Nicole’s Impossible Ideas: Impossible Animals: The Javelins Are Coming | Letters to Ducey


Bear the Dog tore his knee muscles, the dog’s equivalent of his ACL, so I took a break from running in the forest and instead ran down Butler Avenue along the city of prairie dogs and remnants of Lake Elaine – a golf course’s sole source of irrigation, now mired in both mud and litigation between the HOA and lakeside owners. I saw coyotes and foxes outside my back door. My mother-in-law saw a mountain lion in the forest where I usually run the dogs. My husband saw an Arizona lynx, a type of very large bobcat, which Erik said was the same size as Bear the Dog. Bear weighs sixty-five pounds but jumps like a bobcat, which is how he tore his ACL in the first place.

I’m not a fast runner but I pick up the pace when I run on asphalt instead of dirt and rocks. So for me, I was driving down the road, next to a railing, occasionally turning my head to look for a prairie dog poking its head out of its tunnel. I don’t see a prairie dog but I notice something running beside me. Finally, my wild animal racing partner dream has come true. The animal is black and short on all fours, its back reaching the top of the two-foot-tall railing. Is it a juvenile bear? How nice that if my Bear the Dog doesn’t join me, a black bear from the forest will. It is not uncommon to see bears near here. Arizona Fish and Wildlife sometimes has to move bears in search of water off golf courses. Maybe this one was on its way to the pond near hole 18.

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But the running thing is not a bear. He is not black but gray with hair. Instead of a chubby nose it has a snout and around that snout are a pair of tusks that aren’t pointing at me right now but might be when the rail that separates me from a thundering peccary ends at about forty feet. I run faster than I have ever run before, which still isn’t very fast but faster than what I now know is a javelin. I pass the end of the guardrail first and hoist my ass up the hill where I can descend Mt. Pleasant where I hope the javelins don’t follow.

Javelins are rare in Flagstaff. Northern Arizona University biologist Jason Wilder says I’m right to think they’re a little out of place here.

“There are a few other mammals and quite a few birds that reach the limit of their northern end of their range right here at the Mogollon Rim…that’s basically the biogeographic limit of the western Mexican tropics.”

But the number of javelins grew rapidly, at least according to reports from neighbors. As the weather changes it snows here in inches and not much in Sedona. Perhaps this is why the javelins, collectively called a squadron, climbed the hill. When I saw them in Sedona, they looked like little piglets, cute in their ugliness, passive in their growls, prickly like their cactus cousins, sweet in their low snouts. But how we see wild animals change as they move into our garden, making our dogs curious, tearing up the 150 tulip bulbs my friend Martin has planted, making us blink over railings while we’re trying to outrun those animals that are built like small, quadrilateral tanks. Cute is an adjective I canceled for these gray machines.

The first time I saw javelins in Flagstaff, Bear the Dog’s knee was still intact, Bear, Zora, our other dog, and I ran through the woods behind our house. One day, snatching the leash from my hands, Zora rushed into the ravine where she found herself face to face with one of these spiky pig-like beasts. She didn’t look discouraged. The javelins looked unperturbed. They smelled each other and continued. But I screamed in panic. Domestic versus wild makes us think our dogs are babies. Which, if you see the kind of care that’s going on after Bear the Dog’s knee surgery, they are.

My next door neighbors warned me that she had seen five javelins rummaging in her garden. A retired linguistics professor, she was the one who told me that the collective term was a squadron. She and her husband bought a new compost bin that is supposed to keep wild animals of all kinds away. But very few compost bin makers know much about javelins. The javelins bang their heads against the plastic until all the old banana and onion skins fall off.

The javelin’s traditional territory is the desert: the southwestern United States, western Texas and southern Mexico. Although they resemble boars, javelins are new world animals, unrelated to old world pigs. Females give birth year-round to “reds”, known as such for their red hair. They sleep in the shade of saguaros and mobile homes – the second of which they cause damage by burrowing under them. They mainly eat agave, mesquite beans and prickly pear – again, desert food. Except when they eat compost.

But javelins seem to be extremely adaptable. And while the Flagstaff wilderness contains many of their predators, namely mountain lions, bobcats, and humans, they seem to take up residence right here in the snow, even without agave for breakfast. They don’t need mobile home or saguaro shade – the Ponderosa pines provide plenty of that. After seeing them walking through my garden in the same formal line that the deer cross, I tried to relax seeing them. I found the picture book someone gave my kids when we moved here, The Three Javelins, based on the story of the three little pigs although the first thing you are told about Javelins is that they are not pigs and they love Sedona. I find it hard to understand what javelins find appealing in this high desert town – if you’re not into skiing or mountain biking, climbing or enjoying the nostalgia of Route 66, Flagstaff is not not necessarily a draw.

But of course, like the Phoenicians who come on weekends, it’s not just the outdoor activity that attracts. It’s cooler here. In summer, sometimes 30 whole degrees. How can you blame a spiny pig-like peccary for a cooler summer?

One evening, right after Bear the Dog’s surgery, when we weren’t supposed to let him jump or run, I took him and Zora to pee. I walked carefully on the ice that hadn’t melted after a storm a month ago. I was walking in the dark, both dogs on leashes, when Zora jumped up. At the corner of our garden, a javelin bigger than Bear, bigger than Bear and Zora combined, charged towards us. I pulled the leashes, skated on the ice, pushed the dogs inside the house and slammed the door. The javelin reached to the window. Trapped in our forever home now, I wondered how the dogs would use the toilet. Maybe we could sneak in through the front of the house where a lamp post beamed to provide some kind of protection.

I’m generally not afraid of the dark or the forest. Although I wandered alone outside in the woods where there are cougars, bears and bobcats, I did not see them myself. Where are the predators? Where are the native animals of these elevations? In my opinion the javelins came and overshadowed the potential to see the local wildlife. “Here is your wildlife now” seems to say climate change. And, I guess I have to ask again, how can I blame a creature that walked thirty miles uphill in a snowstorm? At least these guys are enjoying the cooler weather, even in the winter, with the rest of us, making them as good as anyone, true Flagstaffians.

Nicole Walker is the author of seven books, including the most recent Processed Meats: Essays on Food, Flesh, and Disaster Navigation. She teaches at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. The words here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his employer.

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