OMAHA – It seems that every year around this time, when the Great Plains turns a cold shoulder to the sun, a surprise or two always pokes a cold nose between our well-warmed blankets of winter expectation: a Thanksgiving Day fit for the Fourth of July, an unexpected familiar face floating by around the holidays, and this year, for Nebraska Wildlife Rehab Executive Director Laura Stastny, armadillos.
Stastny says that just before Christmas, within two days of each other, two of the animals had managed to scrap their way a touch too north from their usual stomping grounds, winding up in the frigid mid-December of the Cornhusker State.
“The first one, a male, came in from Bruning,” says Stastny, “Twenty-five miles north of the Kansas border, due south of York. The second one came in from Chester, right on the Kansas border, south of Bruning. So kind of in the same area.”
The full explanation of how the pair wound up, of course, is unknown, but Stastny, a 20-year veteran of rehabilitating wildlife, says several theories make sense: the two could have been sidetracked searching for snacks, or perhaps they’d found a spirit of adventure.
“There is the theory that they might have been on hay transports that are getting moved from state to state, and they may be getting off the truck in Nebraska. We do know that wildlife sometimes gets moved around like that.”
That the pair made the leap over the Kansas border, Stastny says, is surprising only at first glance; more remarkable is that an armadillo in Nebraska is still relatively rare, given data about the animals.
“There have been a couple of studies done that show the minimum average January temperature that they can tolerate; the Omaha area is maybe one or two degrees Celsius out of that range. We have the right rainfall, we have the right habitat for them; it’s just those winter temperatures that are too hard.”
Stastny says that when the armadillos made their way into Omaha’s Baldwin Wildlife Center, hypothermia was almost the least of the animals’ problems.
“The first one was found on somebody’s driveway and was in distress; it was suffering from rodenticide poisoning, rat poisoning of some kind, and had an upper respiratory infection. The second one was near-comatose, and it turned out also had exposure to rat poisoning.”
The rat poisoning, Stastny believes, was most likely not deliberately aimed at the vagrant armadillos, but rather at prairie dogs, or other small animals that could pose a threat to crops and cropland. Though armadillos are primarily insectivores, if none are available, such as in winter, they have been known to turn to roadkill and carrion.
By the week after Christmas, rehabilitation of the armadillos was in full swing; Stastny credits the swift recovery of the pair to the big hearts of Nebraskans across the state, from those who first reported the armadillos to the trained wildlife professionals now administering treatment. In just over a week, the two are making enormous strides toward full recovery.
“They’re both still on medication, but they are social animals. We put them in a room and divided that room so they couldn’t get together, but they kept violating the barrier and going to hang out together. They’re enjoying each other’s company.”
Armadillos are nocturnal, and the Baldwin pair is already showing signs of returning to that habit. “They tend to sleep most of the day, except when we give them food and medication, but they’re very active at night. They dig all night long, and they move branches and towels and things around their room.”
Stastny and her staff haven’t yet named the armadillos, nor do they plan to; oftentimes the Nebraska Wildlife Rehab team avoids naming their patients to reduce the potential for attachment. After all, the ultimate goal of the center is to release animals back into the wild.
The armadillos are expected to make a full recovery; Stastny anticipates they’ll be ready to be returned to their southern homes by early spring, however, Nebraska Wildlife Rehab will be working with biologists from Nebraska Game and Parks to determine where best to release the two, a process that could last into the summer.