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Monday, October 03, 2005

Dead Armadillo Wrasslin'

Long, long ago in a land far, far away, I happened to be a biology major taking an ecology class. And our professor, Dr. D., decided we were such a nice bunch of slaves students that he'd take us on a Saturday field trip to help his graduate students explore the exotic mysteries of the wily armadillo.

The armadillo is widely misunderstood. Most people think it is a quiet, quaint creature; cute, even. It's not. It's a small, smelly, armored, clawed, powerful beastie with a perpetually runny nose. Armadillo snot is not cute.

D.'s scientific interest in them stems from the fact that every time a 'dillo has a litter, the four pups are all genetically identical. This seems like a silly thing for a sexually-reproducing critter to do, since the whole point of sex is to mix up the parents' genes in new ways. Had they reached the peak of Cosmic Armadilloness, and no longer needed genetic variation? Or was this a reproductive flaw that would lead to inbreeding and subsequent appearances on daytime talk shows?

Dr. D. was determined to find out.

So, we all piled into cars to caravan to the field site several miles outside town, a grad student leading the way, my car next-to-last in line and Dr. D.'s truck last. My passenger was my friend Jennie. We amused ourselves by playing Roadkill Bingo as we drove. Soon, we saw the relatively intact carcass of an armadillo.

"Whoo, that one's got all four legs in the air," Jennie joked. "Dr. D. won't be able to resist that one!"

And sure enough, D.'s truck swerved off the road and screeched to a halt in front of the hapless 'dillo. He grabbed the 'dillo, tossed it in the bed of his truck, and drove on.

When we all got to the field site, D. gathered us in a circle. He retrieved the dead 'dillo and used it to demonstrate the finer points of armadillo wrasslin'. Full nelson, half-nelson, tail grab, the works. He even managed not to get much blood on his shirt in the process.

Then, he led us to an area where some students were tagging captured 'dillos. One student was holding down a 30-pound 'dillo while the other painted numbers on its carapace with bright pink latex house paint. The 'dillo already had a tag piercing its ear and an ID bracelet locked on its foreleg. Dr. D. explained that because the 'dillos spend so much time tunneling and running though underbrush, if the grad students were lucky, one of the three tagging measures would survive to identify the animal when it was eventually re-captured.

Suddenly, the painted armadillo broke free, scrabbling away across a rocky flat.

Dr. D. sprang into action. He sprinted after the beastie, took a flying leap and tackled it on the rocks. The armadillo squealed, and the dust rose in a huge cloud as they tussled.

When the dust cleared, Dr. D. stood in a triumphant Superman pose, holding the terrified armadillo at arm's length by its tail. Dr. D. was covered in dirt, pink paint, dozens of bleeding scratches, and armadillo shit. I wondered if he'd had a tetanus shot recently. I wondered what his wife must think of him coming home like this.

Then I remembered his stories, and realized she'd seen far worse. There was the time she'd come home and found he'd recruited her good stew pot for boiling the flesh off roadkill gopher bones. There was the time he came home with 214 chiggers imbedded in his skin (he counted). And there was the skunk incident.

Suddenly, I realized that cohabitating with a field biologist must qualify as a rare and peculiar sort of fetish.

So, if you're ever in the woods, and see an armadillo with an earring and traces of pink paint, remember, it wasn't a prank by the local punks -- it was probably your friendly neighborhood zoologist.

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