Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World's Most Intriguing Animals

Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World's Most Intriguing Animals

by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781602397385
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing
Publication date: 02/01/2010
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson a former psychoanalyst and projects director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, has authored over a dozen books, including the bestselling When Elephants Weep and Dogs Never Lie About Love, as well as The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, The Assault on Truth and The Face on Your Plate. An American, he lives in New Zealand.


Auckland, New Zealand

Date of Birth:

March 28, 1941

Place of Birth:

Chicago, Illinois


B.A., Harvard, 1964; Toronto Institute of Psychoanalysis, 1978, Ph.D. in Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard, 1970

Read an Excerpt



"ARMADILLO" IS A SPANISH WORD REFERRING TO THE ARMORLIKE shell protecting this remarkable animal. This defense system led early zoologists to classify them with turtles — and allowed this animal to survive for 55 million years. I recently saw a photo of an armadillo on the Web that totally captured me: It was rising vertically in the air. The caption explained that when armadillos are surprised, they often jump straight up! Travelers in America's Gulf States often see them by day scattered along the roadside after they've been killed during the night by cars and trucks. But being hit by the wheel isn't what kills them. Rather, it is their unusual jump reflex: When a car roars over them, they bound off the road almost vertically, hitting a car's underside. I am not sure how this startle response evolved. Did it unnerve their predators? And then of course there are species of armadillos constructed so that they can curl up in a ball, completely safe from any predation.

Armadillos are distant cousins of anteaters and sloths, who originally come from South America. There are at least twenty species, ranging from the fairy armadillo, only 5 inches long and weighing in at 3 ounces, to the giant armadillo, who is almost 4 feet long and weighs 130 pounds. The best known is the nine-banded armadillo — Dasypus novemcinctus (so called because of the nine movable bands on the like skin). Perhaps the term best known glosses over the fact that almost nothing is known about the other living armadillos, even less about the extinct ones. The nine-banded armadillo existed in the United States several million years ago and then vanished five to ten thousand years ago for unknown reasons, only to reemerge in Texas in 1854. (Today they are found from Argentina to Colorado.)

We tend to associate the nine-banded armadillo with the Lone Star State, primarily because Texans have taken to armadillos. Just this one species of armadillo lives in Texas. And a good reason they are welcome is that, like their cousins, they are inordinately fond of ants, especially fire ants, the scourge of the state. For some reason, armadillo races are popular with humans in Texas, though there is no evidence that armadillos share the enthusiasm.

Scientists are fond of armadillos for a number of reasons. One is that a reproducing female armadillo can delay implantation for several months, and gestation can last up to twenty months — as long as an elephant. The New Encyclopedia of Mammals (2001), reports a case where a female gave birth three years after the last date at which she could possibly have been inseminated! That's not all: After this long gestation, she gives birth to identical quadruplets, all coming from a single egg. The embryo divides in two, and those two embryos divide into two more. Armadillos are the only mammals who routinely give birth to genetically identical quadruplets. Derived from a single fertilized ovum, all the babies are of the same sex and all contain identical sets of genes, a treasure trove for geneticists.

Also of scientific interest is that the nine-banded armadillo is one of the few animals susceptible to infection with the leprosy bacillus. Although the bacillus was isolated more than a century ago, no scientist has yet succeeded in growing it from a culture (all of it derives from human patients). The World Health Organization (WHO) has reported an estimated ten to twelve million cases of leprosy worldwide. The search for a vaccine has become more urgent because the drugs used to treat leprosy are showing signs of losing their effectiveness as the disease becomes more immune to them.

For many years, WHO kept a colony of armadillos as a source. The idea was to create another anti-leprosy vaccine, but I do not believe that a more successful one has been created so far, though many are in trial. However, the placid, agreeable armadillo is nonetheless reluctant to breed in captivity. Keeping a colony thriving is difficult if not impossible without bringing in animals caught in the wild.

The scientist who discovered that leprosy occurs naturally in wild armadillos, Dr. Eleanor Storrs, said that her discovery signaled the end of the stigma associated with the disease: "Before then, many believed that leprosy was a unique punishment inflicted by God on humans for their sins. Now it must be looked upon as a bacterial infection devoid of religious significance."

There are so many reasons to be interested in these fascinating animals. They are nocturnal, sleeping during the day in burrows they excavate. They dig these holes — sometimes as long as 25 feet — at an astonishing speed, hardly stopping to breathe. Indeed, armadillos can go without breathing for up to fifteen minutes by storing air in the trachea. And a single armadillo can have up to twenty burrows in a home range of ten acres. These burrows have several openings, for emergency exits.

Such emergencies are rare, however, and here is what I like most about these animals: Generous by nature, they seem to willingly share their burrows with a whole collection of other creatures. Perhaps if you are one of four identical quadruplet armadillos, you learn to share, at least with your clone. If you look at a photo of a perfectly formed newborn armadillo, you would want to help, too. Looking in an armadillo burrow, you might find opossums, striped skunks, cotton rats, and burrowing owls. One man found a four-foot-long rattlesnake and a half-grown cottontail in side chambers "in the den of this armadillo."

Hunters are known to have died hunting armadillos: They pulled on what they thought was the armadillo's tail sticking out of a burrow, only to be fatally bitten by a rattlesnake. Why would anyone hunt the gentle armadillo? Roy Bedichek, who loved them, noted that "the curious little beast was slaughtered mercilessly" because it had a reputation for destroying the nests of ground-dwelling birds. Research showed this was completely false.

Unfortunately, tourists in Texas have bought a huge number of baskets made from armadillo shells. As late as 1982, one dealer advertised that he wanted twenty thousand dead animals. Instead of hunting them for sport, or forcing them into silly races, or consuming them (as they still do happily in Latin America), wouldn't an alternative money-making scheme be preferable: Allowing curious tourists to simply observe this delightful creature in the wild?



I LOVE THE IDEA OF A WHOLE COUNTRY TAKING A LEAP IN CONSCIOUSNESS about a particular animal because of a single person's passion. This happened with badgers, and the person who brought them to life, as it were, was Ernest Neal (1911 — 1998), an English schoolmaster from Somerset. His 1948 book The Badger contained on its frontispiece the first color photograph of a wild badger to be taken at night. Part of the reason that this common animal, found from Ireland to China and Japan, was unloved was that they are entirely nocturnal. Few people had ever even seen one, let alone knew about their habits. That changed in 1948 because of Neal's book and a series of TV documentaries that showed films of badger life in the sett (the badger burrow). Setts are remarkable feats of fossorial life: Neal visited one that covered an area of about 1,600 square yards, with more than eighty entrances. Some of these setts have been in use for centuries!

Partly because people thought they preyed upon lambs, a cruel fantasy with no truth whatsoever, they engaged in the horrible "sport" of digging for badgers. That involves sending fox terriers down the sett, flushing them out, and then killing them by smashing them in their sensitive noses. However, increasingly more people nowadays choose instead to sit by the sett and watch for them, or photograph them in the dark. As Sir David Attenborough put it in his foreword to Neal's The Natural History of Badgers (1986): "Soon, naturalists in woods all over the country were holding badger-watching parties. It was almost as though a new species of mammal had suddenly been added to the countryside. And at last the badger acquired the hold on the public's affections that it had always deserved."

Neal also had the humility to defer to people who got to know badgers as individuals. Not that these badger-watchers tamed them, but the animals grew habituated to their presence, allowing them to see aspects of their badger nature that a normal scientist, even one as sympathetic as Neal, would not know about. For example, Chris Ferris got to know badgers in Kent, and they became used to her presence. When a female cub injured her paw, she allowed Ferris to examine the wound. Ferris treated the wound with hydrogen peroxide and antibiotics, and a month later the cub completely recovered. From that time on she was not only totally trusting, but would greet Ferris when she appeared. Neal is also prepared to drop his own prejudices when information is available that he considers reliable. In speaking of the "wary armed neutrality" that exists between foxes and badgers, he writes; "Sometimes, however, all the rules are broken and Wijngaarden and Peppel (1964) cite a case of a sow badger adopting the cubs of a couple of foxes which had been shot and providing them with food."

Unlike most other members of their family, Eurasian badgers live in groups called clans, a little bit like the clans of early human societies. The American badger, though, while similar in every other respect to the Eurasian badger, is a loner. There is nothing about badgers that makes them intrinsically fascinating to humans; nor does the study of biology, ecology, or the natural behavior of the badger throw any particular light on the equivalent human activity. So it is good — in fact, it is more than good — that the public takes such interest in them. It speaks to something decent in the British character that Ernest Neal could single-handedly achieve this without the usual hype that would be required in America.

What is the purpose of the handsome black-and-white stripes on the head of the badger? It could not be camouflage, because this is an entirely nocturnal animal, so much so that badgers dislike moonlit nights, where they can be distinctly seen. Neal suggests that the coloration is due to the fact that they are fearless — or rather, they have little to fear from any predator (except, as per usual, us). Just as skunks use their anal glands for protection and are rarely attacked by any other animal, adult badgers have no natural enemy, for their bite is formidable. It would even appear that where they have no experience with humans, they show no fear of us, either.

Is it possible that the badger is the only other animal, besides humans and elephants, to have a sort of ritual around death and burial? Neal believes it not entirely impossible. He repeats a touching scene recounted by Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald of how a sow who lost her mate made a mournful sound, which brought out from another sett a male. (Badgers appear to be one of the few monogamous mammals.) Together the male and female dragged the dead body to a warren, interred it, and then separated. Neal in his first book asks: "One wonders if all badgers are buried in this way or whether these rites are characteristic only of such special occasions as when a sow loses her mate." I could find no further information on this, but it strikes me as plausible. In his later book, though, Neal pronounces himself more skeptical: "All that can be said at present about badger funerals is that if they do occur, they are very rare events. But badgers are remarkable creatures and it is well to keep an open mind about the possibility. I'm still hoping that one day I shall see a badger funeral myself."



I HAVE JUST FINISHED READING BRENDA COX'S CONVERSATIONS WITH AN Eagle, and here's one thing I know: I will never attempt to train an eagle in the ancient art of falconry, as she did. Her description of this particular eagle as vibrant, cantankerous, regal, and dangerous is certainly true, but surely it makes more sense to observe these qualities from a distance, in a free-flying bird? On the other hand, she met her eagle, Ichabod, at a wildlife sanctuary in British Columbia, where the bird had been consigned because she had been found as a nestling on the ground. She was what the author and others call an "imprint" — she had imprinted on humans. In the case of harmless birds, this is usually harmless. But in birds of prey, it means they lose their fear of humans and are especially aggressive. An animal the size of a bald eagle, with a thousand pounds of pressure in each talon, is a dangerous adversary indeed. I find it remarkable that Brenda Cox did not suffer more injuries than she did. "Thrilling" I can understand, but when practically the last words of the book describe a late encounter that ends with Brenda Cox's foot bloodied, being stared at "with an expression that, in a human, could only be called malignant," well, I conclude that raptors and humans do not belong together.

Cox speaks of the "single-mindedness of a predator." Ichabod had no need for human companionship and was in no way prepared for it. ("If I tripped I knew Ichabod would attack me.") Her interest was in prey: "Her predatory nature was evident in her every action and look." How can we provide anything equivalent for such an animal; indeed, why should we try?

This raises important questions, ones being asked as if for the first time: Do humans have any place with any animal? Heretical thoughts, I know, coming from a man who wrote Dogs Never Lie About Love and The Nine Emotional Lives of Cat, as well as The Pig Who Sang to the Moon, but it seems to me, now, that we must ask ourselves what we can bring to the lives of animals to increase their happiness. I don't see anything we can give a free-living animal that could possibly replace the life evolution designed. For some reason, this strikes me with even greater force when it comes to birds: How can birds, with the entire sky as their home, ever be happy in confinement? We must seem alien to them, the cages we confine them to very much like, well, a cage.

And into what kind of cage are we going to put a bald eagle, in any event? Consider the Northern California nest of a bald eagle. True, it was a record, but just think about it for a moment: 150 feet above the ground, 12 feet long, 20 feet deep, lined at the bottom with soft moss and feathers where the two to three eggs were laid in a nest cup and the nestlings could stay for thirteen weeks (fratricide among eagles is common). This nest weighed an incredible six thousand pounds. What can an eagle see from a cage? In the wild, it is speculated they can see a group of other eagles fourteen miles away. And what opportunities can we give them to fly, when they can drop on prey at a speed of two hundred miles an hour?

As for the notion of "cooperative hunting," that is mere semantic spin. This is how some falconers refer to the "sport" of taking a masked bird into the country on your fist, thrashing a hedge to force rabbits to flee, then releasing the birds to kill the rabbits. The birds are not cooperating — they have no choice — and the training invariably involves food rewards.

Why are such apex predators so antagonistic to humans? Or is it that they are antagonistic to all animals except their mates and young? (They mate for life.) They hiss like snakes, and even after eight years of constant contact Ichabod, a hand-raised eagle, was barely civil to Brenda Cox. I can think of only one thing: They are still hunted, though killing an American bald eagle is prohibited. From as many as half a million birds when European settlers arrived, by the 1960s the number was down to a mere five hundred. Now, fortunately, the numbers are back up, but there is always a risk.

Ted Hughes, in his well-known poem "Eagle," wrote how "the Wolf Cub weeps to be chosen" as prey. But I have yet to hear of any eagle attacking a wolf cub. With adult wolves around, it would be suicide, and eagles are notoriously cautious, much preferring to steal their food than to hunt it. A bald eagle is much more likely to seek out spawning salmon, a favorite food, and sometimes as many as three thousand eagles gather in the winter at the Chilkat River near Haines, Alaska, to fish. But while they enjoy fishing, it would seem that they enjoy just hanging out even more. Bald eagles love to idle, and will spend up to 90 percent of their time simply perching. They may occasionally glance at their favorite fishing hole, but they also have that inscrutable stare into the distance, giving the impression that they are contemplating deeper pleasures than merely a sated stomach. From the beginning of time, this look has never failed to impress humans. It's not hard to understand why.


Excerpted from "Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras"
by .
Copyright © 2010 Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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Altruistic Armadillos, Zenlike Zebras: Understanding the World's Most Intriguing Animals 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is an amazing book. It teaches compassion towards animals and is somethibg everyone should read