Wanted: Dead or Alive

Possum on the half-shell.  That’s the way we’ve always described them (even though they’re not related to the opossum at all).  Armadillos; those curious armored creatures who wander the landscape in search of food, mostly grubs and other insects.  For some reason just the mention of their species tends to evoke laughter from listeners in the conversation.  In the United States, these creatures are most prolific in the central southern states, primarily Texas.  The area of Texas where I spent my formative years hadn’t yet seen the influx of these odd critters then, but they’ve migrated both north and south, having no natural enemies (except the automobile) and being fairly prolific in reproducing.

One of the jokes in my family has always been my Dad’s assertion that there is no such thing as a live armadillo.  Indeed, you’d be hard put to find many folks who see these animals wandering around in the wild, since they’re almost exclusively nocturnal and extremely shy.  Most people see the results of that nighttime activity around busy highways in the way of carcasses littering the roadsides.  It seems that in addition to being socially backward, these curious animals are also easily surprised and jump three to four feet straight up into the air when startled.  It’s normally a useful reaction, frightening off predators who probably think they’re being leapt upon from above.  Unfortunately, this jumping instinct is deadly when triggered by a car approaching at high speed.  Ordinarily a vehicle would probably pass over the compact body of the animal on the road, but when they jump, they are either hit with the bumper or, escaping the head-on impact, they hit the undercarriage of the car, resulting in the carnage by the side of the road which is so frequently visible during the daytime.

I still remember the day when my children were very young and we made the trek to the local zoo in Brownsville, Texas with my parents.  We went through the building which housed the wildlife of the Southwest, visiting live rattlesnakes and scorpions, coyotes, black widow spiders, and insect life of all types.  It wasn’t until we egressed into the lobby that we saw the armadillos…stuffed and mounted…proving once and for all to my Dad that there was no such thing as a live armadillo.  After all, if you couldn’t find a live one at the zoo, of all places, there was not one to be found anywhere.

I have had an encounter or two with these critters in the wild, so I’m now convinced otherwise.  Both times happened while I was out jogging late at night (the best time of the day for most activities).  On the first occasion, I had the good (bad?) fortune to observe the jumping reaction from one I surprised as I rounded a corner on the trail.  I’m fairly sure that my heart stopped completely as this ferocious beast leapt in the air about to attack me.  I learned soon enough that he was headed in the other direction as fast as he could waddle, but it took a few minutes for the shaking to cease and for me to be able to continue with my exercise.  A few months later I came upon one in a less surprising manner and was interested to see a different technique in defense.  As I approached, I noticed him by the side of the trail, hunkered down near the ground with his nose facing me.  As I moved past him, he shuffled his feet enough to keep his nose facing me the whole time.  It was a bit like watching the second hand on a clock.  He never moved from his spot, but swung his whole body around in an arc as I passed.  I couldn’t resist going off the trail to walk around him, prompting him to continue turning in a circle.  Face to face the whole time, it was almost like we communicated with each other.  He kept me in his sight continuously and never gave a sign of aggression nor of retreat.  I was just curious, and he seemed to know it.  Finally, amused and enlightened a little with regard to the creature’s reaction to danger, I continued down the trail, to look back and see the little guy lumbering across it to the safety of the trees nearby.

While I’ll be the first to agree that these are ugly creatures and I’m certainly not interested in having one for a pet, I can identify with the response they have to threats.  Which one of us, surprised by a personal attack hasn’t responded instantly with a show of bravado and a threat of our own.  Knowing that we can’t survive a face to face battle, we depend on scaring our adversary so much that they can’t continue the attack.  The only problem with this particular technique is that once in awhile our reaction has disastrous results.  The enemy isn’t really an enemy at all; we just perceive them to be attacking.  If we’ll stay quietly in our place, the danger will pass and life will go on peacefully.  By reacting, we exacerbate the situation, usually to our great detriment.  A friend today reminded me that we can’t fight every battle that presents itself;  sometimes we have to decide which hillside is worth “dying on”, passing up those not worthy of our efforts.

I’d much rather emulate the second reaction I observed; the cool, calm assessment of the threat, always keeping my eyes open and focused, rationally deciding whether to run, attack, or stand pat.  For some reason, the aggressive, swaggering, faux-attack is too often my instantaneous choice, when the reasoned, quiet wait-and-see response would clearly serve much better.

Maybe old age will bring that wisdom, but it needs to happen soon, before I am taken out by a passing car.

“There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos.”
(Jim Hightower~ American syndicated columnist)

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