A Garden for Javelina

With me it started in the garden.  As a newcomer to central Arizona’s scrub country, I knew that javelina occurred in this area but had still not observed one, despite the fact that they passed almost nightly just outside my bedroom window.  In the morning I would observe their telltale hoof prints along with the damage they inflicted on my new landscape plants.  The fact that I share with them a certain fondness for cacti and other succulents should have been a clue that my life was about to change.  At first I took it good naturedly.  Losing a few plants to wildlife was just part of the cost of living in a rural landscape.  But my cheerful optimism began to wane as the devastation continued.  Increasingly I found my mental state slowly shifting toward the irrational, constructing ever larger and more elaborate wire cages in an often futile attempt to protect my gardening efforts.

Sometimes I would find the plants partially chewed or completely uprooted but otherwise untouched.  Or I would discover strange fibrous jagged wounds on my prickly pear cactus.  Only later was the mystery solved as I learned that javelina eat mostly on the run, like a marauding pack of teenagers in a food court, hastily tearing off chunks of plant flesh with their sharp canines while leaving bits and pieces in their wake.

Though cacti form a major part of their diet, javelina are not especially fussy and will eat roots, bulbs, nuts, seeds, berries, flowers, and pretty much any recently planted green succulent material as well as grubs, garbage, and even dead rodents and birds.

Their fondness for grubs was demonstrated to me when I discovered a prize specimen agave I had just installed uprooted with near surgical precision.  Though javelina are usually fond of agaves, not a leaf or root had been nibbled.  In the hole they had left, however, I found some nice fat grubs.  I removed the grubs and replanted the agave.  Then I replaced the wire cage, burying it a little deeper and surrounding it with a few rocks.  Oh well, no harm done, I thought to myself.

A few nights later, I looked out the window and saw my agave once again dug up and on its side; the wire cage was sitting on a nearby shrub as if carelessly tossed with the flick of a tusk. Though a bit ragged, the agave was still intact, however.   I shook my head and tried to smile as I replanted and retrenched, this time with even bigger rocks.

Several weeks went by and I was beginning to feel that my agave was safe when the hooligans struck again.  This time, the wire cage was nowhere in sight.  And the agave, uprooted yet again, was looking tired and worn.  I finally found the cage at a considerable distance, as if it had been ripped from the earth in unison by a circle of  javelina and flung as far as possible to prove their point.  This was definitely getting personal, not only to me but to the javelina, whose favored grubbing place had been denied.  Whether or not they viewed this as some kind of sport I cannot say, but the sheer vehemence with which they must have thrown that cage does make me wonder.

I spent the better part of the morning digging the cage in even deeper and securing it with a fortress of small boulders.  Though more than a year has passed with no further incidents, I know they are out there still, grubbing around as they tug on that cage and my nerves.

My first actual sightings of javelina were at night as I came home and saw them dispersing in my headlights.  Since my driveway runs along a nearby wash, it is just one part of the javelina highway that the local herd must follow through the neighborhood.  Eventually I began to see them in broad daylight, especially during winter months when they are less nocturnal in their habits.  At first I saw only brief glimpses of them as they crossed the road ahead of me on my local walks.  Always they seemed more surprised by the encounter than I and quickly ran away.

The name “peccary” comes from the Tupi Indians of Brazil, who referred to this creature as “an animal which makes many paths through the woods.”  Indeed, after a period of wet weather, my front yard seems as if part of some major migratory pathway, with multiple lines of tracks running to and from various objects of interest.

Lately, I have begun seeing javelina everywhere.  One winter morning, I saw half a dozen of them reclining in the enclosed entryway of an office complex near downtown Prescott, Arizona.  Slowly they rose and made a dignified retreat, and I could almost hear them grumbling in displeasure at being disturbed as they looked over their shoulders at me

I must admit that my most memorable javelina experience was quiet and uneventful, at least for me.  I was walking home along an unpaved road when a short distance ahead a herd of animals crossed in front of me.  The animals were still in their winter mode, for it was noon on a bright February day.  One by one they passed, unhurried, though several of them paused briefly as they glanced in my direction.  I counted about sixteen, though it’s quite possible I missed several of the youngsters as they slipped hurriedly behind the adults.  They were moving from open scrub into a denser cover of mixed woodland and chaparral.  For a while I could see them following a course that took them roughly parallel to my own and the road.   Not wishing to startle the herd, I kept walking at an even pace while enjoying their company.  As I started to overtake them, however, one of the larger animals suddenly stopped and stared in my direction, at which the whole herd began to trot faster and faster in a more diagonal direction upslope and away from me and the road.  Occasionally I could still catch glimpses of them passing through the vegetation like some bristly phantoms of the scrub.

It was, I remember, a most pleasant experience.  My temporary traveling companions did not seem especially alarmed by my presence, just cautious, and we both parted none the worse for our meeting.  It was my own neighborhood herd and I had finally made their acquaintance.  Though they had now passed out of my vision, I could still see them in my mind’s eye, crossing and re-crossing the road from one neighbor’s yard to the next, on their way to new meals and adventures.  And I saw them as the social creatures they are, moving in unison while enveloped by their own special group scent.

Considering the social isolation that often afflicts our species at some stages of life, it is hard to imagine the sensory richness of connections that a javelina must experience within the herd – a degree of connectivity that puts to shame all our self-absorbed twittering.

As for my own grumbles, I cannot stay mad for long at such a creature.    I have fenced some backyard areas that are considered off limits.  I continue to cage young tender plants until they are old enough to deal with javelina on their own.  And I always try to plant a few more plants than I really need in what is probably a fruitless attempt to stay one step ahead of them.   Though I have heard some occasional grunts at night, for the most part the javelina pass by my window quietly.  But I do not have to hear them to know they have been here.  As I step onto the patio in the morning, I am immediately gripped by a pervasive scent that seems to call out to me with a primal insistence: “come run with us.” It is a tempting thought, but then who would tend the garden?                                                                                                © Gene Twaronite 2012

Originally published in What’s Nature Got to Do with Me? Native West Press, 2011 http://www.nativewestpress.com