Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal

Death of an Armadillo

Randall Nunn


I am probably the greatest armadillo hunter in the north Texas town of Sherman. How I came to hold that title is not a particularly ennobling tale but rather a sad story of a man driven to take matters into his own hands even if the death of a poor, dumb creature is the result.

I should say at the outset that I have a fondness for animals and wildlife in particular. I have no animosity toward armadillos and, in fact, have always thought they were interesting creatures and cute symbols of the uniqueness of the Lone Star State. I remember trying to catch one years ago in our backyard in Winter Springs, Florida. Our flower beds were suffering at the hands of armadillos--although not badly--and I attempted to capture one of the pesky critters by slipping up on it and grabbing it by the tail. I achieved the element of surprise, only to be equally surprised by the tenacity of the hissing animal as it dug its front claws into the sod and became immovable. Finally, the armadillo's tail slipped from my grasp and the armored piglet scurried off into the palmetto underbrush, without a word or even a glance backwards.

Years passed and we moved to Dallas, Texas, where we never were bothered by the leathery skinned diggers, other than seeing them along the Texas highways in various states and conditions, doing a rather good job of representing themselves as the official roadkill of the state of Texas. Once, I stopped along the roadside and had my sister get out and pose for a picture with a defunct armadillo reaching skyward with its little clawed feet--a pose frequently assumed by armadillos after a run-in with a vehicle. In short, I was a tolerant and caring person who lived happily and let live when it came to armadillos. However, that was to come to an end when fate threw me into close and hostile contact with as determined a band of armadillos as civilized man ever faced.

After building a new house on the outskirts of Sherman, Texas, and spending more than we wanted on landscaping and bermuda grass sod, we settled into gentle suburban living on a three and a half acre wooded lot. For a while, we were supremely happy, watching the fiery sunsets in the west from our loggia at the back of the house and glorying in the beauty of our thick, green lawn of luxuriant bermuda grass. The happiness was cruelly shattered one morning when I stepped out back and saw pock marks of fresh earth everywhere and tufts of grass lying around as though some miniature artillery had shelled our lawn during the night. After swearing at the destruction of our beautiful yard, I calmed down and examined the digging more closely in an effort to determine what had caused the damage. Could it have been wild hogs rooting in the lawn or a neighbor's dog gone crazy? After talking with my neighbors, they assured me it was an armadillo and that the only sure remedy was to shoot it.

I was reluctant at first to consider a remedy as drastic and final as shooting. However, after several more mornings of awakening to find the back and side yards and beds in excavation, I decided to try to catch the culprits in the act. Consulting with my neighbors, I was told by one not to bother looking for them before 2:00 AM as that was their favorite time, and by another to only watch between 11:00 PM and 4:00 AM, as that was their favorite time. I was informed that the armadillos were searching for grub worms. Somehow they had decided (or been told by their friends) that our beautiful bermuda grass was the hiding place for hundreds of delicious grub worms. In fact, I doubt if a grub worm has been within one hundred yards of our lawn. Nevertheless, the armadillos were convinced they were there, and since it was so much easier to dig in our nice new sod than in the hard Texas soil farther out, that is where they concentrated their efforts.

After deciding that I needed to do something, and do it soon, I purchased a Ruger Mark II .22 caliber pistol that was to become my weapon of choice. Two of my neighbors used shotguns (which I thought was not very sporting) and seemed not to be terribly effective, missing them more often than not. I began patrolling the back yard at random times after dark, hoping to catch the culprits in action. Finally, after many nights of uneventful patrols, one night I came around the corner and heard rustling and snorting noises coming from the flowerbed. Slowing my pace, I crept forward slowly, shining my flashlight in the general direction of the noise. Suddenly, my light caught a rounded, grayish hump-backed creature working furiously in the flowerbed. My heart was pounding and my breathing rapid as I raised the stainless steel pistol with one hand while holding the flashlight in the other hand so as to illuminate the sights and the target--the snorting, heavily armored, long-clawed digging machine that was uprooting flowers and destroying our yard. After what seemed like many seconds, trying hard to slow and calm my breathing and line the critter up in my sights, I fired one shot. The armadillo jumped slightly, then fell over on his side and kicked a couple of times and breathed his last. At that moment, I cannot describe exactly how I felt; other than I felt flushed in the face and deeply sad at what I had done. I had taken the life of another creature who meant me no harm and who was simply doing what he did every day in his pursuit of life. The little fellow would never see another Texas sunset or feel the warm Texas breezes flowing over his smooth, leathery body. I unloaded the pistol and went back into the house and went to bed. For a long time, I lay awake and stared at the ceiling, contemplating the fact that I was alive and this simple-minded creature was dead. Why had I shot this animal? I worked myself nearly to tears. When I told my wife that I had killed the armadillo, I could see she was similarly affected. I had shot down a symbol of the Lone Star State in cold blood! Would this feeling of guilt and emptiness ever leave me? Yes, it would.

Days later, thinking that this dark episode was over and that our yard would return to normal, I was shocked upon walking out into the back yard to see fresh diggings--even worse than before! There were more of them! This is not over, I thought. Then I remembered the words of Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven to the effect that once you started a battle against your enemies, there would be killing and more killing until the reason for it became lost. And I knew for a fact that, just like Steve McQueen, my palms sweated before the confrontation. There is much wisdom to be derived from watching The Magnificent Seven.

The next armadillo that I caught in the yard was larger than any I had ever seen. I centered him in the glare of the flashlight and outlined the sights on the quarry and the Ruger spoke again. This time the armadillo leapt into the air about three feet, coming down with a loud thud. He continued to leap into the air several times more, as though he had springs on his feet that propelled him straight upwards. Finally, one last leap and a thud, a quiver of the legs and then stillness. The armadillo lay in the midst of his devastation, with the fresh dirt still clinging to his claws--and probably not a single grub worm to show for it. What a terrible waste!

As the days went by, I hoped in vain that the digging would cease and that this was the last of the destructive pests. But it was not to be. Periodically, other armadillos would come and dig in the soft bermuda turf, finding nothing, but wreaking havoc nevertheless. The scene would be replayed with the flashlight and stainless steel Ruger pistol. Each one became easier and less troubling than the one before. I even began to take pride in "one shot, one armadillo." I did not want them to suffer but wanted to dispatch them quickly and with a minimum of leaping in the air and gruesome death throes.

As the summer went on, I continued my battle. Six armadillos and six shots. And still the destruction continued. I had become a skilled hunter by this time and adept at slipping up on the raiders, sometimes catching them just as they reared up on their hind legs to listen. Poor devils--they probably didn't know that you never hear the bullet that gets you! But then, animals that specialize in becoming road kill probably never read All Quiet on the Western Front.

As the summer wound down, I had become quite the expert armadillo hunter. I had learned, contrary to my neighbors' advice, that armadillos come out at all hours, from dusk to dawn. I learned that they have a keen sense of hearing and smell, but poor eyesight. I learned about stealth in approach, good sight alignment and quiet operation of the safety. Unlike my neighbors who missed armadillos with their shotguns or even worse, wounded them and allowed them to get away, I didn't miss with the Ruger. Finally, one night near the end of summer, I came out onto the loggia to find a small armadillo digging feverishly in the yard. I raised the Ruger into the beam of light from the flashlight as the armadillo sat up on its hindquarters and twisted around toward me. As I prepared to push the safety off, the armadillo heard the click and bolted off in the direction of the woods, running at a speed more rapid than one would think such an animal capable of doing. I didn't have time to get off a well-aimed shot and did not want to risk leaving a wounded armadillo in the privet bushes, glaring at me with venom in his eye and vengeance in his heart, waiting for an opportune moment to spring, hissing and galloping with claws fully extended, as he bore down on me. No, this one would live another day and maybe even move on to other yards. I always knew that one day there would be one faster than me, looking to make a name for himself.

For now, I have hung up my gun and will take time during the winter months to ponder whether shooting armadillos is truly evil or whether I am only evening the score for hundreds of grub worms that have met horrible deaths at the snouts of these armored kings of the roadkill. I feel badly for the little fellows, but somehow I don't think I am any worse than the African big-game hunters who write and philosophize about death in the long grass. For in my heart, I know that the only thing preventing the armadillos from becoming man-eaters is that they can't open their mouths any wider than the width of a fat grub worm. When next spring rolls around, I will be renewed and ready to defend my property against a fresh onslaught. I may not be as brave and fearless as the hunters who face the man-eaters on the Serengeti Plain or Cape Buffalo in some dark thicket, but, believe me, if ever a Cape Buffalo shows up in my yard in Sherman, Texas, causing anywhere near the damage of the armadillos, my Ruger and flashlight will be pressed into service. I only hope that Cape Buffalo don't leap into the air when hit, because my yard couldn't take that.

***

Randall Nunn is a practicing attorney in Sherman, Texas, as well as a writer of op-eds and essays. His story "Death of an Armadillo" was a finalist in the Faulkner competition and got 7th place in the Writer's Digest competition in 2005.

© Randall Nunn

Muscadine Lines: A Southern Journal ISSN 1554-8449, Copyright © 2004-2012