The armadillo as celebrity

As you read these words, the state of Texas may have already designated the armadillo as official animal. Even if the creature is not so honored, nothing, it appears, can stop its sudden and rather perplexing scramble to popularity.

The armadillo is a commanding presence in the dtuffed toy departments of Texas. There are armadillo-crested domino games and armadillo-embossed back-gammon sets. There are armadillo planters and armadillo sewing baskets. Armadillos come in everything from brass to porcelain shapes. A Waterfold armadillo is on order from the famous Irish manufacturer, at an anticipated retail price of $500. Needless to say, there are armadillo T-shirts.

The Wall Street Journal has felt compelled to cover the boom, reporting this new industry, and Nieman-Marcus has certified the cult by promoting an armadillo race.

Exactly what is the appeal of this creature that combines the body of a chubby turtle with the face of a mouse, like something dreamed up by Lewis Carroll?

Certainly, the armadillo is no novelty. The nine-banded armadillo of the Southwest -- about two and a half feet long, around 13 to 15 pounds two and a half feet long, around 13 to 15 pounds in weight -- first crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico about 100 years ago.

Even its best friends don't brag about the armadillo's intellect. "Too stupid to be trapped" is the going description by harassed farmers. The armadillo doesn't even sniff skillfully enough to be lured to bait.

An armadillo race occurs largely in the eye of the beholder because armadillos are lacking in the competitive instinct and can't, in fact, be trained to do anything.

The armadillo does have its own tricks. When swimming, it buoys itself up by swallowing air. When attacked, it rolls itself into a ball, exposing only its leathery carrapace. If all else fails, it rivals a possum at playing dead.

Mostly the armadillo excels at ferreting for insects. An armadillo in full appetite can make a mess of a Texas-size lawn in one night.

In the old days one wanted a ruling breed -- a winner -- on one's heraldic crest. One chose to be identified with handsome aggressors, like the eagle.

The armadillo doesn't even possess a decent set of teeth and terrorizes only ants and termites. In a conflict its inclination is to run away -- if only it could run.

The armadillo belongs to the same order as the two-toed sloth, who is so sluggish that it falls asleep while chewing.

Once a year a sloth pulls itself together and makes a journey -- crossing a road, or even a river. As far as sloth-observers are concerned, there is usually no reason at all for getting to the other side.

The sloth has little to say to the world except when young and abandoned. Then it utters a plaintive "Ai-i!" before entering a lifetime of silence and peerless indifference.

Will the sloth become a cult to surpass even the cult of the armadillo? And what will that mean? Have we developed a taste for losers or just a sense of humor?

We're really not worried about the armadillo phenomenon -- just fascinated. It doesn't do to make too much of symbols. We can't imagine Secretary of State Alexander Haig, for instance, being unduly influenced by the armadillo style.

we ask you: Can a nocturnal animal be taken seriously by a people who have for so long admired the early bird?

On the other hand, we like to keep our ideal-creature options open. Maybe we could even extend the two-party system to our symbols. Then we might end up thinking of ourselves as both eagle and armadillo people, in the interests of rich complexity.

The English have had no problem reconciling the lion and the unicorn, and we're sure they're a better race for it.

But we're drawing the line at the sloth. In the first place, it's a South American native. And anyway, until the economy turns around, we won't have a slo th getting near any T-shirt of ours.

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