Ask the Tusk

A new book answers any questions you might have about collared peccaries

Ever since National Geographic confirmed the existence of the "Hogzilla" in Alapaha, Ga., last year, nervous parents are thinking twice before letting their kids pet a pig in a petting zoo. You can understand why.

At 8 feet in length, weighing nearly half a ton and with 18-inch tusks, Hogzilla brought much-needed glamour to the lowly Sus genus, otherwise known as pigs. Now, in her own informative way, Jane Manaster introduces a dash of pizzazz to the collared peccary with the publication of her book, Javelinas.

At 85 pages, Manaster's is a slim volume, sure. But it's the perfect stocking stuffer for the hunter, animal lover or zoologist in your family--or for anyone in Arizona who wants to learn more about the "the little pig of the Southwest." After all, nature and man are going to have to learn to get along better and adapt to each other's presence. If not, Al Gore will have no choice but to make another dire prophecy of a movie, and it will probably be called Hogzilla: An Inconvenient Reckoning.

Although related to the pig, a peccary, or javelina, belongs to a different family (Tayassuidae). As the frontier was expanded and conquered, peccaries--much like Hogzilla--stoked the imagination. According to Manaster, turn-of-the-century ranchman James H. Cook was told to watch out for a "ball of hair with a butcher knife run through it." Indeed, there are plenty of nifty tales about javelinas in the book's opening chapter, which retraces the written record of this oft-misunderstood animal. There's lots of fun stuff here, including the account of Ann Raney Coleman (a Texan by way of New England) who, in her hurry to escape the death-dealing tusks of stampeding javelinas, runs smack into a group of nude men emerging from a creek bath.

The next chapter outlines the range of the collared peccary, which makes its strongest presence in Texas. New Mexico? Not so much, since they were pushed east by increased ranching. In Arizona, though, javelinas populate more than a third of the state and are increasing their range. Perhaps it's not the threat of illegal immigrants Arizonans should fret over, but instead the menace from within. (Though most central-city Tucsonans would have an easier time catching the Tucson Javelinas Aussie rules football team than they would spotting a real-life peccary in their garbage.)

Javelinas dine on prickly pear cactus, which is plentiful around here. They eat the thorns and all, and enjoy salt licks and chewing on old tortoise shells. But man's modern conveniences have spoiled the peccary: "Once they overcome a natural shyness and learn what treats are in store at public park garbage cans, they grow confident to the point of audacity," writes Manaster. "They have become shameless beggars at campgrounds and have no compunction about sharing other animals' salt and mineral licks." With a life span of just 10 years in the wild, can you blame them for wanting to sneak a snack from our rubbish?

The biology and behavior chapters are pretty rote, but Manaster does a good job explaining the animal's stinky, less-than-useful dorsal scent gland. It was thought that the gland's purpose was to attract mates, but after suffering the removal of his gland, one javelina dispatched sexual rivals by simply biting their testicles.

More interesting is the "Hunting and Harvesting" chapter. According to Manaster, a license to shoot javelinas costs Arizona residents $17.50, $75 for nonresidents. For the 2005 season, the Arizona Game and Fish Department issued 28,005 such licenses, and you can only bag one javelina per calendar year. Still, that's plenty of butchery. So what does a peccary pork chop taste like, anyway? Says Manaster, "The consensus among those who enjoy javelina meat is that sows and yearlings are preferable, and males older than two or three years make for very tough eating. For others, tenderness does not make up for the taste." Don't hold your breath, though: The market won't be stocking javelina steaks anytime soon.

Finally, Manaster wraps up with a chapter about contemporary representations of javelinas. For instance, Crystal City High School in Texas adopted the javelina as their mascot, and you can even bask in the glory of a javelina sculpture on the grounds of Texas A&M University at Kingsville, where the animal has a long history as a symbol of the school's fighting spirit. (Javelinas also boasts a number of full-color photos that shouldn't be missed. They do much to counteract all those puppy and kitten images in bookstore calendars for 2007.)

Manaster's book is fascinating, informative and fun, but let's face it--the javelina is no match for Hogzilla. Tell those "little pigs of the Southwest" to bulk up. Al Gore is waiting.