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Features: Fortean Bureau of Investigation

 

Texas Blue Dogs

Jon Downes travels to the Lone Star State to solve a canine cryptozoological mystery

FT280

My search for the blue dogs of Texas began in November 2004, when I visited a farm in Elmendorf, just south of San Antonio, where local rancher Devin McAnally had shot a hairless, blue-skinned canid in July that year (see FT199:48–49) (1). He took photographs of it to a local convenience store where one of the customers said that it looked just like “the chupacabra that her grandmother had told her about when she was a girl”.

 

Thus was born the legend of the Texas chupacabra. I took one look at the bones of the unfortunate creature and was convinced that it was nothing of the sort. Meanwhile, the Elmendorf beast was discussed widely across the Internet and dismissed as a coyote with mange. Well, I was pretty sure that this couldn’t possibly be the answer either, and over the next six years I studied the matter from afar and hoped that I would eventually get back to Texas to investigate in person.

 

In the spring of 2009 – thanks to the generosity of Richie and Naomi West – Corinna and I returned to Texas and became involved in the hunt for the blue dogs, as what started as a holiday became a full-scale investigation. Richie and Naomi had already visited Blanco, Texas, where another specimen was languishing in the deep freeze belonging to a local student taxidermist. He took a number of tissue samples, which were sent off for DNA analysis. The results have since come back from the Davis Labs, California: it was a coyote cross; although what it was crossed with proved impossible to isolate.

 

Our first port of call was a small town some miles north of Houston where a lady I shall call ‘Denise’ lived in a suburban house with her young son and elderly mother. The house backed on to an area of wilderness owned by the local electricity company. Some 40 miles (65km) long and a mile (1.6km) across, this strip of wilderness contained a rich and diverse population of animal life. Richie and Naomi had set up security cameras which picked up foxes, raccoons, deer, possums – and on one occasion a very peculiar-looking canid.

 

Denise had been watching these strange dog-like creatures – almost completely hairless in the summer and with a thin coat of down in the winter – for about six months, and had filmed and photo-graphed them. One of the problems with the Elmendorf creature being a coyote was that if the animal had been so riddled with sarcoptic mange that it was completely hairless, it would have been hardly able to walk, let alone kill chickens, eat mulberries and wag its tail. Denise’s creatures were apparently able to procreate and appeared to breed true. The video footage we have of them shows them walking with a peculiar hump-backed gait, eating food off the forest floor and appearing perfectly healthy. Eyewitnesses even reported them cocking their legs and scenting trees like normal dogs.

 

But what were they? They had only moved into the area within the past six months and – according to Denise – the population of rabbits, opossums and other small creatures had diminished rapidly, while a local semi-tame coyote appeared to be very scared of these new arrivals. The family’s own dogs, however, seemed eager to make friends and I have footage which appears to show them and a naked blue/grey dog sniffing at each through a chain link fence.

 

Our journey then took us west to Fayetteville where, at the Hayek family ranch, we met Harvey and his son Deric. For some years, they had been seeing strange beasts living in several locations on their ranch. Once they had even found roadkill, which had been sent to the local university, which was unable to identify it. Once again, the description was of blue/grey, hairless, dog-like creatures larger than the largest coyote, with long muzzles and hunched backs. The Hayeks took us to a remote part of their ranch where, in the sandy walls of a desolate gulch, there was a series of large holes that led deep into the sandy cliff-face. These were, or at least had been, the lair of a family of these creatures, they explained. They had seen them on a number of occasions, including a large specimen, which went into a hole and came out again facing the other way; which implies that inside was an area big enough for it to have turned around.

 

The Hayeks had once been the proud owners of a large and fruitful orchard of pecan trees. In recent years, though, they had seen their legacy being slowly but surely destroyed as trees withered and died and even apparently healthy trees produced few or no nuts. They blamed this upon SO2 from a local coal-fuelled power station. Could it be, they wondered, that these silent but deadly emissions had somehow caused an unknown mutation in one of the canids living in the area and produced these strange bald blue/grey dogs?

 

We had no answers, and headed on to Cuero to meet Dr Phyllis Canion.

 

Dr Canion, who has lived in Africa and has been a hunter all her life, was obviously the lady of the manor. we met her at a genteel little country club which she traversed like a ship in full sail (I dubbed her ‘the Grand Canion’ in my own personal rolladex). She had appeared on a National Geographic documentary about the Texas blue dogs. In 2007, she had come across no less than four specimens – all male, all identical, and all road kills. Through misadventures, two of them had fallen by the wayside, but she had preserved the remaining two carcasses.

 

The National Geographic documentary had likened the Cuero blue dogs to the late, lamented thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) and had even described – alongside a single pair of nipples – “pouches” on their back legs. We had interpreted this as suggesting that the mysterious blue dogs were marsupials. Over an excellent dinner, I tried to draw out Dr Canion on the subject, but no matter how many conversational gambits I tried, she seemed determined to ignore the topic of the Texas blue dogs, and instead talked (eloquently and entertainingly) of everything and anything else. Despite eating the best meal I’d ever been presented with in the New World, my frustration was mounting.

 

When we finally arrived at Dr Canion’s ranch, all was revealed. For there, in her fireplace, was a stuffed and mounted Texas blue dog. She burst out laughing. “I wanted y’all to see this for yourselves, and to see your faces,” she said.

 

But was it a marsupial? Could it be, as some Internet pundits had suggested, a peculiar example of convergent evolution? A New World thylacine analogue that had evolved from the carnivorous opossums of North and South America?

 

No, of course not.

 

The first thing I did was to have a look at the much-vaunted pouches. Now I’d assumed these to be those marsupial trademarks – protective membranes under which the semi-developed ur-fœtus (which is ejected unceremoniously from its mother’s birth canal long before it is able to face the rigours of the outside world) can fully develop. But, they were nothing of the sort. When Dr Canion and others referred to “pouches”, they were referring to things that looked like bulging packets of meat, roughly the shape and size of a large scone, positioned on the haunches of the animal, roughly where its buttocks would be, if it had buttocks (which it doesn’t). My immediate thought was that these were anal glands. However, Dr Canion insisted that they were flesh, and not glands of any sort.

 

It was a remarkable creature, and apart from the “pouches”, it had four other notable features.

 

1. It was almost completely hairless, and while there were hair follicles on the skin they were few and far between. Dr Canion insisted – and I see no reason to disbelieve her – that she investigated the hair follicles of the recently dead creature and found them to be perfectly healthy.

2. Like Hitler, and my dog Biggles, the specimen was apparently mon-orchid.

3. The eyes were a remarkable pale blue. I would have taken exception to this, and assumed that it was the result of incompetent taxidermy, but Dr Canion showed me a photograph which proved that this was exactly the same as the eye colour in the recently dead animal.

4. It was mounted in a peculiar hunch-backed position. I queried this with Dr Canion, and she confirmed to me that when she has seen the specimens of these animals alive, they have stood in this very manner.

 

We recorded several hours’ worth of interviews with Dr Canion, and that night as we drove back to our hotel we asked ourselves the obvious question: What the bloody hell were these blue dogs?

 

It is certain (and – unusually for a cryptozoological case – I can say certain) that not all of the blue dogs were of the same species. Genetic material from the Elmendorf creature was tested at two laboratories: one in New York and one in Copenhagen. Both tests proved conclusively that this animal was a domestic dog (Canis lupus familiaris). However, five different tests on the Cuero creature all identified it as a cross between a coyote (C.latrans) and a Mexican wolf (C.lupus baileyi).

 

And herein lies the problem.

 

Although the Mexican wolf was once found in Texas, its range never included Cuero or the other areas we had been investigating. But although C.lupus baileyi was never – as far as we know – found in this part of the Lone Star State, the Texas grey wolf (with the monumentally fortean Latin name of C.lupus monstrabilis) was once known across this part of the state. However, according to accepted wisdom, the last Texas grey wolf was shot in 1942. Another sub-species, the buffalo wolf (C.lupus mubilis) once followed the bison herds across the state’s plains, including central and southern Texas, although the last of these was shot in 1926. And this is where it gets complicated.

 

A few years ago, wolf taxonomy was revised and 12 of the original sub-species which occurred in the western United States and central Canada were re-classified as C.lupus mubilis: so, according to some taxonomists, the buffalo wolf still exists, although every-one agrees that it no longer exists in Texas.

 

The status of the Mexican wolf is also on shaky ground. The last two Texan specimens were both shot in 1970, and in a rare display of co-operation between the American and Mexican governments, the last five wild Mexican wolves were captured in 1980 and used to start a breeding project. Several hundred have been bred in captivity, although from an extremely limited gene pool, and 100 were liberated in southern Arizona. However, by the time we were in southern Texas only 42 were left – and they were over 1,000 miles (1,600km) from Cuero. It seems highly unlikely that a wandering male from this population could have sired the Cuero creatures.

 

There are suggestions that a relic population of baileyi still exists in the Sierra Madre, and during our sojourn in Texas we discovered a surprisingly large number of anecdotal accounts of wild wolves in several locations around the state. At the very least, this would suggest that either a small pocket of baileyi still exists in the wild, or that monstrabilis in fact managed to evade extinction. Even if these animals turn out to be surviving nubilis, the existence of living genetic material from the buffalo wolf could well cause the taxonomic revisions of a few years ago to be looked at again.

 

But it gets even more confusing. Because – depending on whom you believe – there is a second species of wolf in Texas. The red wolf (C.rufus) was supposed to be extinct in the wild, but our friend and colleague Chester Moore Jnr rediscovered them in the late 1990s by using camera traps set in his native Orange County. But is the red wolf a separate species? Well, once again, it depends…

 

It was Naomi who first noticed that several of the photographs of dead blue dogs from across southern Texas collected by our friend and colleague Ken Gerhard show the creatures exhibiting the “pouches” that are such a singular feature of the mounted Cuero specimen. Indeed, when you look hard enough, even some of the animals filmed and photographed by Denise show these peculiar characteristics on their nether regions. However, others do not. All the animals that have the “pouches” appear to be male. Could this be an example of sexual dimorphism? Or are the animals without “pouches” something else entirely?

 

The 2004 Elmendorf beast had no “pouches”. But it was a female. The DNA tests revealed it as a domestic dog, and without access to a complex reference library of genetic material it is very difficult and expensive to go any further in investigating what domesticated type could have been the progenitor of this unfortunate creature. It appears that at the time of Columbus there were a large number of native American hairless dog breeds, a small number of which have survived to the present day. Is it possible that one of the supposedly extinct breeds has resurfaced due to its genetic legacy surviving unsuspected in the feral dog population of the Elmendorf region? Yes, quite possibly.

 

Ken Gerhard and Naomi West, both together and separately, have done a remarkable job in collecting several dozen photographs of blue dogs, mostly dead. I agree with Ken that a large proportion of these (as well as several of the so-called Texas chupacabra videos on the Internet) are of nothing more than very ill and mangy dogs or coyotes. However, as you have seen, a small proportion – including those secured by Dr Canion and those filmed on Denise’s property – are, I believe, something of more importance.

 

From the available evidence, they show – at the very least – that wolves are not entirely extinct in Texas, and we hypothesise that the discovery of these wolves may have enormous implications for the survival of the rarest sub-species. The Elmendorf creature is something else entirely. Whether or not it is a surviving member of the pre-Columbian domestic races of dog we may never know.

 

We are still awaiting the results of the DNA tests on the genetic material taken from the ‘Blanco beast’ but would make an educated guess that it will prove to be the same as Dr Canion’s specimen, and that the morphological peculiarities of both beasts are similar enough to suggest that the differences are purely sexually dimorphic. We are awaiting these results, and any to come from the Fayetteville creatures now or at any time in the future, with interest. Here we should probably make brief mention of the creature filmed by a police car in DeWitt County, a figurative stone’s throw from Cuero. This did not appear to have the buttock “pouches”, but had a peculiarly elongated muzzle and appeared to have the hunched back of the Cuero and Blanco beasts (as did Denise’s animals). We would hazard a guess that the DeWitt creature was probably a female, as it was far too energetic and exuberant to be merely a diseased mutt or coyote.

 

Notes. 1. See also Jon Downes: The Island of Pradise, CFZ, 2007.

 

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Blue dog

The blue dog stuffed and mounted in Dr Phyllis Canion's fireplace

Photo: Jonathan Downes

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Author Biography
JONATHAN DOWNES is director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology and a frequent FT contributor. He lives in Devon with his wife and an ever-shifting population of reptiles.

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