Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Texas Armadillo Dealers

[T]he orange armadillo, so called from its resemblance to that fruit when curled, ran stiffly like a mechanical toy between thickets. Sasha picked one up and was amazed at its construction. It had the face of a pig, the tail of a rattlesnake, the claws of a gryphon and the walk of a woodlouse. [Tiger-Man, by Julian Duguid, 1932]
    I  quoted that simply because I liked the description. I am not really interested in talking about Tolypeutes matacus of Mato Grosso, where the soon-to-be jaguar hunter had the encounter, but rather the nine-banded armadillo, Dasypus novemcinctus, which is the type you will run across in Texas. From the attached photo, which I took from the Wikipedia, you will agree that the description is still valid.
     Armadillos are relatives of the sloths and anteaters.  As you can see, their name, which means "little armed one" in Spanish, was acquired from the suit of joined armour with which they are provided. Like some of the bones in our own skull, it consists of dermal bone ie bone produced by the ossification of skin, rather than cartilage. Another unusual feature is that they are always born in litters of identical quadruplets. Their body temperature is a few degrees below that of normal mammals, which makes them susceptible to a disease introduced by European man, and which normally strikes the outer limbs of humans, which are colder than the rest of the body. This is Hansen's disease, or leprosy. It is possible to contract leprosy from eating or handling armadillos. The risk is small, but it does exist.
     Armadillo meat, which was, and probably still is, consumed in Mexico is similar to turtle in flavour, but has a pinkish tinge, like piglet. (During the Depression they were called "Hoover hogs".) Meanwhile, down in South America, armadillos are baked in their shell by the natives.
     Once upon a time, on a farm near Comfort, Texas, Charles Apelt accidentally struck and killed his first armadillo with his ploughshare. Well, that's one version. Another is that he threw a stone at the strange animal he had accidentally flushed while walking around his farm, and fortuitously hit it on the head, the one part of its body which would not deflect the missile. I suspect this is the true story, because the skin was apparently undamaged. He removed it and hung it up to dry.
     Now Charles - I presume his original name was Karl - haled from Germany, where he had been an apprentice to his father, a basket maker. The shape of the animal's carapace reminded him of the baskets he and his parent used to produce, so he returned to collect the armadillo's tail, which was long enough to stretch from head to stern and serve as a handle. That started it. Having established an effective method of tanning the carapace, he opened the first armadillo basket factory in 1898.
     Here you see two stages in the manufacture of baskets, of which 40,000 were sold in the first six years. Typically, it was lined with brightly coloured satin or silk, and fetched luxury-goods prices. One suspects that the attachment of the handle was not that strong, and the baskets were more useful for light objects such as flowers or sewing items, or were purely decorative.
     In addition, the carapaces went into the manufacture of lampshades, photo frames, ashtrays, novelty men's hats, and similar items. Armadillo oil was an expensive by-product used in cosmetics, and the softening and preservation of leather. Hispanics and Mexicans also treated it as a medicine, especially for "rheumatism", though I suspect those qualities were largely based on the placebo effect.
     Mr Apelt had about fifty Hispanics running around hunting armadillos for him, along with one or two to barbecue them for passers-by. Then he moved into active farming, for which he had established a large complex of concrete tunnels, feeding the breeding population on grain, worms, vegetables, and live insects. These animals went into the live trade - to countries as distant as India, South Africa, and Sweden, to mention just a few - as pets, zoo animals, or the subjects of medical research (? on leprosy).
     After Carl's death, the work continued in the hands of various members of his family, before finally petering out sometime in the 1960s or '70s, thus ending a very unusual, if not unique, business.

Reference: My original source was: "Armadillo-Farming" by Ervin Hickman, The Wide World Magazine, Feb 1951, pp 217-219. However, I recently came across another blog by Linda Leinen, which provided even more information.

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