Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Can the Xoloitzcuintli Explain Texas Chupacabras Sightings?

I was recently approached by a television producer about doing a cryptid-based show on the “Texas chupacabras.” I agreed to do the show on the condition that I be allowed to share my beliefs on what it was that people were actually seeing. The producers agreed, arrangements for shooting on private land in Texas were made, and a tentative date for the shoot was set. I never mentioned any of this on the blog or my other online outlets as experience had taught me that such plans often fall through. As it turned out, the production company decided that they would not be coming to Texas to film after all. While disappointed – this is a show with which you would all be familiar – I certainly harbor no hard feelings; it’s just the way it goes sometimes. One of my biggest disappointments about not getting to do the program was that I would not be able to give my thoughts on what these “Texas chupacabras” might be. That being the case, I thought a blog post on the topic might be in order. While I won’t reach the number of people I would have on the television show, I am hoping that I can still reach a great many folks this way.

The chupacabras legend is a fairly new addition to the pantheon of cryptid beasts. While the myth may have existed regionally before (For example, residents of the Puerto Rican town of Moca endured the killings of dozens farm animals by a creature dubbed “The Vampire of Moca” in 1975), the possible existence of a blood-sucking creature that attacked livestock on the island of Puerto Rico came to the fore in the early and mid-1990’s. Soon, unusual livestock deaths in the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States were being blamed on chupacabras. The attacks were purported to be similar in that the animals were drained of their blood via two or three puncture marks in the throat or chest, though to my knowledge, this blood-draining has never been confirmed by a necropsy performed by a certified veterinarian. The legend of the chupacabras, however, caught the fancy of the public and spread like wildfire throughout Latin America and north into Texas. 

The original description of the chupacabras – as described by Puerto Ricans in the 1990’s – is of a reptilian-looking creature with a series of long spikes or spines protruding from its back. It had strong back legs on which it stood in a fashion similar to that of a kangaroo. The forelimbs were described as smaller, but ending in “hands” or paws that were tipped with razor sharp talons. The creature’s mode of locomotion was jumping or hopping, again, much like a kangaroo (one must wonder if an imported kangaroo or wallaby might have escaped its enclosure and been wandering around Puerto Rico in the 1990’s). Whatever was hopping around Puerto Rico in the 1990’s seems to have no similarities to the creatures being called chupacabras today. Modern accounts all describe the chupacabras as a canine-like animal, devoid of hair, with grayish-blue to black skin similar to that of an elephant or rhino. The size reported varies from that of a German shepherd to that of a small fox. News outlets seize on every opportunity to publish photos or video of these alleged chupacabras (many Texans refer to them as blue dogs) and have spread this new picture of the creature far and wide. Just this past week, a report of a “chupacabras” wandering about the city of Houston received a lot of attention. In my opinion, the video clearly shows an ill canine of some kind, not a mythical blood-sucking beast. Still, the myth – and this new description – persists.

While I cannot speculate on just what people in Puerto Rico might have seen 20-25 years ago, I do feel that I can offer up a few opinions on what people are seeing here in Texas now. I strongly feel that most “chupacabras” are nothing more than canines suffering from a form of mange. Mange is caused by a parasitic mite that burrows into the skin and kills the hair follicles of the host animal. Sarcoptic mange – also known as canine scabies – causes hair loss, crusting of the skin of the ears and joints, and secondary skin infections. Canines suffering from this form of mange quickly deteriorate into very poor condition if left untreated. The disease is not uncommon among the coyotes and foxes of the Lone Star State. I have seen a mange-ridden coyote myself in the Sam Houston National Forest. It was strange and alien-looking to be sure, but undoubtedly a coyote. It was completely hairless and had the typically described bluish-gray, elephant-like skin. The ribs were protruding and the animal moved slowly and did not appear to be in very good shape at all. I have no doubt that if I had snapped a photo and sent it to the newspaper or local television affiliate, “chupacabras” headlines would have soon followed. I believe strongly, that most sightings of this Texas version of the chupacabras are nothing more than sick, mangy canines.

Having said that, the idea that mangy canines explain ALL chupacabras sightings has never sat particularly well with me. The vast majority of sightings? Absolutely. But, all of them? No. Some of the sightings describe very robust, strong, or fast animals. None of these attributes would be expected from an animal suffering with an advanced case of mange. The famous dashcam footage of what was obviously a very healthy, yet hairless, canine of some kind outside of Cuero, Texas has become the Patterson-Gimlin footage of the chupacabras world. Whatever this creature was, it was clearly healthy. Is there another explanation, another animal that fits the description of the classic Texas chupacabras? As it turns out, yes.

The Xoloitzcuintli, or Xolo for short, is a dog breed that fits the classic description of the Texas chupacabras almost perfectly. Also known as the Mexican Hairless, this dog has been around for centuries. Statues resembling the breed have been found in Mayan, Colima, and Aztec ruins and burial sites that date back 3,000 years. Aztec mythology attributed the creation of the breed to Xolotl, the god of lightning and death, who needed the breed to guide souls through the underworld. The tribes of ancient Mexico and Central America believed the Xolo had physical and spiritual healing powers and regarded the breed as sacred. The unusual name of the breed is a combination of Xolotl and itzcuintli, the Aztec word for dog. It is believed that the first European to lay eyes on this hairless breed of canine was none other than Christopher Columbus himself in 1492.* Once the Spanish conquest of the New World began in earnest, the Xolo became more and more rare. The AKC did recognize the breed in 1887 – as the Mexican Hairless – but dropped it from its official registry in 1959 due to extremely low numbers. During this time, British and Mexican authorities worked together to save the Xolo from extinction. The group managed to trap 10-12 wild Xolos in remote Mexican forests and successfully bred them. After the numbers bounced back a bit, the Xolo was eventually named the official dog of Mexico. While well-known south of the Rio Grande, the breed is still rarely seen, and relatively unknown, in the United States.

I was aware of the Mexican Hairless, but mistakenly believed it was a toy-sized dog only. I have since learned that the breed comes in three distinct sizes: Standard, Miniature, and Toy. The breeds range in weight from 10-50 lbs. As the name implies, they are all but completely hairless (there are sometimes tufts of hair on the head, toes, and tail). The skin color of these Xolos is typically black or bluish-gray in color. The allele that causes the breed’s hairlessness is also responsible for abnormalities in the dentition of the breed. Hairless Xolos usually display incomplete or abnormal dentition that can include unusually long canines. The Xolo is very athletic, graceful, and a strong runner with a sturdy build. This vigorous and robust nature is thought to be due to the fact that the breed was never selectively bred historically. While they can make good pets, Xolos are extremely intelligent and have a reputation as escape artists with the ability to climb and/or jump fences.

When the whole picture is put together, the Xolo must be considered a prime suspect in the Texas chupacabras mystery. While not limited to south Texas, the breed is far more common near the Texas-Mexico border. The bulk of chupacabras sightings that are not obviously mange-ridden canines, originate from the southern part of the Lone Star State. The bluish-gray to black skin so commonly reported is a hallmark of the breed. Too, the over-sized ears – sometimes described as resembling those of a mule or donkey – and long canines are common characteristics of the Xolo. The athletic and robust build of the Standard-sized Xolo matches up well to many descriptions given of the chupacabras and the fact that escapees are not uncommon would seem to strengthen the case that the Xolo could be the prime suspect in this mystery. Finally, and maybe the most important fact of all, is that the majority of Texas residents simply are not familiar with the breed. This is not surprising as the breed was right on the brink of extinction as recently as the mid 1950’s. A Texan who is unaware of the existence of the Xolo, but who has been exposed to the media-driven chupacabras legend, is likely to jump to the cryptid creature conclusion. 

To wrap it up, I just do not believe there is much to the Texas chupacabras legend. I have heard stories of there being DNA testing of specimens that indicate some kind of wolf/coyote/dog hybrid, but have not seen any such studies myself. I think chupacabras sightings – at least those in Texas – can be attributed to sick, mangy foxes, coyotes, or domestic/feral dogs nine times out of ten. On the rare occasions when a healthy, strong, and fast “chupacabras” is spotted, in my opinion, it is a very strong possibility that a Xolo was seen. This is another case where I would welcome being wrong – a weird and new hybrid species of blood-sucking creature would be cool – but I do not think I am. 

*Source material claims Columbus mentioned the Xolo in his journal, but I have been unable to corroborate.