Don’t fire up the grill for that armadillo just yet

The lowly armadillo has finally arrived in Missouri. It has only taken several million years, but he made it.

And in case you did not know it, prior to the point in time when North and South America were linked by the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, there were no armadillos in North America; they only lived in South America.

But once that continental link was formed, roughly 2.8 million years ago, at least one species of armadillo — the nine-banded armadillo — packed its bags and headed north.

The nine-banded armadillo is about the size of a small dog with nine bands or rings of hard shell covering most of its body.   

It has a small head, beady eyes and claws on its feet. It would not win any beauty contests and looks prehistoric, if ever an animal looked prehistoric.

But it has an excellent nose and with the help of its claws for digging, manages to survive on a variety of plants and insects.

Surprisingly, the armadillo is a mammal, not a reptile. That means it breeds like all other mammals; frankly, I am not sure how they get the job done with both parties wearing a suit of armor but apparently they do.

Except for a presumed period of “courtship” during the mating season (which is also hard to imagine), the armadillo is a loner. Their lifespan is believed to be seven to ten years.

Although the armadillo looks slow, it actually can scoot around relatively fast when necessary. One commentator says they can travel 20 miles per hour but I doubt that the commentator actually used a stopwatch to confirm this.

The armadillo also has the ability to leap into the air three or four feet as a means of startling would-be predators. But perhaps the most intriguing thing about this ancient animal is its ability to cross bodies of water.

This can be done in one of two ways. First, it has the ability to hold its breath while it crosses a small stream under water.

Second, for crossing larger bodies of water, it can force large amounts of air into its lungs and intestines and then float across as if on an inflatable raft; the tail acts as a rudder and the feet do a dog paddle — pretty cool for a prehistoric animal, don’t you think?

But here is an even more important thing to know about the nine-banded armadillo: Some nine-banded armadillos are infected with “Hansen’s disease.”   

If that doesn’t get your attention, what if I told you “Hansen’s disease” is the politically correct name for leprosy?

Those of you who were alive in the 1940’s can probably remember as a child hearing ghastly tales about leprosy — the ancient disease that supposedly was highly infectious, incurable and perceived as God’s curse.

If you caught leprosy, it meant that you would spend the rest of your life secluded in a leper colony deep in the Louisiana swamps.
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The reason why armadillos are susceptible to leprosy is because they normally have a much lower body temperature than other mammals, including humans.

The bacterium that causes leprosy thrives in this lower body temperature, which is believed to be 93 degrees.

Not all nine-banded armadillos have leprosy. Recent tests revealed that about 15% of the nine-banded armadillos in the UnitedStates currently have leprosy.

Interestingly enough, before Europeans immigrated to North and South America, it is thought that the armadillo did not have the disease, so it looks as though they got it from us rather than vise-versa.

Leprosy is no longer believed to be the highly contagious disease that it was once thought to be. Nor is it incurable despite the fact that there are 250,000 new cases per year world-wide. It is treatable with a specific antibiotic.

Nearly all of the new cases occur in India, China, Vietnam and parts of Africa, where the necessary antibiotic is unavailable.

In the United States, there are only about 150 new cases per year and many of these cases appear to involve people who had been exposed while traveling or living outside the United States.

As far as I can tell, very few people here gotten leprosy from roughhousing with an armadillo in the back yard or eating one at a church potluck.

Still, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) strongly recommends that people in the United States not handle armadillos or eat them.

Frankly, the risks of contracting leprosy are minimal. This is because most humans — perhaps 95% of us — are unlikely to contract the disease because of our genetic makeup.

Still, why take the chance by handling or eating an armadillo? Or to put it another way, would you really want it posted on your Facebook page that you have a “touch of leprosy”?

Unfortunately, the stigma of the disease is still with us even though the disease is treatable and not nearly as contagious as believed for centuries.

Note: There really was a leper colony in rural Louisiana that operated from 1894 until 1999, when it was officially closed.

At the time of closure, there were still 20 residents, many of whom had lived there most of their lives almost in complete seclusion.

They did not want to leave — sadly, they had no family to go home to — and to this day, about 15 of those patients are still there living out their lives in solitude.

(Bill Hoagland has practiced law for more than 50 years in Madison County, Ill., and lives in the Alton area. He and his wife, Annie, have been outdoor enthusiasts all of their lives. He can be reached at

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