The Cuero Chupacabra: My Search for a Mythical Hairless Coyote
Back in the fall of 2007, before anyone knew for sure that the Cuero chupacabra was really just a hairless coyote, I drove down to the South of Texas, past tiny towns with names like Pandora, Nixon, and Smiley — population 453 — to investigate the alleged discovery of this mythical animal. It is good driving country down there: big and rolling, fields of yellow flowers, cows huddling beneath the shade of lone juniper trees, the smooth road before you. It is good chupacabra country, too: big skies, lonesome land stretching endlessly off towards distant horizons — the kind of place the imagination has room to breathe, and swell, and see things that might not be there.
Supposedly, the Cuero chupacabra really was there. A woman named Phylis Canion had discovered the thing (and two others like it) dead on the side of the road near her ranch, killed by passing motorists as if they were common armadillo. She’d decided to keep one, the largest, some forty-odd pounds of mysterious beast. (Her neighbors, out of fear, had burned the others.) She’d sent a skin sample off to the University of Texas to get its DNA tested. In fact, at this very moment, its head was sitting in her freezer. Yes, whatever it was, this thing was no product of the imagination — I’d seen pictures of it online — dark blue hairless skin, short, shriveled front legs, big jaws, long canine fangs.
Whatever it was, this thing was real. And maybe it was this that was creating such a sensation in the media. It was as if the Lochness monster had washed up dead on the shore like a poisoned fish, or as if Big Foot had been discovered drowned in someone’s pool like a mouse. Something had leapt the boundaries of myth and vaulted itself into reality. Who knew what other legends could be true now, had been true forever, existing right beneath our noses: maybe we would awaken tomorrow to find unicorns and centaurs grazing in our back yards, griffins and dragons swirling in the heavens, and in the hollows of old trees, stolen and compiled by mischievous gremlins, colorful stashes of thousands of single, unmatched socks…
The Internet — tangled web of hearsay, gossip, opinion, urban myth, legend, and general mass hysteria — seemed an appropriate place to research a creature like the chupacabra, and so that’s where I began. As with most myths and legends, so it is with the chupacabra: nothing is certain. All is theory, and it’s wonderfully good stuff: the chupacabras are alien pets, escaped from a UFO; they are genetically manufactured mutations, broken free from government labs; they are creatures from another dimension, brought here through a quirk in electromagnetic fields.
The eyewitness accounts seem as inconsistent and varied as the theories, almost as if the beast were capable of morphing, shape-shifting — definable, in the end, only by its indefinability. As soon as a chupacabra alights in one place as a gargoyle-like demon with wings, it pops up somewhere else as a vicious “vampire kangaroo” that can hop twenty feet; and as soon as one person describes it as a dog-like creature that stands on two legs, someone else swears it’s a lizard with quills running down its spine. Or maybe it’s none of those: maybe it’s really a humanoid with huge oval alien eyes that glow red when it shrieks. Or maybe it’s all of those, yes, maybe the real truth is that the chupacabra can be anything, really, almost as if any unidentified creature can be rightly called a chupacabra, much the way any unidentified flying object can rightly be called a UFO. If you do not know what it is, call it a chupacabra, and you’d be right, as far as anyone knows.
Yes, no one knows anything about the thing, in the end, which results in some rather amusing questions. Consider the sense of nausea and paralysis some have reported upon seeing the beast — is this due to its glowing red eyes, its sulfur-like stench, or its terrible shriek that resembles a woman’s scream? And what about its vampiric method of feeding — does it suck the blood (and sometimes the organs) out of its victim through one hole, two holes, or three?
And what about its origins? It was given its name — chupacabra literally means “goatsucker” — in Puerto Rico in 1995 during a spree of animal slayings, though there is evidence that the beast was around long before that. In 1975, a creature known as the Moca Vampire had terrorized livestock in Puerto Rico, and some believe that the Jersey Devil, which has haunted the pine barrens of southern New Jersey since the 1700′s, is a close relative. At any rate, there is no doubt that it was in 1995, when the creature was held responsible for more than a thousand deaths in Puerto Rico alone, that the chupacabra first swooped into the world’s collective consciousness, and it’s been huddled there in the shadows ever since, mutating and expanding and spreading like some strange virus.
Since 1995, the chupacabra has been blamed for thousands of deaths everywhere from Chile to Maine, and Australia to Russia, though the majority of sightings have come from Hispanic communities. Its taste for blood knows few boundaries, either — it’s attacked ducks, chickens, turkeys, rabbits, cats, dogs, horses, cows, and of course, goats. Allegedly, the vicious bloodsucker even tore the stuffing out of a little boy’s teddy bear.
Driving into Cuero, I am stopped on the outskirts of town by a train clanking lazily by. It’s carrying biochemicals in huge cylindrical tanks — vinyl chloride, methyl something or other, other vicious brews I cannot pronounce — and I cannot help but to wonder if maybe some chemical spill gave birth to the beast they’re calling the chupacabra: some giant poison cloud of toxic gas escaping a wrecked train in the desert and descending on a hovel of coyotes, the things emerging mutated, hairless, blue, and thirsty for blood… Maybe there were giant ants out there, too, making their homes in cacti the size of skyscrapers. Maybe cows had shrunk to the size of toads, and when discovered, would become the perfect little black and white pocket pets — every kid would want one… But the train passes without incident, and I continue on into town.
Cuero is bigger than I imagined, but emptier, too. There is a long, broad Main Street and some good-sized side streets, and the buildings are red-brick, two stories, solid-looking –but many seem abandoned, spaces up for sale or rent, and though it is Monday afternoon, almost all the shops are closed, and I can find no open restaurant in which to lunch.
Strangest of all, absolutely no one else is walking around. I’m the only one on foot. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s 92 degrees in late September — everything beaten down by the South Texas sun — and everyone else is smarter than me, keeping cool in the AC of their cars. But I cannot help but to wonder if this is the way places become ghost towns: soon enough, no one gets out of their cars anymore, and everyone just drives on through.
I wander down one of the side-streets till I show up at the Dewitt County Courthouse of 1896, a beautiful red-and-sand-colored stone building in the midst of being preserved by the Texas historical commission, though no one is working on it at the moment. (The clock on its tower is stuck at 3:05, which, strangely enough, is only ten minutes off from the true time.) A sign directs me down another street towards the Chamber of Commerce, where I drop in and speak to a nice young woman by the name of Ronii Diez, ask her what she thinks of the whole chupacabra thing. She smiles big, gets excited, tells me that it’s given Cuero exposure on a whole new level — “I mean, I hear it was on the Colbert Report,” she says. “We’ve been getting a lot more phone calls, and there’s been a lot more traffic in town, too.”
But when I ask her what she thinks about the whole thing, personally, the smile shrinks a little bit, and something like reverence opens up in her eyes. “Growing up Hispanic, the chupacabra was like a part of our heritage,” she explains. “It was folklore, you know, like stories of the bogeyman. And then to find out that it’s real-life now?” She shakes her head in wonder. “It’s kinda scary…”
Not all the locals were so convinced, however. Later that day, at the motel where I was staying, I spoke to a pretty brunette receptionist who chose to remain nameless:
“Personally, I think it’s a load of crap,” she admitted.
“Can I quote you on that?”
We both laughed, and then she continued… “I mean, I just don’t know why everyone’s making such a big deal out of it… I mean, come on…”
“You haven’t had any chickens taken then, I take it…”
“I don’t have any chickens.”
My original plan had been to spend the night on the ranch where the creature was discovered — await it in the night with perhaps a chicken at my side as bait — and write about it. (Maybe, some sick part of me hoped, the chupacabra would disregard the chicken and attempt to take me instead. As long as the chupacabra didn’t manage to immobilize me with its glowing red eyes, its hissing shriek, and that foul stench of sulfur, an epic battle would ensue, there in the Texas night, me and this legendary beast in hand to paw combat, foot against fang, and our howls would thunder through the night, and dust would blot out the moon from our scuffling, until finally I would emerge victorious, the beast, still alive, but exhausted, drained of all willpower, my live captive at its side.)
But the sad truth is that before I even arrived in Cuero, I’d stopped the car at the side of the road to investigate a historical marker, and saw a spider, yellow and black-banded, clinging viciously to its web in the warm wind. With its legs spread out it was almost as big as my hand, and I decided there and then that maybe spending the night out in this countryside was not such a good idea. (An arachnophobe at heart, I am willing to face a 40-pound bloodsucker, but not a four gram one.)
Not that Phylis Canion, the woman who discovered the mysterious roadkill, would have let me spend the night on her ranch, even if I had asked her, which I did not. When I first met her at her Cuero t-shirt shop, I could immediately tell that she was a tough, no-nonsense woman: hair, close-cropped and blonde, skin craggy from wind and sun, frame wiry with muscles. She had fire in her walk, which was quick and pointed and full of purpose, as were all her movements. She wore glasses, but in the manner that Clark Kent wore them, as if to hide the fact she didn’t really need them. She was a doctor of Naturopathic Medicine. She drove a Hummer. She was, to say the least, a little scary.
But it wasn’t just the intimidation factor that made me reluctant to ask her questions. I mean, here I was, another reporter arrived unannounced to talk to her about the stupid chupacabra, and my initial impression was that she was a little sick of the whole thing. It was late afternoon at her store, 7C Unlimited — one of the few stores actually open in town, it appeared — and she seemed tired, not just from a long day of work, but from a long couple months of chupacabra mayhem.
Mayhem it had been. Back in July, the AP had picked up the story, and it had appeared all over the world. Behind her desk at the shop hung a framed copy of the most unlikely periodical to have run the story, the Arab News Daily, the world’s largest Arab newspaper in English. And more than two months later, the press madness still continued. The following morning a TV crew from Japan was flying in to interview her.
And then there were the t-shirts, 6,000 plus “Summer of the Chupacabra” t-shirts (not to mention the beer coozies) that she’d sent all over the world, and to every state but two. (The t-shirts had a cartoon depiction of the chupacabra, which looked like a vicious rat running on two legs, and she would later sell me one almost reluctantly: “These things are in very high demand, you know.”)
So it was that in between bustling about her store and taking orders for t-shirts and such, she was kind enough to explain how it had all begun: with the chickens. She’d had some 28 chickens taken, most of them over a two-month period. Now this wasn’t so strange in and of itself — down in this part of Texas, coyotes and bobcats are always running off with people’s chickens. What was weird was how some of these birds were taken. “I mean, most predators will take food off to eat it. Not this thing. Whatever this thing was — all it did was kill them and leave ‘em lay… And then there was the one it left on my porch, and there was no blood left, which is how I knew something was strange. Cause when you kill a chicken, there’s blood everywhere… That was the last straw, when it left one on my porch. I was there by myself. This thing sees me, it knows I’m there by myself.”
“Did you ever see it while it was alive?”
“Oh, yeah, I’d seen it moving through my pasture on several occasions – because its front legs are so much shorter, it runs different – more of a hopping effect than a gallop.”
“And did the thing ever make any noise that you can remember?”
“People tell me that the sound it’s supposed to make is like a woman screaming, but I never heard it. The times I saw it running through my pasture, it never made a sound…”
“Do you still have chickens?”
“No, not anymore. I mean I was just giving ‘em out to these creatures. Actually, it was when I finally stopped feeding them chickens that the things started showing up dead.”
Supposedly, this wasn’t the end of it, though. Just the week before, her neighbor had seen one of the beasts running in her pasture again. When she tells me this, she shakes her head, not so much out of fear-after all, Phylis Canion is a tough cookie-but out of a kind of exhaustion. There’s more of these things? Why do they have to be running through my pasture? And just how goshdarn long will this whole thing go on?
Towards the end of our conversation, I ask her about this, point blank: “I’m sure you’re getting a little sick and tired of the whole chupacabra thing. Is there a part of you that wishes it had never happened?”
“Oh, no, no” she said, and as if catching herself, she let go of her tiredness, and her voice immediately regained a sense of wonder and reverence. “It’s been fun and interesting and you know, I’ve talked to hundreds of people from all over the states, and the whole thing’s been phenomenal, it really has. I just had no idea that people had so much interest in chupacabras.” Sure, it’s been a lot to handle — after all, being the PR person for a mythical beast was never something she really wanted — even the t-shirts, which she sold for five dollars each, were never the point: in fact, her t-shirt shop’s just a thing on the side. Her real job is as a nutritionist and doctor of naturopathic medicine — later this afternoon she will be heading over to the clinic, where she will be working with diabetics and patients of cancer and heart disease.
But for some reason, she’s made time for the whole chupacabra thing, too. It’s like she almost innately respects the magic of it, of what it’s done: how it’s opened up people’s worlds, made life larger and more mysterious, infused the universe with a sense of endless possibility. It’s bigger than her, she seems to know, more important than her, and she’s been willing to sacrifice herself and her time and sanity to get the story out there. “People have been enjoying reading about something different than politicians and the war in Iraq,” she says, simply.
Later that afternoon I drove out into the ranchland on the outskirts of town and parked on the side of the road and looked out over the land as the sun dipped and the shadows grew longer and night began to fall. I could see cows out there, the shapes of them moving against the fading light, and could hear their occasional lowing, but I saw nothing that could be mistaken for a chupacabra. On the sweet, warm wind, there was no hint of sulfur, nor the hollering of women, and when night fell completely, I saw no red eyes glowing in the dark. I got back in my car and drove back to my hotel, and in the morning, I dropped by the store and said goodbye to Phylis and her husband Steve, and drove west from there, into Southwest Texas, Big Bend country, where mountain lions and Mexican bear roam and silver mines are swallowed up by the mountains, in search of further myths.
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