For those who live in the Southwest, one of the most fascinating animals that we encounter is the homely javelina. They move quietly around our neighborhoods, foraging for any food that we’ve carelessly left behind or put out for other animals, leaving only scat and whiffs of musky aroma as reminders of their passage. (You could never sell an air freshener in the shape of a javelina.) Whether we think they’re cute or the ugliest animals on the planet, they are unique.
The javelina, officially the collared peccary (pecaritajacu),is a synanthrope, an undomesticated animal that happily lives among humans, like mice, rats, coyotes, cockroaches, pigeons, raccoons and many more. The easy availability of food, plus shelter from weather and natural predators, are the two main reasons they prefer us over wild habitat. They’ve learned the ropes; I’ve seen javelinas purposely bump the pole on a bird feeder just to rain its seeds on the ground. Baby javelinas know to slip through the narrow gap between a fence and gatepost to score a meal that the adults can’t reach.
What sets synanthropic animals apart from domesticated ones like dogs and cattle is that humans haven’t intentionally bred them for some specific purpose. Normal evolution is still in effect with them, and it works very well without human intervention.
Javelinas are primarily a South and Central American animal, unrelated to feral pigs or wild boars, species with which they’re often confused, but they are similar, all being stout, omnivorous beasts with hooves. As such they’re great examples of “convergent evolution,” the process by which genetically unrelated species change over time to fit into similar environmental niches. Surprisingly, the javelina is more closely related to the hippopotamus than the pig, yet the two species have developed very similar features — large head, short legs, tough snout and hooves — to take advantage of their scavenging, omnivorous lifestyles.
Socially, javelinas are noteworthy. The alpha male in a squadron — the scientists’ word for what the rest of us call a herd — of five to fifteen performs virtually all the mating, and though lesser males can run with the group, they’re not allowed near females in estrus. Once born, the one to three young (“reds”) in a litter nurse fortwo or three months, often on older sisters as surrogate nursemaids.
Javelinas are close-knit, almost always eating and sleeping together, although larger groups may separate to forage and feed and occasionally some will break off to form a new herd. Unlike humans, javelinas aren’t angrily tribal, and different herds get along well with one another.
Although their eyesight is terrible, javelinas have great senses of hearing and smell. They communicate frequently with grunts and body movements, as well as with strong glandular secretions. I once found myself, at night and barely clothed, in a garage full of javelinas that were raiding our rice and pasta stores, which they were able to smell from some distance. Fortunately they panicked and ran out the door, but the stench from their brief incursion remained for days.
The most debated javelina feature, though, isn’t their smell or appearance, but how dangerous they are to us and our pets. My many personal contacts with them have been fairly benign. I’ve never felt threatened by them, and in most circumstances, as when they’ve invaded a yard, they herd easily. I do avoid getting too close to mothers with reds, knowing they’ll defend them readily. On the other hand, I’ve read accounts of javelinas attacking dogs, especially ones alone on a lead, so it’s best to avoid that situation.
The question remains, are javelinas cute? Like humans, old gnarly ones may not be that attractive, but the kids, mincing along on tiny legs behind their mommies, qualify as totally cute.