on the neck. The other Chihuahua, Bebe, was not injured.”
The above cases all deal with javelinas either harassed, semi domesticated in an urban situation, or sick. I do not know a single (veteran) hunter in Texas that is truly scared of javelinas. We give them respect as they have the potential to do damage but realize they are simply one of the unique animals that calls Texas its home.
—story by Chester Moore