I received word in 2019 that the military was sending me to Fort Huachuca, Arizona. To save time among ourselves, my wife and I named the move “Operation Javelina.” Javelina - more properly “collared peccaries” - quickly became a symbol of the state of Arizona to my family. To ease them into moving from our Midwest Michigan home, we gave our children stuffed javelina for Christmas that year. We filled their heads with visions of these stinky, hairy critters and how lucky we were to move to one of the only places these cuties lived. The whole family fell in love with javelinas.
I had heard of javelina many years before, during conversations with an Arizona-residing uncle. My first visit to Fort Huachuca for military training in 2011 resulted in no encounters, nor did a short visit in early 2019. Regardless, I knew they were there, and I had the internet and other people’s pictures to prove it.
Our first encounter took place only a few days after we arrived in Arizona. After partying and welcoming the New Year at a respectable 9 pm - the kids couldn’t read clocks yet - we got into our car for the drive home. On the way, we encountered our first “squadron” of collared peccaries. The darkness prevented clear pictures, but it was a symbol of things to come. “Operation Javelina” was now a reality.
Over the next two years, we encountered javelina all around our southeastern Arizona home. Large heaps of javelina cuddled beneath underpasses to escape the day’s heat. Our children joyfully squealed as we spotted our first striped javelina piglets. Daytime sightings or nighttime flashes, javelinas became a regular experience.
Sometimes, our midwestern wonder at javelinas threatened to morph into complacency. Perhaps it was when we discovered our first trash can upset and scattered by hungry javies, or maybe it was when we almost missed an appointment waiting for a squadron to cross the road. Perhaps we dreaded losing Halloween pumpkins to their hunger. Luckily, something would always happen to bring back the thrill, from a sight of a momma and babies to a massive herd of thirty parading about on base.
While I had visions of hunting javelina in 2019, I first saw javelinas in the field while pursuing Coues deer in fall 2020. Things became truly serious when I received word I had drawn one of the few Fort Huachuca firearm javelina tags for spring 2022. I remember sending excited messages to family and friends: I was going to hunt the symbol of our time in Arizona.
The first day of the hunt didn’t go as planned. Another hunter claimed my desired spot. Even worse, I spotted no javelina. Ultimately, I spotted and stalked what turned out to be vaguely javelina shaped rock.
At a friendly game warden’s recommendation, I tried to hunt another spot on top of a small hill. I gloried in a beautiful vantage point and saw Coues deer, mule deer, jack rabbits, and even a rare herd of pronghorn, but no javelina.
On day three, I organized a “family hunt.” I would go early and set up chairs, blankets, and other spot and stalk essentials. My wife would wake, dress the children, then meet me at our ridgeline vantage point later. I arrived shortly before sunrise, and had our gear staged shortly after.
After set-up, I got a phone call from my wife that she was on the way, arriving in 10 minutes. Immediately after I hung up, I spotted black dots moving on a hillside about 1,000 yards away. I called back, and had to explain somehow that our “family hunt” would be more of an overwatch situation. I immediately moved out towards the dots in the distance.
Hustling along a gravel road, I closed to 400 yards. I noticed our family minivan pass by and arrive at our spotting site as I navigated through a fence line. Satisfied that I’d have an audience, I slowly closed the distance. I slowly closed to less than 75 yards as the squadron of a dozen or so javelina approached.
The wind, my movements, and the javelinas’ restlessness came together. I chose a good-sized one out of the herd and brought it down at 40 yards. Javelina are fierce when provoked - the remaining animals squealed, clacked tusks loudly, and attempted a charge. I was thrilled and scared simultaneously, but eventually they left me unharmed.
My wife, meanwhile, had arrived at our spotting location, but couldn’t spot me. She and the kids heard the shot, but it took wild jumping and waving hunters orange before she saw me. They traversed the wild hillside to help clean and carry the javelina. This was no mean feat - our children were often dwarfed by the tall grass, thorny cacti, and spiked mesquite along the way.
A perilous hike and dozens of pictures later, the kids helped me field dress the carcass. My long-suffering wife allowed me to put the smelly critter in the back of her minivan for transport. The meat came home in coolers and the skull went to a professional cleaner for a Euro-mount.
Over the next few weeks and months, my family ate many javelina meals. Regardless of its reputation, javelina is delicious. Whether it was loin steaks, chorizo, or even javelina bratwurst, every meal was a winner. Whenever we ate javelina, I believe we permanently absorbed pieces of our adopted Southwest home.
“Operation Javelina” came to an end as the Army sent me elsewhere in summer 2022. I managed to transport the javelina neck - the last of the meat - to our new home across the country. True to the Southwest, we made javelina tacos.
Javelina are wild critters with a rugged fierceness, complex group dynamics, and a smelly reputation. Perhaps there is a metaphor in there somewhere for the Army lifestyle. Holding that last taco and looking at the skull on the shelf, all I could think about was that a chapter of my family’s life had come to an end. Perhaps we’ll return to the desert Southwest again, but for now the memories of javelina will stay forever linked to our 2019-2022 Arizona experience. \