By Keridwen Cornelius / Photo by Bruce D. Taubert

Javelinas are difficult to love. If the javelina were human, it would be the scraggly haired boor with B.O. who pilfers your lunch from the office refrigerator and then chews it with his mouth open. But like the scraggly haired boor, the javelina is often misunderstood.

The first mystery about javelinas is this: What are they? They are collared peccaries — the only wild pig-like critters native to the United States. They're not pigs, though, and they're not wild boars, which are Eurasian, originally brought to this country by explorer Hernando de Soto. The species is quite distinct, and you'd easily be able to pick a javelina out in a lineup. The wild boar has long legs and a long, horsey snout; the javelina has a spade-shaped profile and squat legs.

Collared peccaries sport a band of white hair around their necks — hence the name. But it's their javelin-like tusks that gave them the nickname javelina. In fact, they have the largest and sharpest teeth of any noncarnivore.

Masters of survival, javelinas range from Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to Argentina, adapting to environments that include rain forests and deserts. They rove in herds of six to 12, foraging for flowers, fruits, nuts, bulbs and succulents. Their favorite food — the prickly pear cactus — provides enough moisture that javelinas rarely need water.

Despite their stumpy legs, javelinas are excellent runners, having been clocked at more than 20 mph. They also have keen senses of hearing and smell — except, perhaps, when it comes to sniffing themselves.

Which brings us back to their reputation. Javelinas are considered neighborhood hooligans. They're so clever and adapted to suburban life that they've figured out how to break into backyards: They dig under gates and push up with their snouts, releasing the latch. They then knock over and eat your garbage, make a buffet of your garden, and lounge, sated and stinky, on your lawn. If confronted, they might bark, charge and bite.

But their delinquency is exaggerated. What's interpreted as charging is often just the extremely nearsighted critters trying to get a better look at you. They rarely bite unless cornered or hand-fed, both of which are unwise.

Plus, they benefit the environment, spreading the seeds of the cactuses they eat and possibly digging out water sources from which other wildlife can drink. And while that doesn't exactly qualify as charming, it's hardly boorish.