“Of People and Peccaries: Perception and Politics in the Texas Hill Country” Transcript (RAI Anthropology and Conservation 2021)

Presentation Slides:

INTRODUCTION

On my first day of fieldwork, I climbed a steep hill where my collaborator, Roger, reported a group of javelinas lived on his property. As I crested the hill, I noticed shapes obscured in the shade of the Ashe juniper trees. Unsure at first, I was met by a musky smell followed by a clear view of disk-shaped snouts, upturned also trying to make sense of me. What began as an ambiguous experience morphed into an intimate encounter with the javelinas that are central actors in this study.  

I have been conducting ethnographic fieldwork at several sites across Texas, exploring various instantiations of human-javelina relations. This paper focuses on one private property in the Texas Hill Country where javelinas live alongside the property owners and other lively residents. This site is of particular interest because Roger and the javelinas actively participate in a multispecies community, thus undermining modernist notions of a human-animal binary and providing an alternative to living together in a more-than-human world.

In this paper, I argue that the human-javelina relations at the site in the Texas Hill Country result from intimate politics practiced by the participants in this multispecies assemblage and involve mutual sensing and interpreting. I draw on work by Meijer (2019) and Donaldson and Kymlicka (2011) to expand the concept of politics beyond the human domain. I conceptualize ‘politics’ as the negotiation of competing interests. Perception and mutual sensing are necessary conditions of intimate politics because participants must develop some understanding of the positions and intentionality of one another prior to negotiating outcomes. Politics, conceptualized in this way, permits me to analyze the observed interactions at the site and understand how Roger and the javelina live convivially with their differences.

PARTICIPANTS

My primary collaborator at the site is the property owner, Roger, a retired commercial real estate broker who did much of his work in Latin America. He and his wife purchased the property several years ago as an out-of-town escape from San Antonio. However, at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, they spent more time at the property and eventually decided to sell their home in San Antonio and permanently move to the Hill Country. Roger spends much of his time photographing wildlife, with special attention to resident and migratory birds. Many of the modifications made to the property, such as a drip pond and automated feeder, intentionally improve the habitat for birds. The modifications successfully attract many migratory birds to visit the site, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler. Other co-residents of the property also benefit from the feeder and pond.

However, Roger reports that the javelinas were already living on the property when it was purchased. Javelinas are medium-bodied ungulates native to the Americas and are the only species of peccary found in North America. While they are common in southern and western Texas, reported sightings in the Hill Country are rare. Residents surrounding the fieldsite say that they have never seen javelinas, even though some have lived in the area for decades. The citizen science website www.iNaturalist.com only reports fourteen sightings in the Hill Country in the last three years, of which I contributed more than half.

Javelinas are highly social and form close bonds with their group members. They spend much of their time reinforcing those bonds through rubbing, which shares their scent between group members. Unlike distantly related pigs, peccaries have scent glands on their lower backs which they rub on objects throughout their range and one another. When marking one another, dyads face opposite directions and rub their heads and necks on the scent glands. This behavior is interpreted as a means of solidifying group membership (Byers and Bekoff 1981; Schweinsburg 1969). The odor is quite strong, and Roger describes the smell of javelinas as “skunky beer.” Other collaborators state that you often smell before you see them. Additionally, they also nuzzle, groom, and rest in contact with one another. Affiliative behavior also extends to a wide variety of vocalizations that communicate various states such as anxiety, curiosity, pleasure, and fear.

Despite their sociable nature, javelinas must also navigate intragroup conflict, which often occurs in a feeding context. They announce their displeasure with grumbles and tooth clacking, increasing frequency and volume as they become more irritated. It is not uncommon for conflict to erupt into a brief but boisterous squabble where two javelinas bear their tucks and shake their heads from side to side, striking each other with their snout and forehead (Sowls 1997). Reports by Roger and my observations indicate that squabbles are brief, lasting a few seconds, and afterward, the squabbling pair returns to eating without further conflict.

SITE DESCRIPTION

The research site is a private property in the Texas Hill Country. Large rolling hills and flatland valleys characterize this region. The drier uplands are mainly limestone and are dominated by Ashe junipers (Juniperus ashei) and live oak (Quercus fusiformis). The lowlands form savanna and riparian regions with juniper and live oak alongside hackberry (Celtis spp.), persimmon (Diospyros texana), and various shrubs (Wrede 2010). Alongside the plant life, the Texas Hill Country’s landscape also supports a great deal of biodiversity, including native mammals such as collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu), deer (Odocoileus texanus), foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus), bobcats (Lynx rufus), and coyotes (Canis latrans). Residents also report the occasional mountain lion and bear in the area. The region also supports a wide variety of birds, including the endangered golden-cheeked warbler (Dendroica chrysoparia). The Hill Country is also home to many exotic game ranches, so it is not uncommon to see Axis deer (Axis axis), Aoudad (Ammotragus lervia), and various antelope species roaming down in the valleys along with feral hogs (Sus scrofa), with whom collared peccaries are often confused.

Roger’s property is emblematic of this landscape. The two cabins on the property are nestled onto the side of a hill a mile up a winding dirt road. Around the cabins are a workshop, garden, small drip pond, and automated feeder. Wildflowers and native grasses are densely distributed throughout much of the yard and are lively sites for bees and hummingbirds. The automated feeder and pond attract other wildlife such as the resident group of peccaries, deer, and many birds, all of which come and go many times throughout the day. The hill continues to rise to the north of the yard, and it is an arduous climb to the top. The hill provides a 360-degree view from the periphery and is where the peccaries primarily bed. There are stands of prickly pear around the south and west edges and persimmon and juniper across the hill. Each of these plants provides both cover and food for the peccaries. Roger has also cut several miles of trails up the hill, and the resident cohabitants of the property use them regularly, as evidenced by tracks and trail camera footage. The javelinas use the trails to visit the yard and often rest along the trails when they retreat into the forest.

PERCEPTION AND POLITICS

The first encounter that I had with javelinas on Roger’s property began with ambiguity. However, through attentiveness, what started as an ambiguous encounter quickly manifested into an intimate encounter between sensing subjects, and the literal shadows that initially obscured the javelinas were resolved. Metaphorical shadows also obscure encounters. In the case of the multispecies entanglements that occur at the site in the Texas Hill Country, Roger and the javelinas must contend with divergent perceptual capacities—a source of ambiguity—before they can participate in the lively community.

Javelinas have poor vision and rely on their sense of smell and hearing to navigate environments, evidenced in instances where they unintentionally wander up to us, only to be startled by a shift in the breeze or an abrupt sound. To supplement their poor vision, javelinas frequently freeze, lift a front leg, intently listen, smell the air, and scan the environment. These moments interrupt feeding bouts and constitute their emergence from the forest as they make their way to the drip pond or automated feeder. When moving from the tree cover to the open areas of the yard, the javelinas will tentatively take 3-4 steps before pausing, investigating, and proceeding forward only to repeat the pauses. This behavior usually subsides once feeding begins.

The javelinas typically make themselves known when coming down from the hill to feed. We often hear them moving down the hill, displacing loose rocks and crunching on dry leaves. Furthermore, when downwind, their distinct odor precedes them, announcing their presence. However, when I move up the hill to map bedding sites or locate the group in their space, they move through the mixed Ashe juniper forest nearly entirely silently. Many times, I was only aware of them by their smell. As such, the group has the choice to either remain with me or move off without protest.

To practice intimate multispecies politics, it is crucial to understand how participating members perceive. Roger emphasizes that because javelinas have such poor sight, he talks with and makes them aware of his presence to avoid conflict when they share the yard. In turn, the javelinas set boundaries. These boundaries are negotiated and shift some with each encounter. Sometimes, the javelinas are content with Roger sitting nearby, taking wildlife photographs, or working in the yard. Other times, they set strict boundaries. They communicate these boundaries to Roger through many of the same ways that they do within the group: they expose their tusks, stamp the ground, or make a sharp huff. Roger understands that this means that he should give the group space and backs off without further incident. The javelinas sometimes venture close to Roger and his canine companions, and he negotiates this boundary in ways that are explicable to the javelinas, typically by making a sharp noise that sends the nearest javelinas scurrying off. Roger reports that this means of setting spatial boundaries avoids conflict while respecting their belonging in the space.

However, other research participants report that they have had less benign encounters with javelinas. In these cases, the javelinas act aggressively instead of moving away. As I understand these cases, they typically involve rapid movements such as arm raising and barking dogs that the javelinas may interpret as harassment and, as such, feel they must defend themselves. These encounters, juxtaposed against those that occur on Roger’s property, demonstrate contributing factors shaping the possibility of living well in the more-than-human world (Haraway 2016).

Roger practices what Kanngieser and Todd (2020) call “attunement”: a practice of “cultivating a close and generous attention” to the more-than-human world (387). Attunement means attending to the “moments of intersection (390),” and Roger does so by acknowledging his entanglements with the javelinas and thus creates opportunities for them to choose how to respond. The javelinas respond by demonstrating a sense of trust—which has developed over the two years since Roger has moved permanently to the Hill Country—by bringing newborn babies to the yard even while Roger and his Golden Retriever companion Dobie were present. I visited two days later, and the javelina group—with babies in tow—visited the yard twice while we sat on a bench, talking, only a few meters away. During their visit, the javelinas did not appear to be any more cautious or anxious than usual, which Roger understood as a consequence of creating a safe environment that the javelinas see as part of their everyday activity area.

However, conflict still arises due to ambiguity created by the presence of feral hogs (Sus scrofa). Spanish colonizers introduced feral hogs into Texas more than 300 years ago, and their reproduction and continual importing contributed to a population boom. Today, Texas is home to the largest number of feral hogs (Sus scrofa) in the US, and a group visits the property periodically. The group of feral hogs can often be seen in the valley to the west. Roger reports that they tear up the soil when visiting the yard and defecate in the drip pond, which needs to be drained and cleaned.

The presence of feral hogs in Texas has led to confusion between them and javelinas. The two species superficially resemble each other with disk-like snouts and coarse hair. However, javelinas often do not weigh more than 20 kg, while feral hogs typically weigh more than 80 kg. Furthermore, hogs lack the scent glands that are characteristic of javelinas. Moreover, javelinas and hogs belong to different taxonomic families—Tayassuidae and Suidae, respectively—representing 40 million years of evolutionary divergence. Conversations with members of a Facebook group on Texas wildlife reveals that many people view javelinas as “wild boar,” indicating the general confusion created by their co-occurrence.

I asked Roger about the confusion, and he laughed, saying that “javis are this big” [holding his hand at knee level]. He followed up by stating that “they are the size of a beagle.” I asked further about why he thinks there is so much confusion. Roger said “people are used to seeing pigs, and they are this big” [he holds his hand at knee level]. “When they see a javelina, who looks kind of like a pig, they imagine that it is pig-sized.”

Roger himself is not immune to the confusion either, however. Roger recounted a visit from a group of feral hogs one evening. They were feeding around the automated feeder, and Roger responded by firing his shotgun into the midst of the group. Feral hogs are not protected by Texas game laws as an invasive species, and their culling is encouraged by state wildlife officials. He went to inspect and found, not a dead hog, but a dead javelina. Roger was absolutely sure that he identified the group as hogs and yet killed a javelina. As such, hogs and javelinas must, at least in this instance, contribute to their confusion by feeding alongside one another. Roger has addressed the potential of misperception and harming one of the resident javelinas by intentionally aiming at a particular hog instead of firing into the group to scare them off.    

Feral hogs provide additional dimensions to the on-goings of the multispecies community that has developed on Roger’s property. Roger views the feral hogs as unwelcome interlopers and the javelinas as co-residents. Consequently, he is willing to negotiate the space with the javelinas and excludes the hogs from the property and membership in the community. At the same time, Western conceptions of more-than-human relations tend to draw boundaries between humans and other kinds of beings. However, Roger and the javelinas demonstrate how such distinctions can soften through attunement. Accordingly, the site serves as an essential example of how intimate relations across alterity can form due to decisions made by key participants in a diverse community of sensing subjects.

REFERENCES

Byers, John A., and Marc Bekoff. “Social, spacing, and cooperative behavior of the collared peccary, Tayassu tajacu.” Journal of Mammalogy 62, no. 4 (1981): 767-785.

Donaldson, Sue, and Will Kymlicka. Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford University Press, 2011.

Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble. Duke University Press, 2016.

Kanngieser, Anja, and Zoe Todd. “From environmental case study to environmental Kin study.” History and Theory 59, no. 3 (2020): 385-393.

Meijer, Eva. When Animals Speak. New York University Press, 2019.

Schweinsburg, Raymond Eugene. Social behavior of the collared peccary (Pecari tajacu) in the Tucson Mountains. The University of Arizona, 1969.

Sowls, Lyle K. Javelinas and other peccaries: their biology, management, and use. No. QL 737. U59. S68 1997. 1997.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. The Mushroom at the End of the World. Princeton University Press, 2015.

Wrede, Jan. Trees, Shrubs, and Vines of the Texas Hill Country: A Feld Guide. Vol. 39. Texas A&M University Press, 2010.

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