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September 2010 cover image Oh Deer!

What Was That?

Tales of mysterious creatures abound in the land of chupacabras.

By Mike Cox

The time had come.

For years back in the 1800s, people living along the lower Navidad River in Lavaca County had been finding mysterious footprints and occasionally seeing a hairy, ape-like creature lurking in the dense vegetation along the stream. Most believed the critter was female.

Finally, the locals decided to solve the mystery. Whistling up their best hounds, a party of hunters set out to capture the thing that had come to be called the Wild Woman of the Navidad.

With a wagon-wheel-sized moon hanging above, the hunters arranged themselves in a classic drive-and-block formation. Men with bloodhounds and riders with lassos at the ready moved in a line toward one another to flush any “thing” that might be hiding between them. Soon, the dogs howled and took up a trail.

Suddenly, something burst from cover along the river bottom and cut across open prairie running toward a thicker stand of trees. One of the riders, an expert roper, gained on the creature, but when he got close enough to throw a loop, his horse shied and slowed down.

Zigzagging and running as fast as a deer, the creature made it to the woods. The pursuers decided they’d call it a hunt and went home. All who had seen the fleeing figure said it appeared to be a female covered with hair. She had been clutching something in her hand but dropped it as she ran, they said. Retracing her route, one of the hunters found a wooden club about 5 feet long, “polished to a wonder.”

The story became part of local folklore, passed only by word of mouth until writer Martin W. Kennedy told it in print for the first time in Legends of Texas, a Texas Folklore Society publication edited by J. Frank Dobie. The book came out in 1924.

Dating back to the late 1830s, reported sightings of the wild woman along the Navidad are the first references on record in Texas to what are now known as cryptids — unknown or mythical creatures. The field, considered by most scientists as mere pseudoscience, is called cryptozoology.

To put the matter into perspective, Texas has roughly 180 known mammals, from bats to white-tailed deer. But the state’s taxonomy of mythical animals could be counted with the digits on one long-nailed, hairy hand. The three most common Lone Star cryptids are chupacabras, Bigfoot and lechuzas.

Texas Parks and Wildlife Department mammalogist John Young, with a doctorate in wildlife sciences from Texas A&M at Kingsville, says chupacabras are Texas’ No. 1 cryptid in terms of reported sightings.

Chupacabra is a combination of two Spanish words, the verb chupar, which means “to suck,” and the noun cabra, for “goat.” No one so far has suggested that chupacabras have “gone vampire” to the extent of attacking humans, but they are reputed to be mighty fond of goats, smaller animals and chickens. They are most often reported in South Texas.

“Most of the calls I get involve chupacabras,” says Young, who has been with the department for a decade, “but the number ebbs and flows. The reason it ebbs and flows is because of outbreaks of mange that ebb and flow.”

As far as Young’s concerned, chupacabras are either coyotes or foxes suffering from mange. What they are not, in his opinion, is an unknown mammal.

“So far, every single dead ‘chupacabra’ that’s been examined has proven to be either a coyote or fox with the mange,” he says. “Sometimes, when the genetic testing comes back as only 99 percent coyote, folks cling to that as proof that the animal is something different. But that other 1 percent is dog.”

Young can understand why someone might think a scary-looking dead animal is a chupacabra, but he says there’s a totally logical explanation.

“Mange drastically changes the way an animal looks,” he says. “When a coyote loses all its hair, it looks really funky. Their skin has a bluish-gray color. And the sun desiccates a hairless body very quickly, pulling the skin back to expose the teeth, making them look more prominent.”

The largest of the Texas cryptids is the ape-man known as Bigfoot, so called because of feet that are the size of a professional basketball player’s. It’s also known as Sasquatch or yeti. These bipedal primates stand 7 or so feet tall, have a short neck and can run like, well, the proverbial spotted ape.

Young says he’s had only two calls about Bigfoot sightings.

“One, several years ago, was from a gentleman who wanted to know why we would not recognize Bigfoot as a native species,” Young says. “I explained to him that there is no concrete proof that it exists anywhere in the United States, let alone Texas.”

Of course, some people are convinced they exist. A Texas organization called the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy has an extensive website (www.texasbigfoot.org), collects sighting data, holds conferences and actively hunts Bigfoot in the deep woods of East Texas. The group lists reported Bigfoot sightings in 65 of Texas’ 254 counties. Montgomery County has the most sightings, with 13, followed by Liberty (12) and Harrison (11).

Lechuzas are wide-winged, fast-flying creatures that sometimes buzz cars on lonely roadways. They are usually seen at night. They are generally reported in South Texas along the border. Folklore has it that the big birds are part bird and part bruja, or witch. They seem particularly attracted to men and women who have popped more than a few beer cans in a short period of time. The generally accepted nonmythical explanation is that they are night-feeding great horned owls.

So, are there any undiscovered large mammals lurking in the Pineywoods of East Texas or prowling the mesquite flats of South Texas? Young doesn’t think so.

“Periodically, new varieties of insects and small fish are being discovered, maybe even a new subspecies of rodent or bat, but there have been no new large mammals found in the U.S. in a long time,” he says. “And a new species would be highly unlikely to go undetected outside of Alaska, South America and some unpopulated places in Mexico. In East Texas, in most places you can’t go four miles in one direction without crossing a road.”

If Bigfoot were hanging out in East Texas, Young says, sooner or later one would have the misfortune of becoming road kill. Or someone would find a Bigfoot skeleton or even Bigfoot scat. But other than grainy photographs and similarly suspect plaster casts of big footprints, no scientifically acceptable evidence has come to light, he says.

Beyond cryptids, Young occasionally fields calls on sightings of what biologists call vagrants or accidentals — critters far from their normal range.

Periodically, someone reports having seen a wolf, even though the last confirmed wolf sighting in Texas was in 1971 when one was trapped in the Trans-Pecos.

“The closest existing population of wolves to Texas is along the New Mexico-Arizona border,” he says. “But wolves can travel long distances, so it’s possible for one to end up in Texas. Not too long ago, a wolf was discovered in Missouri that had a radio collar placed on it in Michigan.”

Two other mythical Texas creatures are at least half-real — the black panther and the black lion. The real description includes a long tail, four legs and whiskers. The unreal description is the color, or lack thereof.

“We believe that the ‘black panthers’ that have been reported historically were probably a melanistic phase of jaguar,” Young says. “It doesn’t appear that there is a melanistic phase for mountain lions.”

A possible explanation for black lions is backlighting. Most mountain lion sightings are in the evening under poor lighting conditions. A normal-colored mountain lion can look black in the twilight, and given that the average duration of a sighting is less than 60 seconds, there’s no time for intensive study.

As far as Young is concerned, until someone provides biologists with a cryptid that genetic tests prove to be a new variety of mammal, the only place they are known to exist for sure is in the imagination.

 

 

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