Essays
8:30 am
Fri November 1, 2013

Hiding in Plain Sight

Armadillos are a common feature in the Florida landscape….browsing our lawns looking for grubs – or flattened on roadways. New-Press storyteller Amy Bennett Williams recently got a closer look at one of vulnerable animals and was surprised by what she saw.

The baying floated over from the east, a long, low chorus that might almost have been lovely if I didn't know that the notes' urgent huskiness meant the business at hand was blood.

Our dogs, the familiar pals who greet us at the door, sniff under our table for scraps, wrestle and snooze with the kids, are wild things too, capable of treeing bobcats and tangling with hogs.

But when I'd followed the sound to its source and called them off, I saw their quarry was no fanged cat or tusked boar.

It was an armadillo.

Upended and obviously injured, its hindquarters were caught in a snarl of smilax as its front feet paddled the air feebly.

The fact that those feet were tipped with wicked-looking, curved yellow claws sent me dashing back to grab a towel so I could safely gather it and get it to a nearby vet's office, a drop-off point for the Clinic for Rehabilitation of Wildlife.

With the critter safely swaddled, I picked my way back to the house, carrying it like an infant. As I looked down at its ivory mosaic of a snout, its black pearl of an eye, I realized this was the first time I'd ever, even after decades in armadillo country, seen one up close.

Over the years, I'd read plenty about armadillos, learning along the way that 10,000 years ago, their 6-foot long, 600-pound ancestors roamed the state. The contemporary version is a relative newcomer to Florida that some biologists think migrated down in the 20th century or naturalized from escaped captives.

They're not blind, as some old-timers will tell you, but they do have very poor eyesight, relying mostly on sound and scent to find food and flee predators. When alarmed, say, by a passing car, they tend to leap into the air, which accounts for the relatively large numbers seen squashed on roadsides.

I've learned nine-banded armadillos are the only mammals that are always born quadruplets, that they're strong swimmers that can stay submerged long enough to stroll across creek bottoms. What I didn't know until I'd held one is that under their armor is soft pink belly skin, covered with bristly blond fuzz. I didn't know that their jointed plates are as warm as their bodies. And I didn't know they bleed when tooth-scraped.

I had heard from a zoologist that those shells, while bony, aren't nearly as strong as they look. Now, I was learning that first-hand.

By the time I got to the porch steps, the creature in my arms wasn't breathing anymore. The dogs followed me into the yard, but didn't stick around to watch me dig the hole for their prey.

By then, the morning had gotten hot, the previous night's storm had left a long shallow puddle, and the business at hand was lolling in muddy water.