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tracking the chupacabra

25 july 2011

You may wonder why you should spend money or time on a book called Tracking the Chupacabra when it's pretty clear that there aren't any chupacabras to track. Well for starters, it's better to get Tracking the Chupacabra than some book that wastes your time and money claiming that there are chupacabras to track. And better yet, though the debunking in Benjamin Radford's new book is a gimme as cryptozoological conundrums go, the surrounding exploration of why people believe, and want to believe, in shadowy goatsucking monsters is well worth the wear and tear on your library card – or the $24.95 if you're a collector.

Chupacabras ought by rights to be as old as Dracula, but they date only from 1995, when a woman named Madelyne Tolentino reported seeing one in Puerto Rico. "One of the most remarkable aspects of the chupacabra is the notoriety it gained during the past fifteen years despite a lack of good evidence," says Radford (170). Tolentino described a bipedal, alien-looking creature that resembled movie monsters – Radford suspects because she'd recently seen a movie, Species, that featured a similar monster.

Cryptoid animals, like their real counterparts, fill ecological niches; their ecology simply happens to be imaginary. For Puerto Ricans of the mid-1990s, Radford suggests, the niche was that of bloodsucking foreigner who preys on decent hardworking folks' means of existence. It's not too hard to see why that creature filled an ideological need on the oppressed island. Radford connects the chupacabra to other cryptoids, like the Andean likichiri. With Fight Club-like predilection, the likichiri preys on the fat of humans – for food, or soap, or sinister experiments run by norteamericanos, or whatever, is unclear. But like the chupacabra, the likichiri fills a niche in the imagination of people who need to exteriorize and localize a feeling that the sweat of their brows is being drained into foreign coffers. This sweat becomes figured as the fat of their loins, or the blood of their domestic animals.

The most fertile habitat for the chupacabra is not Puerto Rico, however, but Texas – in fact, chupacabra sightings, and finds of chupacabra remains, positively bracket the home where I sit typing this review. Ought I to be concerned? Radford doesn't think so. The common or garden Texas chupacabra has been found, in all instances, to be a dog or a coyote. It's a damn weird looking dog or coyote, I will grant you. It's usually hairless (because suffering from mange), its teeth are in bad shape, it's dehydrated, it's dead, and it's gruesome.

The most famous chupacabra finder, Phylis Canion, insists that whatever her chupacabras are, they're not regular coyotes; the most she'll allow is that they're some kind of coyote/wolf hybrid. She knows this because she's a rancher; she also knows it because she's a Texan, and by birth shares the quality that I have only acquired since getting here: we just know everything about everything, because we're here and so there. Mike Bowdenchuck, director of Texas Wildlife Services, explains how coyote predation can come to resemble the attack of a large vampiric beast:

An animal with mange is not going to eat every chicken it grabs. It's going to get into a flock of chickens and crunch one and let it go, and crunch another one, and so on. . . . It's all part of a very logical progression, if you understand what makes one of these things. But by God, you can't convince the people in Texas any different! (160)

Radford, Benjamin. Tracking the Chupacabra: The vampire beast in fact, fiction, and folklore. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.