Get to know javelinas: Are they pigs? Are they dangerous? All your questions answered

Shanti Lerner
Arizona Republic

Maybe you've seen a large, hairy, pig-looking animal while out hiking, or perhaps in your neighborhood if you live near one of the many mountain preserves in metro Phoenix.

Contrary to how they look, javelinas aren't a type of hog. Nor are they a cousin of the wild boar. This animal is actually a species unto itself. 

Originally from South America, the javelina (pronounced have-a-LEEN-a) is common to central and southern Arizona and parts of Texas. People who are new here and those living outside the Southwest may not be familiar with them. 

So what exactly makes javelinas different from pigs? Why aren't they found in other parts of the United States? Are they dangerous? So many questions about these hooved mammals. 

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The Arizona Republic talked to Robyn Moul, education specialist at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center in Scottsdale. The organization rescues wild animals that have lost their homes due to development, or are found injured, orphaned or abandoned. The goal is to rehabilitate the animals and release them back into the wild. 

Here’s everything you need to know about javelinas in Arizona. 

What is a javelina? 

Javelinas are not related to pigs, Moul said. Javelinas are a type of mammal known as a collared peccary. Here are some of the biggest differences between a pig and a javelina, Moul said: 

  • Javelinas are smaller than pigs. Adult javelinas stand about 2 feet tall, are 3 to 4 feet long and weigh 35 to 55 pounds. 
  • Pigs typically have large, upright ears. A javelina’s smaller ears could almost be compared to those of a teddy bear, Moul said. 
  • Pigs have a noticeable tassel tail. A javelina’s tail is small and inconspicuous. 
  • The name collared peccary comes from the white collar-like band of hair near the javelina's neck. This might be easy to miss unless you have a chance to see one up close. Their salt and pepper looking coat almost feels like thin guitar strings.

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Why are javelinas called skunk pigs?

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, javelinas live in large groups. The herds — known as squadrons — can include 20 or more javelinas. 

Moul said javelinas don't have to be blood related to form a squadron.

Javelinas communicate in a couple of ways. In addition to vocalizations, javelinas also  form bonds through scent.

“Javelinas have scent glands located just above their short tail, which give off a strong musky odor,” Moul said. “Members of a squadron often stand head to rump and rub their head and neck on the other’s scent gland. There is a saying, ‘You can smell them before you see them.’ However, each family smells unique.” 

Are javelinas dangerous?

In Arizona, where many homes abut open desert landscape, it isn’t a surprise that javelinas visit backyards or residential streets. They're often in search of food, water or shelter. 

“People should never feed a javelina,” Moul said. “This can cause them to habituate and lose their fear of people. This can create problems for the neighborhood and often lead to the death of the javelina.”

Moul said it's important to understand why javelinas turn up in neighborhoods: The homes were built on the animal's natural territory. 

"With the constant development in the Valley, it isn’t a matter of if you will see one, it’s only a matter of when," she said.

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What attracts a javelina? 

If you have any of these things on your property, don't be surprised to see a javelina one day.

  • Food: Lush vegetation, succulents, flowers.
  • Water: Water features, ponds, irrigation lines.
  • Shelter: Porches, groups of trees, shade structures.

What do javelinas eat? 

Javelinas are chiefly herbivores, Moul said. They feed on a variety of desert plants, including cactus pads and fruits, agave hearts, roots, tubers and flowers. One of the javelina’s favorite foods is prickly pear. They also eat insects and — given the chance — your garbage.

What should you do if a javelina approaches?

A javelina's defensive behaviors include clacking teeth, a barking or growling sound and charging if they feel provoked, Moul said. 

"Even as babies, javelinas are fierce,” said Kacie Willtcuts, hospital manager at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center. “That’s their natural behavior. You would want them to be that way. That’s how they survive in the wild and protect themselves against their predators.”

Here are tips from Moul to prevent a bad outcome if you come face to face with a javelina: 

  • Noise is the best offense. Use a bell or whistle when walking or hiking. This will alert a javelina that you are heading its way. “Javelinas have terrible eyesight (estimated to be 75 feet) and are easily spooked,” Moul said. 
  • Never let your dog off leash. Your dog looks like a coyote to a javelina, and it will protect its squadron from coyotes, particularly if babies are present. 
  • Always give a javelina plenty of space. If you see one — or more — go the other way. Don't try to get closer for a photo or a better look.

What are javelinas' predators?

According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the main predators of javelinas are mountain lions, coyotes, bobcats, jaguars and humans. 

Can you hunt javelinas in Arizona? 

Javelinas are one of the state's 10 big-game animals, according to the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Hunting dates vary by location throughout the year. Hunters must have a license, and javelina permits are issued by lottery. Find out more at  www.azgfd.com/hunting/regulations.

What is the javelina’s conservation status?

The javelina’s conservation status is of “least concern,” meaning their numbers are such that they are plentiful in the wild, Moul said.

Are javelinas nocturnal?

According to Arizona Game and Fish, javelinas are most active at night, but they may be active during the day in cooler weather.

Arizona State Parks and Trails points out that while javelinas are nocturnal, day encounters are very common.

This is because javelinas lack a fur-like coat and instead have a coarse coat that gives them little insulation. So they seek warmth where they can find it, and that might be in the sun. On cool nights, members of a javelina squadron could be piled on top of each other to conserve heat. 

The fast and the furious, javelina style 

Javelinas have one more claim to fame: In 2020, a Tucson real estate agent's cellphone video of a javelina racing past an apartment complex went viral.

And making a fun video even better, creative internet users set the rampaging javelina to music.

You can connect with Arizona Republic Culture and Outdoors Reporter Shanti Lerner through email at shanti.lerner@gannett.com or you can also follow her on Twitter

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