Armadillo Whispers

If it weren’t for the Alamo, bluebonnets, longhorn steers, and Willie Nelson, I’ve no doubt the lowly, nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus)  would trundle to the top of the list of Texas icons.

It’s a strange one, this tank-like creature. Named for nine parallel scutes neatly tucked between somewhat larger hip and shoulder scutes, it’s the only armadillo species in North America. Whatever outsiders think of the creature, it’s been granted status as the official small mammal of Texas, and everyone from dry cleaning establishments to bars seems eager to cash in on its popularity.

Austin’s beloved and just slightly weird Armadillo World Headquarters may be gone, but Gary P. Nunn still brings a tear to the eye of displaced Texans everywhere with his plaintive longing to be “Home with the Armadillo,” and more school districts than you might imagine have adopted the animal as a mascot.

Still, drivers on Texas highways sometimes suspect the only armadillos left in the state are dead ones. Most armadillo sightings involve unfortunate creatures who’ve met calamitous ends. You see them everywhere — tipped onto their backs with feet splayed heavenward, tumbled into ditches, or smeared across the concrete.

One reason they’re so often killed along highways is their strange ‘startle reflex.’ They’ll sometimes turn and run when they sense danger, but just as often they’ll use their powerful muscles to launch themselves straight up into the air.

Animal predators find the unexpected behavior so surprising they stop in their tracks, giving the armadillo a chance to scuttle off to safety. Unfortunately, jumping into the air in front of an F-150 isn’t so effective, and another armadillo bites the dust.

They’re better at crossing rivers. Burrowers by nature, they’ve developed an ability to hold their breath for minutes at a time while face-deep in dirt. Confronted by a stream, an armadillo simply takes a deep breath and walks across the bottom. If a river’s too wide for the creature to ford by walking, it fills its intestines with air and starts swimming, having become its own personal flotation device.

Away from the highways, finding a live armadillo is easier than you’d think. Their preference for a diet of ants, beetles, grubs, and spiders means they gravitate toward gardens and lawns, and they’re fond of roaming wooded areas filled with moisture and decay.

Armadillo stalking can be great fun. Their hearing and sense of smell are highly developed, but their eyesight is poor. If you happen upon one browsing for dinner and remain very, very quiet, you can walk up to it from behind, reach down, and grab it at the base of its tail.

What’s next is up to you. Catch-and-release is the best option, although some people have taken it home for dinner. During the Great Depression, East Texans frequently ate the creatures, calling them ‘Hoover hogs’ — a reference to the President they blamed for the Depression and a nod to the armadillo’s pork-like flavor.

Over the years, armadillo chili gained favor. At Apelt’s Armadillo farm in Comfort, Texas, you could have armadillo barbeque, sold from this little stone building at the side of the road.

 

Charles Apelt, a German immigrant who came to this country in the late 1800s, didn’t begin by cooking armadillo. Instead, his background in wicker furniture-making and basketry, combined with an unexpected new-world experience, launched a unique and remarkable Texas business.

One day, while walking about his farm, a strange little animal sprang up and began to hop away. Mr. Apelt picked up a stone and with excellent aim hit the animal’s head. Otherwise, the plated armor would have turned the missile aside, like the armor on a battleship.
When he gathered up his game he surveyed it with wonder. When he went out to tack that hide to the barn in some sort of fashion, the hot sun had dried it until it began to curl up. He picked it up and instinctively he said, “Basket.” Then he fastened the end of the tail to the head and made a handle… As it dried he shaped it with his hand, and lo, the first armadillo shell basket that the world ever knew became a reality.
Charles Apelt on the steps of his showroom at the Armadillo Farm

After perfecting a way to preserve the hides, Apelt opened his factory in 1898 and sold 40,000 baskets in the first six years. Plain baskets cost $2.50, while fancier versions sold for $4 and up.

Human creativity being what it is, the Apelts soon began innovating. Customers could purchase fringed or unfringed floor lamps, table lamps, bed lamps and wall fixtures – all made from armadillo shells. As production peaked in the 1920s, fifty hunters were employed to supply the critters, and at least a cook or two was hired to turn all that meat into barbeque.

As demand for their novelty grew, the Apelts supplemented the supply of armadillos provided by hunters by actually “farming” the creatures in an elaborate series of concrete burrows and tunnels built into their front yard. Not all became baskets — many were sold to zoos, medical research facilities and private individuals seeking an unusual pet.

The family owned the business for seven decades. After Charles’s death, his second wife Martha took it over until her death. Daughter Ruth Dowdy assumed control in 1947 and moved the operation to Salado, Texas, but it returned to Comfort in 1951.

At that point, Apelt’s daughter-in law Kathryn took over, continuing the traditions of the farm and producing the same baskets and shades that had made it famous, shipping them to shops and individual customers world-wide.

This vintage advertising card shows a display of Apelt products on one side, and a snippet of explanatory text on the other:

Published by Chas. Apelt, Wholesale and Retail dealer in Original Armadillo Baskets, Colored Souvenir Postals, Comfort, Texas.
Its shell or armor is fashioned into pretty and novel baskets, suitable for cut flowers and hanging baskets. The shells are also lined on the inside with bright colored silk, making very beautiful work baskets for the use of the ladies.

Sybil Sutherland of Kerrville remembers her aunt, Vida Lowrance, working for the Apelts.

She would line the armadillo baskets with bright colored satin, the kind of colors you don’t usually see anywhere else. Lots of kids around here would go out and catch armadillos and sell them for a quarter apiece to the farm, and put them in tow sacks. They caught them by the thousands! I went out with them sometimes, too, with a boy named Paul Harbin. Even though he used a crutch, he was usually ahead of us all.”

Clyde Beaver remembers being one of the kids who hunted them, and the need for finesse.

You had to be careful not to pull them too hard by the tail, or you’d yank it off,” he said. “If they got down into a hole, you’d have to just pull on them gently, and get them out little by little.

Just as an aside, it’s worth noting that, had the Apelt Family started their business in the Pleistocene era, they might have been able to expand their offerings even farther.

The Gylptodon, one of the biggest ancient armadillos and an ancestor of our Texas cutie, originated in South America before moving northward, perhaps as far as Texas. Like the nine-banded armadillo, it was well-armored, with a dome-shaped body, a helmet-like head, and bony rings around its tail.

Glyptodons survived well into early historical times, going extinct about 10,000 years ago, Huge and slow-moving, they probably were hunted to extinction by early humans, who no doubt favored them not only for food but also for shelter. Evidence exists that early South American natives sheltered from snow and rain under Glyptodon shells — shells roughly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Today, cottage industries based on nine-banded armadillos have become extinct as the Glyptodon, and the Apelts’ Armadillo Farm is due for more changes. Several owners have held the property since the business closed in 1971, but thanks to antique dealer Harriet Gorman of Comfort, Texas, and her late husband Bill, the house and its outbuildings were brought back to life.

The old Armadillo Display Room (where Charles Apelt is shown sitting, above) became a three-room cottage: serving as a home for Harriet during two years of the restoration process.

The newest addition to the property, a Texas State Historical Marker, was sponsored by Walter Apelt, Charles’ grandson. Conveniently placed for inspection by the antiquers and vacationers who frequent the area, it provides a brief introduction to the complex and interesting story.

Tonight, the glyptodons are gone. The hunters with their dogs have disappeared into the darkness; the basket-shapers and lamp-makers, seamstresses and cooks have faded into the hills.

With the restoration of the house completed, passers-by who notice the sign  stop for photographs, and ponder what they cannot understand. In the little stone house by the road, barbeque has been replaced by memories of Hill Country life — the pungent, smoky taste of meat exchanged for the taste of another time.

Amid these implacable changes, the armadillo still roams. Burrowing in peace along the moonlit banks of the Guadalupe, foraging amidst the sweet, bending grasses, rooting up bits of history embedded into the banks of its ancestors’ creeks, it murmurs to itself as it passes.

Perhaps it remembers. Perhaps not. Disappearing into the damp, moonlight-soaked earth, it leaves behind only the faintest tracing of life along the trails of the night — the whisper of the armadillo.

Comments are welcome.
For  my encounter with an actual armadillo,  seeThere’s No Place Like Homeon Lagniappe.

118 thoughts on “Armadillo Whispers

  1. After reading this I feel sorry for the armadillo. To be made into a basket! Oh that is just icky and sad. Being Hoover’s Hog I understand, people must eat, but to be a decorative item seems a bit too capitalistic for me. I hope they current ones have forgotten, poor dears.

    1. Being made into a basket isn’t nearly so icky as being smashed by a vehicle and left by the side of the road. Granted, both bring the end of the armadillo, but still…

      I happen to enjoy examples of creative entrepreneurship, and I rather enjoy the old baskets, too. I have a friend who has one of the sewing baskets — with an emerald silk liner — that she refuses to give to me, but if I ever find one, I’ll use it to keep some of my treasures from nature.

  2. Dear Linda,
    thank you very much for your great post about the history around the armadillo. We have to admit we hardly knew anything about these animals and we have never seen one alive. That’s a perfect kind of blogpost, a lot of info, nicely written and we like your pictures as well. Thank you very much for sharing.
    Keep well and happy
    The Fab Four of Cley
    🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Klausbernd. Like crocodiles and alligators, armadillos are reminders of a time quite different from our own, and so interesting. I’d never seen one except in cartoons until I moved to Texas. Now, I see them fairly regularly when I’m in the hill country, and occasionally here along the coast.

      Here’s a little story that may amuse you. The first time I spent a night in a cabin in the hill country, I woke about 3 a.m. to the sound of what I feared was a prowler outside. It certainly wasn’t a deer; it was quite loud, and no self-respecting deer would have made that much noise! Of course it was an armadillo, seeking insects and grubs beneath the fallen autumn leaves. Once I learned the sound, it was no more bothersome than the sound of crickets or frogs.

      1. Isn’t it quite ironical that a mountain in Antarctica is called Armadillo Hill (68°7′S 66°22′W) on the Antarctic peninsular.
        These amardillos are inconceivable old. But up to 35 mio years ago Antarctica had a tropical climate – maybe the glyptodonts were running around there then.
        We find it always spooky hearing an unknown sound at night.
        Wishing you a wonderful weekend
        The Fab Four of Cley
        :-) :-) :-) :-)

        1. Somehow, I missed learning about Antarctica in the Middle Cretaceous period — look at the painting on this page! That certainly is an environment that would be agreeable to a Glyptodon. I learned why it’s called ‘Armadillo Hill,’ too. Seen from the side, it looks like an armadillo seen in profile: a perfectly reasonable explanation.

  3. I have seen this critter, and was quite enamoured of it, trundling around, being an armadillo. I never had any inkling to put barbecue sauce on it and have it for lunch!

    1. Given a choice between a good brisket and armadillo, I’m going with the brisket every time. Still, if the choices were more limited than they are today, I can at least understand giving it a try. I know plenty of people who’ve eaten alligator and rattlesnake, but I think armadillo is off the menu for most people.

      Now, armadillo eggs? That’s a different matter. Of course armadillos don’t lay eggs; the name’s just a colorful moniker for a tasty appetizer common at Texas barbeques and tailgates.

  4. Our Florida armadillos are about gone as I can tell. When I moved here 50 years ago, there were plenty. Humans, one way or another, destroy animal habitat.

    1. I suspect concrete’s one reason. They don’t do well in areas with hard soil — they can’t dig in it — and concrete’s harder than any soil. If you’re in an urban area, that could be the explanation. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission says they are naturalized in your state now, and usually are found in forested or semi-open habitats with loose textured soil that allows them to dig easily.

      I grinned at this note from the Florida Commission: “It is lawful for a landowner to live-trap or humanely destroy nuisance armadillos, although they are difficult to capture with live traps. All live-captured nuisance armadillos must be euthanized, released on-site, or released on a property within the same county of capture, that is 40 acres or larger with written permission from the landowner.”

      I suspect that permission is important. I can’t imagine anyone being happy to find armadillos are being let loose on their property!

      1. I wish I could bring them here. My community spotted a fox, the first one many, many years, and the live traps are out already! My condo-commandos are constantly on the prowl! I love my condo villa, but I wish I had the money to move!

        1. If that fox knows what’s good for it, it’ll move on down the road. They’re extraordinary smart and elusive creatures, though. I hope it goes well for him.

    1. They sure are. They don’t chuck wood, but they can dig like crazy. Our possums don’t really do anything harmful, but those armadillos can wreak havoc in a neighborhood.

  5. Such interesting information about the armadillo. I have seen one of these bags many years ago. I had no idea it was a “thing” at one time. I came across an armadillo while birding in TX. Amazing looking creatures. There was one road- killed in Southern IL a few years ago and someone not far from where I live in SW IN saw one and got a picture of it. They are making their way North as the weather changes.

    1. It’s interesting that today’s armadillos are replicating the northward movement of their prehistoric ancestors. They’ve shown up in Iowa, too, but I suspect it’s going to be a while before they make it much farther north, despite warming temperatures.

      One of the odd cultural traditions here is the practice of tucking an empty beer bottle or can into the little feet of unfortunate armadillos alongside the road. Once that started, wine bottle holders, coasters, bar decor, and posters started showing up everywhere. I’ve seen a couple myself, and I confess I laughed. The creatures themselves are so improbable; combine them with a Lone Star beer, and they’re just perfect.

    1. They not only prefer warm weather, they require it. Low body fat makes it hard for them to maintain their body temperature, so they need to eat plenty of insects, larvae, ants, and beetles. Cold temperatures, ice, and snow prevent their foraging; even their sense of smell and long claws are useless for digging in frozen or snow-covered ground.

      They also use the veins and arteries in their legs to circulate heat. Hot blood leaving the body and going into the legs is cooled by cold blood coming back into the body, and vice versa. Their feet are like little heat exchangers, and cold weather means trouble for already cold feet.

  6. I have two distinct memories of armadillo encounters, one good and one not so good. After a late-night road hunting trip while in college, I brought one back to my off-campus house in Commerce where I tried to clean and prepare one for cooking. It was the greasiest, most awful experience of my life (to that point) and I gave up and left it on the front steps of the KD sorority house to gross them out. My anthem became London Homesick Blues after Jerry Jeff Walker released his iconic album “Viva Terlingua” in 1973 and I played the 8-track tape in my 55 Chevy until it died. And yes, they can flat-foot jump to a height of about the third wire on a barbed wire fence when startled.

    1. What I’ve got to know is — did you take your Chevy to the levee? And was it dry?

      I moved to Texas the first time in 1973, and it wasn’t long after that I made it to Luckenbach. A lot has changed since then, but much remains: especially the music, the cameraderie, and the willingness to accept anyone who drifts through. The Texas music scene certainly has evolved, but it’s only improved. You can’t say that about everything. Speaking of the armadillo, do you remember the cover art for Gary P’s best of album? It’s a fun one.

      I suspect those KD girls talked about that armadillo for some time. I would eat it, I suppose, but only if I knew who’d caught and cleaned it. Even then, I’d have to think about it for a while.

  7. Armadillos became a symbol of peace in the 1960’s, and Jefferson Airplane mentions them more than once in lyrics. Armadillos should be treated with caution as they are known to carry Hansen’s disease (leprosy). They got it from us, and are now giving it back. T. Kingfisher’s book “Minor Mage” features a young mage who has a rather snarky one as a familiar.

    1. The only Jefferson Airplane album I ever had was Surrealistic Pillow, and from what I gather, their armadillo references came later. On the other hand, there’s the wonderful cover art from Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen’s “Live from the Armadillo Palace” album.

      I like the thought of an armadillo as a familiar. The cover of Kingfisher’s book is great, and who wouldn’t laugh at the thought of armadillo dander?

      1. “Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen”

        Now you gone and done it. I’ll be foot-stomping around the house all day, singing:

        One drink of wine, two drinks of gin, and
        I’m lost in the ozone again

    1. That’s one of their most amazing characteristics. I read somewhere that they use that breath-holding ability when they’re digging tunnels in the earth, too. I’ve seen them reported as far north as New Jersey, but in the midwest the line seems to be cutting through southern Indiana, Illinois, and now Iowa.

      Oh, my gosh. That link did work, and that photo is — indescribable. Apart from the visual from our perspective, can you imagine how that poor armadillo feels?

    1. Does this mean you don’t want to inherit my collection of dried crawfish shells? There are around thirty-seven species in Texas — I’m working on finding them all. Just think — if I had a nice, clean armadillo shell, I could keep my crawfish in them!

    1. They’d be much better off if they’d stop jumping up in front of trucks. An article about them from Georgia says, “There are no specific threats to their survival, since armadillos have few natural predators. Many are killed while trying to cross roads or highways or when feeding along roadsides.”

      They’re so common that most states don’t prohibit hunting them, but they’re often prohibited as pets because of their tendency to carry disease. I confess to being pretty kindly disposed toward them, and always enjoy seeing one.

    1. You can count on those German immigrants to find a creative way to make a life in a new country! The deer may be cuter, or at least more appealing to many people, but the armadillos are — well, they are what they are. Now that I think of it, that’s rather like Texans. That may be why we love them so much.

    1. What’s most interesting to me about Mr. Apelt’s story is that it was almost wholly accidental. He didn’t come from Germany, get settled, and then say, “I believe I’ll make me some armadillo baskets.” It just happened, and his business took off. Our taste for armadillo baskets and lampshades is over, but those creatures still are helping medical researchers work through the mysteries of leprosy — and the Apelts helped with that, too.

  8. I was hoping this essay would end with the Armadillos now being protect by law from human predators. What an interesting history they have and what an enjoyable read this was!

    1. There’s no need to protect the armadillos, Jean. They’re multiplying, expanding their range, and generally thriving. If we want to help them, we might pour a little less concrete, since they can’t dig in hard soils, and concrete beats hard soil every day.

  9. While I do enjoy folk art, I’m not particularly enamored at the thought of ‘Dillo baskets, I find the live animal more interesting.

    I’ve never seen a live one, though. They’ve expanded their range to SC and I’ve seen quite a few victims of their startle reflex on the roads. One was within several blocks of my house in the ‘Burbs.

    I found some evidence several years back that a young one might have been digging in our yard for a week or two. Hubby swears it was ‘squirrel holes’ but I don’t think so. They reminded me of hog rooting holes. Just much smaller and new ones appeared every morning. As far as I know, squirrels don’t suffer much from insomnia.

    I kept checking after dark but I never spotted the rooter in action.

    Cool animal and cool post!

    1. Well, after all — you have sweetgrass baskets. No need for an armadillo shell for you. They are great fun, and the way they’re moving north from Florida, it might not be that long before there are enough around that you get to see one.

      Your description of the holes certainly accords with their habits, and you’re right that it wouldn’t be squirrels out digging around in the middle of the night. Now that I think about it, the holes do resemble those made by hogs. For all the complaints I hear about the armadillos, it would be far worse to have a pack of feral hogs around. I see evidence of their rooting nearly everywhere I got, and believe me — I don’t want to meet up with those critters. I came across a mother and baby during the day at the San Bernard Refuge, and managed just one photo before I piled back into the car. I sure wouldn’t track a feral hog down a fenceline.

      Add: I knew I had that photo of the mama hog with her baby. Aren’t they cute?

      1. No, I don’t think I’d track a feral hog down a fenceline, either. That’s the kind of thing Willie Bob would do after a few beers, which always leads to disaster. “Hey, guys! Watch this!”

        The wild piglets are cute, aren’t they? From a distance!

        I haven’t seen any wild hogs (or evidence, thereof) in the neighborhood but they’re here, too. I’ve seen reports in the paper of them rampaging through subdivisions within a 15-20 minute drive of our house.

        1. ‘Rampage’ is the word. There are some suburbs north of Houston that really are having troubles with them. The last time I came across fresh digs at a refuge, you almost could have driven a VW Beetle into one. What concerns me is that they’re being sighted during daylight hours more often, and I’ve had them cross the road in front of me a couple of times. At least one didn’t make it recently; I wondered what could have attracted such a flock of vultures, and it didn’t take long to figure out it wasn’t a deer.

    1. There are so many wonderful tales from Texas history, and not all of them come from the earliest days of the republic or state. When I first started visiting the Comfort area, people talked about ‘the armadillo house” as though it were Macy’s or HEB: it was that well, and that widely known. Finally, I decided to find out what it all was about — and what a story!

  10. Thank you for sharing this information about the small state mammal of Texas, Linda. Some of it is fascinating, some shocking. I have to admit that the photo with all the baskets made my stomach turn. It evoked photos of piles of bison hides and skulls. Both represent our careless, care-for-nothing-but-ourselves attitude toward other creatures. It makes me incredibly sad.

    1. To compare bison and armadillos is a false equivalency. The bison nearly disappeared, along with their prairies, and even now require serious attention for herd-building to take place. The armadillos? Not so much. In Texas, they’re probably running a close third behind feral hogs and nutria as pesty critters who have adapted beautifully and are increasing their populations substantially.

      It’s worth noting, too, that the Apelts not only made baskets, and eventually turned from hunting. Their armadillo farming also provided animals for medical research: a role they continue to play today.

      What happened to the bison, as well as to the egrets and herons who were nearly wiped out for their fashionable feathers, isn’t to be admired. I’m not a fan of trophy hunting, either. But I’m not willing to criticize the Apelts for their business, particularly since it didn’t harm the species, and led to some real benefits for humans.

      1. I did not intend to raise your hackles, Linda, but we obviously see this differently. When they killed all these armadillos, they didn’t know that their numbers would recover. The beavers and bison survived human thoughtlessness just in the nick of time, but many other species weren’t so lucky.

        1. My hackles weren’t raised. But history is what it is, and ‘presentism’ — the willingness to judge everything in the past by our modern standards, is causing a good bit of trouble these days. There’s not a thing wrong with looking at someone like Mr. Apelt and saying, “That really wasn’t a good thing to do,” but as I mentioned to someone else, his armadillo business not only began almost accidentally, it also represented some of the best characteristics of our immigrants: creativity, a willingness to adapt to a wholly new world, a willingness to make an honest living.

          Not many people are barbequing armadillo these days, and our sensitivities are changed. But I still love the Apelt story, and have enjoyed knowing people from that community whose lives were bettered by the business.

          1. I’m glad to hear about your hackles, Linda (or maybe I should have said your scutes).
            You are absolutely right about the problems associated with judging the past and the people who lived in it by today’s standard, but I really struggle to deal with many actions humans have taken throughout history, especially since we know how detrimental they were. I keep hoping that we will learn from past mistakes. We have learned a little, but there is much room for improvement.
            May your armadillo whisper on.

  11. Love me some ‘dillos! I’ve never heard of this family and their enterprising armadillo ways. It makes me sad that these inoffensive critters were hunted and made into baskets, of all things. But it’s a fascinating story and with your gentle humor and clear admiration for the might-be (I won’t use the phrase wanna-be) you brought us along.

    1. The Armadillo House and its history actually have been well publicized in publications like Texas Highways and Roadside America. In the Texas State Historical Association entry in their online publication, they say:

      “Armadillos have been promoted as a Texas souvenir since the 1890s. Charles Apelt, inventor of the armadillo-shell basket, first displayed his wares at the New York World’s Fair in 1902. His family operated the Apelt Armadillo Company near Comfort until 1971. In addition to baskets, Apelt’s catalog listed lamps, wall hangings, and other curios fashioned from the armadillo’s shell. His farm was also a principal supplier of live armadillos to zoos, research institutions, and individuals.”

      In truth, they weren’t just making a buck, important as that is. They contributed a good bit to medical research, too. It’s not as attention-grabbing as an armadillo shell lampshade, but it was important.

      One thing is certain: Apelt had no idea what an armadillo was when he first encountered it, but he was creative enough to look at that curled-up creature and see a future!

      1. No question that it took some imagination to see the ‘dillos as baskets! I used to subscribe to Texas Highways and it was always such a well-produced periodical.

    1. You’ve left me wondering whether armadillos or squirrels meet their end on the roads more often. Actually, I suspect the squirrels, although they’re so often unrecognizable by the time the event is over, a lot of people don’t recognize them for what they are. Seeing road-kill squirrels is harder for me than seeing the armadillos, probably because I had one for a pet for eight years. Every time I see a squirrel I think of him.

      1. Have you written about that squirrel? I always wondered what one of those critters would be like as a pet, I know that was very common at one time, Harry Truman had one, but I don’t know anybody know anyone who’s had one, until now!

    1. They sure can jump! It’s amazing, really, and such a shame that a response meant to keep them safe so often leads to their demise. But, as you saw, that jumping ability can be handy in other situations that are far less lethal.

      That Gary P. Nunn song is probably tied with “Luckenbach, Texas” for favorite sing-a-long for homesick, nostalgic Texans — or even for urban Texans who’ve been too long away from the country.

  12. Being hit by cars is so common. We often see the Australia wombat meeting his fate and like the Armadillo, they end up belly up and four legs sticking skywards.

    Of course, products made from animals are a bit confrontational. Seeing photos of lions being shot with the hunter proudly showing his bounty above the fire-place is a terrible sight. On the other hand we love the fiber that animal such as sheep and alpacas provide us. We happily eat animals. We wear leather. Lions used to kill people too.

    In Australia because of a very pernicious fly, sheep have to have the skin taken away from around their anus and their tail cut off (docking) as this fly will bury in his skin multiply and the sheep get fly-blown. The battle to ban docking and crutchings has been going for decades. One answer is to have sheep that will not grow wool around their crutch as the original merino sheep did.

    But that means less wool and less profit.

    I loved the history of this story as migrants successes was mostly through very hard yakka.

    1. You’re right about our ambivalence about animal-based products. On the other hand, no one thinks a thing about leather shoes, or leather seats in their fancy car. I suppose part of it has to do with how far removed a creature is from our world-view. Leather boots or purses are one thing: alligator gives pause. What’s beyond question is that the armadillo has thrived despite the Apelt family’s predation, and people with suburban lawns or gardens still are asking, “Can’t someone to something to get rid of these blasted critters?”

      I’ve heard of ‘docked’ tails, but never knew a thing about the process. Very interesting. As for the willingness to immigrants to engage in hard yakka, that was true across the groups. We could use a few more people willing to follow their lead.

  13. I wonder if armadillos were on the Ark. Based on your story and its tentacles, I can’t imagine an ark without one (oops! I mean two). In all seriousness, thank you for providing more information about an armadillo in one post.

    In Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, a chapter is devoted to the tortoise that is crossing the highway. Steinbeck observes that there are two types of people: ones that swerve to avoid the creature and others that intentionally hit them. There must be a Circle in Hell for the latter.

    1. I suppose the same would apply when it comes to the armadillo, except the person trying to avoid one has to consider the vertical as well as the horizontal. Those three-foot leaps can be hard to predict or avoid. Of course, there’s another difference. Turtles roam during the day, so getting a visual fix is possible. Armadillos tend to be out and about during the night, like feral hogs, deer, possums and raccoons. Sometimes the driver doesn’t have an opportunity to make a choice.

  14. Thanks for the great post on armadillos! I had no idea they had such an interesting history, and it’s hard not to feel sorry for them. I think is was author Rick Bragg who said that it’s the only creature he ever heard of whose main talent seemed to be getting hit by cars…. Poor things!

    1. Clearly, Rick Bragg hasn’t been around many armadillos! They do have other talents — like terrifying inexperienced campers at night when they’re plowing through dried leaves, sounding like something much larger and more dangerous! It is interesting that it’s only humans — and their vehicles — who’ve been able to overcome their defenses on a regular basis. Their cleverness (jumping up to avoid danger) has brought a lot of them down, in the most literal sense.

  15. Your post is a fascinating piece of historical information of an animal who in its time endured human curiosity. This turned into a short-term industry of commercial taxidermy business which also went on in other countries, such as the Caribbean, where they were doing it with crab fish, shell fish, reptiles, even sea horses. I believe much of it is disappearing now due to overfishing and overhunting of many iconic species. This post is precisely about this issue. IMOHO iconic species must be left alone and respected for what they are.

    1. Your point’s well taken, and it’s good that human preferences and practices have changed. On the other hand, armadillos as a species certainly haven’t been harmed because of the temporary fad that Mr. Apelt created and profited from.

      Wild armadillos still are sought for scientific research, partly because of their unusual reproductive system that produces four identical clones with each birth, and what they’ve contributed to our knowledge of leprosy is substantial. In truth, this post isn’t about the issue of overfishing or overhunting — it’s about an interesting history that resulted from human curiosity and ingenuity. I’m not in favor of over-harvesting any species, but practices certainly have changed over the years.

  16. What a great post! Armadillos are such a unique critter. And the only ones I’ve ever seen are the ones upside down along the road (did see one holding a beer can along the road). Never a living one. I bet their babies are cute!
    They haven’t gotten this far north, but have seen some roadkill a few counties south of us. Not looking forward to them up here digging in the yard!
    I too would love to have a basket!

    1. I love that you’ve seen one holding a beer bottle. It’s interesting that they’ve made it to southern Kansas, too. Just in the comments, there are been reports of them in southern Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana. I’ll bet there’s some researcher out there who’s created a map of their travels.

      The babies are cute. I don’t know how soon they begin roaming, or how large they are when they do. I don’t know anyone who’s seen the little ones, but I’d sure like to.

  17. An interesting history of the armadillo, Linda! Skunks here have a problem with being road kill, as they are mostly nocturnal, move slowly, are mostly black except for the stripe and hard to see, and think that by spraying an oncoming car like an oncoming dog, they will be safe.

    1. I don’t see many skunks along the road, but it’s fascinating that they also use their very effective defenses against threats they don’t fully understand. That’s where my sympathy for the armadillo begins, too. They’ve survived so much, for so long, but they haven’t quite figured out how to deal with trucks. I suspect our vehicles have killed more of them at this point than Mr. Apelt’s business — it would be interesting to be able to compare statistics.

  18. Interesting creatures, aren’t they? Kind of proves one doesn’t have to be a beauty to occupy space in our world! Part of me is suddenly feeling sorry for the little ones though!

    1. I wonder if I’m driving too many back roads — I see so many road-killed creatures they’re almost just part of the scenery. I ought to start keeping a log, to see how many of which I see. My hunch is that squirrels would lead the count in the cities, but armadillos and raccoons are the country victims!

      The armadillos may not be the prettiest creatures in the world, but the fact that they’ve survived so much for such a long time certainly speaks well of them. They’re just not suited for contests with our vehicles. The deer and the feral hogs can take out a car or truck pretty easily, but the little critters just don’t hava a chance.

  19. I have always been fascinated by armadillos. They look out of place and time. Unfortunately, I have never seen one alive, but hope to encounter one, one day. If they aren’t all made into baskets or run over…

    1. They certainly are reminders of an earlier time — a very early time! Every time I look at one now, I see a Glyptodon — as much as any animal we have, they’ve maintained real continuity with that prehistoric world. I don’t think you need to worry about our world running out of them — their population is stable, and they’re moving north. They’re in the midwest now — maybe they’ll get up to Portland some day! Even better, maybe you’ll get to visit the home of the armadillos!

  20. They are such strange little creature – as I kid I always considered them dinosaur hanger-on-ers.
    (We used to see the baskets and purses and such in souvenir places – mainly for East Coast visitors.)
    Love all the history.
    Wonderful plaque- glad someone had the thought!

    1. You know, I never even thought to look on eBay or Etsy for one of the baskets. They must be around somewhere, unless all the people who have them are so enamoured of them, they’re passing them on, generation unto generation. Those shells aren’t going anywhere, that’s for sure.

      The closest one I’ve come across was over at the Dudney Nature Center. I was so surprised , but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. That place has to be just full of good things for an armadillo to eat.

      The town of Comfort and the people there are so historically minded. There are a lot of interesting things beyond the Armadillo house there, and as Fredericksburg and Kerrville keep growing, so does Comfort.

      1. Those may be heirlooms.
        The last place I saw one was man-years ago way out West TX or the Panhandle…at the “quaint” local gas station/store – which also had a couple of Jackalope trophies for sale. Kid was totally amazed at the previously unknown animal.
        Oh, for a small town, right now.

        1. Those stores are the best. The closest thing we had locally was the old Y.E.S. — you surely remember Bill, and his parrot. He had everything a sailor could want in that place, and he could put his hand on it without fail. There’s a ramshackle place called Bluestem south of Alt90 between Seguin and Gonzales. It claims to have ‘handmade stuff,’ but I haven’t found it open yet. Any place that advertises ‘stuff’ rather than ‘antiques’ is worth a visit.

  21. Armadillos attract me only as a curiosity; their looks are too prehistoric for me. And the baskets are downright creepy, I’m sorry to say (since you like them!). Fascinating info nonetheless!

    1. I laughed at your remark about the armadillos’ prehistoric appearance. That’s on target, for sure! I always think about dragonflies that way, although I don’t know if the link is so clear in their case. I laughed even more that you think the baskets are creepy — to each her own, as the saying goes. Everyone has something they’re not so fond of — the armadillo baskets don’t bother me at all, but don’t put me in the same room with a millipede!

  22. What I know about armadillos definitely could not fill an armadillo basket, but enjoying a pork barbecue sandwich as I do, I was especially interested in your mention that they have a pork-like taste. It’s refreshing not to hear the ubiquitous “tastes like chicken.” They look more like a reptile than a mammal.

    1. That shell is reptilian, isn’t it? I think it’s the patterning. Under normal circumstances, it provides good protection, too: at least, until it wanders onto the road. I once knew a woman who repaired the shells of turtles that had been hit by cars — fiberglass does wonders, if they don’t have internal injuries. I’ve never head of anyone trying to repair an armadillo shell, though. I guess I’d rather do turtle rehab myself, now that I think about it.

      I’m with you on the barbecue. A good pulled pork can’t be beat.

  23. When we lived in Oklahoma, armadillos frequented our back yard and tried but failed to get into our garbage can. They certainly are strange-looking creatures, but not my favorites. I’ll never forget the day a co-worker brought a baby armadillo he’d found into our office. All of the females were pointing to the door and telling him, “Get that thing out of here!!”

    1. Isn’t it interesting, the things that attract or repel us? I much prefer armadillos to possums; for one thing, armadillos can’t climb into the persimmon trees and steal the fruit. I’ve never heard of one trying to get in a garbage can, but on the other hand, I never would have imagined one jumping a fence, either. If nothing else, they provide some amusement, and they really don’t hurt anything, unless they decide to dig in the garden.

  24. I really enjoyed this read. Well researched and well written. Years ago, I rented an old house. I heard noises coming from under the floorboards. After checking things out (it was night), I found out I had an armadillo living underneath the house. I lived at least a mile away from the highway. I’d never seen one that wasn’t on the highway before then. I haven’t even seen a dead one in years. I live just north of Dallas, so they’re probably in more rural areas. Mona

    1. I was traveling a bit this past weekend, and probably because of this post I was more aware of the number of unfortunate armadillos who’d met their end on the roads. I’ve wondered occasionally why they seem to prowl the roadsides. I suppose it has to do with a search for food, but it might be that they keep their noses so close to the ground they don’t realize that they’ve wandered into an area where danger lurks.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Thanks for stopping by — you’re always welcome here.

  25. What a fascinating and very in-depth post about a creature that I know very little about actually. I was particularly interested in reading about how the armadillo can cross a river either under the water or by floating across. Impressive.

    It does sound though as if they have faced so many challenges to just stay alive, even though one would think that their armour would be enough to protect them. Perhaps there need to be signposts alerting drivers to the fact that armadillos are in the area and drivers should be on the alert, so as not to kill them. We had signs like that in Sri Lanka for the wild peacocks. Then again, there were signs for elephants crossing too.. but those are a hellova lot easier to spot than either armadillos or peacocks!

    Peta

    1. There are a couple of practical reasons for not posting cautionary signs about the armadillos. One is that they’re nocturnal. When they’re crossing a road at midnight, drivers don’t see them until they appear in the headlights, and at that point it’s too late. The other thing is that you’d need to be posting signs everywhere. This morning, during some errand running, I came across three unfortunate armadillos: one along a highway, one on a suburban street, and one in the middle of a lightly traveled gravel road. To be honest, there’s probably no better proof of the armadillos’ ability to thrive than the numbers of them that we see!

      In fact, a little culling of the herd probably is a good thing. If every armadillo survived, we’d be up to our hips in armadillos. The same is true here with white-tailed deer. It’s easy to grow sentimental about them — they are so cute! — but if there was no hunting to make up for a lack of natural predation, there would be a lot of starving deer around. I see it with our mallard ducks, too. Many hens will hatch ten or fifteen babies, but one by one, the gar, the hawks, and other predators pick them off. After a couple of weeks, three or four or even six may remain, but those survive and go on to produce more babies. It’s nature’s way!

  26. I’ve to admit I haven’t seen an armadillos before. Don’t think we have it here. Did you take that first pic? What an informative post, as always.

    1. The top photo’s from some personal meetups with the critter. You can see some other photos of a live one here. I really do like the little critters. They’re interesting and amusing, and both of those qualities appeal these days.
      They don’t do well in places where it gets cold, let alone snow, so they haven’t moved any farther west that the southern parts of the American midwest at this point.

        1. Now we’re even, then. I’ve never seen a porcupine! I know this; if I were to see one, I’d want it to be at a distance. I don’t want anything to do with those spines.

  27. This is another fine piece of writing and I did enjoy it although, and I don’t expect this will surprise you, I am with those who find the baskets a little disturbing. I know it is a false equivalency as you mentioned to Tanja, but that picture of all the baskets immediately made me think of the human skin lampshades from the WWII era. Maybe a little personal history played into that but it is what came to mind. Probably the story of Passenger Pigeons would be a closer parallel although the armadillo numbers were not nearly so challenged and they are again flourishing just as beaver have rebounded from the brink of extinction.
    But that aside, I learned even more about armadillos than the Lagniappe post. It’s amazing that they can walk under water…it would be even more amazing if they could walk on it and, I guess, they almost can in a way with those inflatable lungs. And with their range moving northward and the climate warming, who knows, I may get to see one up this way yet. As always, you research and writing is industrious and a pleasure to read.

    1. I’ve been surprised by associations such as yours, but the more I think about it, the more I realize familiarity can make a big difference. We not only see armadillos, alive or dead, on a regular basis, they’re part of the culture. Bars and restaurants take their name, they’re used in advertising campaigns, and so on. Even the state of Texas used an armadillo in their “don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign. And there’s this, from a 2019 Texas Parks and Wildlife Department law-enforcement report:

      “A miscreant who found and tortured an armadillo, and then posted a video on social media of the despicable act, now faces serious time behind bars thanks to the investigative efforts of a pair of Texas game wardens.”

      “A few months ago, after learning of the incident, game wardens made a criminal animal cruelty case by securing videos and other evidence, statements, and an arrest warrant that landed the young man in jail. The defendant’s plea deal on two separate charges, including burglary of a habitation and the animal cruelty case, resulted in a 6-year sentence on both charges to be served concurrently in state prison.”

      The lesson? Don’t mess with Texas — or armadillos, or the TP&W game wardens.

      1. Everyday we hear another story exhibiting just how many cruel and stupid individuals there are in the world. It’s hard to imagine what goes on in some of these folks minds when they do something like this. I am glad the authorities got this person and hope he enjoys the treatment he will likely receive while in jail. Psychological studies indicate people who commit these acts are on their way to being child/spouse abusers. And posting it online…the genius of idiocy. Anyway, yes…don’t mess with Texas, game wardens or their charges.

        There are so many thing that we either witness or see/read of that can be associated with scenes like that. And as most of us don’t see the armadillo as a pest or that there is an overabundance of them we respond to the picture of the baskets a little differently. OTOH, if people are going to eat them then it is good to make use of as much of the animal as possible.

  28. I guess we are fortunate here because we see armadillos often. They reside here on our property, back in the woods and all along the Washita River. They dig holes in our yard at night. On hikes to the river I have spotted them digging around, and I have been lucky to sneak up on them with the wind in my favor (taking my scent away). I have seen dead carcasses, both completely decomposed laying untouched, and some ravaged by predators. I’m always fascinated with how much hair they have.

    One night back in 2012, when our first orphaned fawn had been released, Daisy and I were wandering the canyon bottom after a thunderstorm had passed through. I had spotted her at the feeder and walked down the slope to her. Suddenly, we saw movement in a patch of tall grasses just about twenty feet away. I had a flashlight but I was startled and worried a skunk or something with teeth could be in there! Daisy’s eyes were wide open but she too was curious. Suddenly, out burst the tiniest armadillo I had ever seen. It couldn’t have been much bigger than a softball. It moved towards us, then raised up trying to catch scent, and then BOING!!! jumped into the air and took off in the direction it came. I shall never forget the thrill of seeing one so tiny. It was the cutest thing I think I’ve ever seen!

    1. Strange as it sounds to some people, the presence of armadillos is a testament to good soil, laden with insects and other such delights. One of my friends has a theory that the reason so many get hit on the road is that they’re just trucking along, nose to the ground, searching out grubs, when they suddenly come to gravel, blacktop, or concrete. Instead of turning around and going back from whence they came, they try to cross the road to get to fresh turf, and meet their unfortunate end.

      I’m so envious that you’ve seen a little one and, even better, got to see that instinctive behavior. I love seeing them raise up to test the air, and being able to walk up on them from behind is just pure fun. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek, except the armadillo doesn’t know that it’s playing!

  29. I’ve been away too long, and missed this curious tale of an armadillo business. I’ve never seen an armadillo, but I do remember drawings of them on the covers of LPs in the late 60s, early 70s. Maybe John Fahey or Leo Kottke?

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