Spare a thought for the armadillo

Hugh Pennington

Sooner or later the Brazilian football team will be treated like lepers, or perceive themselves to be so. Unfair to lepers, but appropriate for an off-pitch reason. The official World Cup mascot, Fuleco, is a Brazilian three-banded armadillo. Humans apart, the armadillo is the only animal that gets leprosy. Admittedly, the evidence refers to the nine-banded kind; it is not known whether the three-banded armadillo is susceptible. It would be very hard to find out, because the Brazilian species is very rare and in danger of extinction. Fuleco's name is a portmanteau of ‘Futebol’ and ‘Ecologia’.

Leprosy is still a big problem in Brazil; 33,000 new cases were diagnosed in 2012. Only India had more, with 134,752. It is yet another reason that makes it easy to understand why Brazilians are so unhappy about the vast sums that have been spent on a competition that has led to national humiliation.

And spare a thought for the armadillo. The nine-banded kind is doing far better in the US than the three-banded is in Brazil. It is spreading northwards, helped by giving birth each pregnancy to identical quadruplets, and by its ability to float across rivers by inflating its bowels. But in the US it has an uneven reputation. There was resistance in Texas to its nomination as the state small mammal. Leprosy occurs in it naturally and occasionally spreads from infected animals to humans. During the Great Depression (when newspapers were called ‘Hoover blankets’ because rough sleepers used them to keep warm), armadillos were known as ‘Hoover hogs’ when they were eaten by the poor in ironical fulfilment of Herbert Hoover’s promise of ‘a chicken in every pot’.


  • 10 July 2014 at 11:37am
    Simon Wood says:
    In the old cantinas south of the Rio Grande, armadillos were derided by the pistoleros who used to pester the mines of the Sierra Madre, as the "pot-bellied chickens of the river".