Do not kick an armadillo.
On the surface, this may seem frivolous advice, a rejected premise from the “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” series.
But my friends, as armadillos make their heavily armored march from the wilds of West Tennessee, Southern Georgia and beyond to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, let me assure, you this is practical advice.
Before we moved to South Alabama, I’d never come across a live armadillo in the wild. I’d seen plenty of armadillo carcasses littering the rural roadways of the southeastern United States, but I’d never found myself face to face with one of the nocturnal mammals.
I learned, late one night while taking my dog out for a bathroom break in the deep dark of rural Alabama, that certain assumptions I’d made about the armadillo weren’t remotely close to being correct.
My first assumption? Armadillos are essentially possums with chain mail. However, it turns out that armadillos have more in common with the anteater than they do the possum, which are also nocturnal animals that frequently litter roadways across the United States.
The thing about possums, as odd-looking as the little things are, is that I remain fairly positive I could take one in a fight.
I’m not saying I’m about to go out looking for trouble. But ever since Tennessee basketball legend Pat Summit dislocated her shoulder wrestling a raccoon off her back deck, I’ve kept the basics of a plan of attack on how I’d deal with a variety of situations if I ever found myself in a fracas with any wild animals.
Black Bears? Get big. Make loud noises. Go for the eyes or the nose as a last resort.
Squirrels? They’re quick. I might need a tennis racket if a problem arises.
Possums? I’m an old soccer player from way back. I’ve still got a little power in the old right leg. I’d footie a possum. I’d footie a team of possums if I absolutely had to. I fear no possums. I laugh in the face of possums.
So, when I moved to Alabama, where the armadillo roams free, I figured in a scrap, I’d give them the old possum treatment. I mean, their defense mechanism is to roll up in a ball.
Then, late one night after work – second shift at the Selma Times-Journal – I took our dog, Ringo, out before bed.
It was maybe one or two in the morning. You don’t have to get far outside of town in Selma for it to get real dark. The night sky there reminded me a lot of the mountains, only the light of the moon and stars. There wasn’t any moon on this night as Ringo and I stepped out into the deep, deep darkness.
We were met on the porch by the most unnatural critter I’ve ever seen. Long claws, short legs, bony plates. This armored animal was there on my porch with my dog. Just like the raccoon that had gotten into a brouhaha with coach Summit all those years before.
It’s startled me. It startled Ringo. It startled, I think, the armadillo.
Fight or flight kicked in for all three of us.
I thought maybe some of Ringo’s animal instincts might have taken over. As an Australian Shepherd, I thought she might try to herd the thing, you know, instinctively. But she was a shepherd in name only.
Then, I thought if the Shepherd part wouldn’t kick in, maybe the Australian part would. So I hoped she’d Crocodile Dundee this thing to protect me from potential harm. After all, I’ve seen a video of an Australian punching a rowdy kangaroo right in the face. I thought Ringo might have been made of the same stuff.
She was not. She choose door No. 3 and ran back towards the house.
So, I got ready. I dropped into a fighting stance.
The armadillo? It was a pacifist. In fact, it made a little sound of disgust and left the porch without much fuss at all.
It turns out that I was lucky the armadillo gave peace a chance. Over the months we lived there, we would occasionally find one that had passed lying around the yard. I would have to dispose of the remains.
Maybe this is common knowledge among residents of the Southern states, but armadillos are heavy. And the armor is serious. Had I tried to bend that ‘dillo like Beckham, I could have dislocated a hip and probably broken my foot, which, in retrospect, may have been the armadillo’s plan all along.
I dislocate a hip, I go down to the ground and suddenly I’m on the armadillo’s level.
Height advantage? Gone.
So take this as John’s nature lesson of the day. In a pinch, when the chips are down, if an armadillo decides it wants a piece, choose flight.
I thought when we moved back to East Tennessee I’d escaped from the range of armadillos. But it turns out they’re here, too. Possibly waiting for revenge.
Are armadillos common in Tennessee?
Yes. However, they are not as common in Northeast Tennessee or near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Still, some sources say they are starting to spread more in recent years.
The thing is, Tennessee is a long state with varying geography. East Tennessee is substantially different from Middle Tennessee or West Tennessee.
According to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, armadillos are permanent residents of Oklahoma, Texas, Missouri, Arkansas and basically all of West Tennessee.
There’s a line that runs across the state diagonally from the northwest part of the state, through Nashville, Tennessee down into Hamilton County, Chattanooga and North Georgia.
Below that line is armadillo country. Above it? In places like Knoxville and Pigeon Forge and up into the northeast part of the state and the mountains, the armadillos haven’t really made much of a toe-hold.
When did this influx of armadillos come to Tennessee?
About 30 years ago, according to the TWRA. And they’re expanding their range – with their well-developed claws they use for burrowing – to the east.
The arrival of armadillos in the state, usually found by the side of the road, started in the early 1980s. By the 1990s, the invasive species was able to call the state of Tennessee their permanent home.
Armadillo sightings remain pretty rare. Personally, I’ve never seen one of the unusual-looking animals in East Tennessee.
Do armadillos bite?
The Missouri Poison Center – your go-to source for armadillo news – says no. But, I mean, they got teeth, don’t they? Further research, looking a few more entries down in Google, some sources say that if armadillos are posed with a serious threat, they can claw and bite.
Armadillo-online.org adds they will most likely try to run away but says they can do damage with their strong claws if handled “incorrectly.”
Friends, don’t be out here in these streets trying to handle armadillos correctly. The best way to stay safe? Leave them alone.
Can armadillos hurt you?
Yeah, they can. If you kick one, you’re gonna break your foot and possibly dislocate your hip. Still, they probably won’t actively try to hurt you unless you’re getting out of pocket and handling them.
“Fun Fact: Armadillos and humans are the only known mammals to develop leprosy.”
Two notes, if I may.
First, I didn’t come through everything we came through the last two years to catch leprosy from no armadillo. That sounds like an origin story for a Batman villain.
Secondly, the TWRA and I have very, very different definitions of the term “fun facts.”
Armadillos are known as leapers. When startled or scared, they can jump four to five feet high. Does the TWRA even mention the fact that armadillos can jump over a small child in its “fun facts” section? It does not.
Also, it should be noted that in addition to leprosy, armadillos can transmit rabies and other harmful diseases.
What do armadillos eat?
The main thing armadillos want to do is eat, spread the species through the Americas with a little armadillo manifest destiny, live their life and maybe expand the species with their high reproductive rate.
It takes seven months for breeding armadillos to deliver litters of identical quadruplets. That’s right. Armadillos give birth to four, same-sex babies at a time. That’s so weird. The babies are born without shells and take a year or more to become mature.
The armadillos’ main diet is mostly animals like ants, flies, mature and larval beetles, earthworms and the occasional small reptiles. They will occasionally eat fruit and are fond of persimmons, which, honestly? Same.
Is it legal to hunt armadillos?
Yeah. Look, I know I spent a whole lot of all of our time talking about how I’d kick a possum, but I’m not here to advocate going on an armadillo or possum eradication spree.
With this in mind, as a non-indigenous species, armadillos can be hunted year-round. There is no limit.
Many places where they are common have pest control companies that will trap armadillos and relocate them.
A native species of South America, armadillo meat is a fairly common foodstuff around Central America. Called “poor man’s pork,” it should be good and completely cooked due to the whole leprosy thing.
Do armadillos have natural predators?
The young, before they mature, are preyed on by coyotes, cougars, bobcats and sometimes hawks and eagles.
Part of the reason they are advancing from Southwestern North America to the east coast is that most natural predators don’t really bother with the mature animals.
How far will they roam?
Well, that’s the question. They obviously prefer warmer temperatures. They are cold sensitive because they don’t hibernate. Even when it’s cold outside, they must eat every day.
In extreme temperatures, either hot or cold, they dig down in their little burrows and try to ride it out. However, if a cold spell is long enough to keep the ground frozen, the armadillos will freeze.
In that way, they serve as a fairly valuable indicator species for scientists.
“Armadillos are a pretty good climate change indicator species,” John MacGregor, a herpetologist at the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, told UPI in 2018.
“When things that don’t tolerate cold climates are suddenly appearing in a cold area, it tells me that area is getting warmer.”
Have you spotted an armadillo in Tennessee? Let us know in the comments.