A Texas Survival Kit

With its cranky critters, wild weather, prickly plants, and inhospitable insects, this state can be a perilous place.Chances are you'll have a close encounter of the dangerous—or at least unpleasant—kind one of these days. So here's what to do if you're...

October 2004By Comments

DID PIONEERS COMPLAIN, “Nothing exciting ever happens to me”? Probably not. For them, a mere trip to the creek for water meant keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes coiled in the weeds at their feet and panthers poised on a branch overhead. Although we modern Texans like to imagine ourselves worthy heirs to those hardy settlers of yore—fearless, tireless, innately wise about life—the truth is, most of us are hopeless city slickers. We screech at spiders under our own eaves; we think bad weather happens only on the Discovery Channel; and in the country we can get turned around faster than a toddler in a revolving door. Thanks to air conditioning and other modern conveniences, we’re so insulated from nature that we’ve forgotten to be wary of it. At the same time, more and more subdivisions are taking over previously pristine country and more and more Texans are opting to hike and camp in remote and rugged areas, where the old-timers typically come equipped with feathers, fur, or fangs.

Here are seventeen worst-case scenarios in which twenty-first-century Texans might unexpectedly find themselves—from being swarmed by killer bees to sharing the surf with a hungry shark—as well as basic emergency steps to take to save life and limb. And remember, as you boldly set out to explore the wilder areas of Texas with their resident skunks, snakes, and more: Hey, it’s their state too.

Bitten by Fire Ants

One-quarter-inch long or smaller, these surly little critters possess a degree of aggression that is belied by their size. What’s more, they don’t even belong here. Red fire ants (they’re actually half red, half black) are believed to have arrived uninvited in the U.S. in the thirties by way of South American ships docked in Mobile, Alabama, and they have been mobile ever since. By the fifties they had happily set up housekeeping in East Texas. Today fire ants cover at least two thirds of the state, and a February 2000 poll reported that 79 percent of Texans have felt their burning sting. Fire ants are truly dangerous only to the allergic or infirm; in 1995 a ninety-year-old woman in a Texas nursing home died six days after fire ants swarmed her in her bed. But for the rest of us, they’re still plenty painful, and the irony of an attack is that motion is what cues them to sting. If you jerk your foot or otherwise react violently (and who doesn’t?), the ants send instant messages to their nearby friends telling them to join in the fun.

If—when!—you awake from a post-picnic nap to find yourself covered in fire ants:

1. Brush or rinse them off, but do so as calmly and slowly as you can. Dab the bites with a weak bleach solution (Add 1 tablespoon bleach to a 1-cup measure, then fill it with water. Dab on affected areas) within the first ten to fifteen minutes. According to Dr. Patrick J. Crocker, the chief of emergency medicine at Austin’s Brackenridge Hospital, this will help prevent the formation of the white, fluid-filled pustules that will otherwise appear the next day.

2. Apply ice to the bites to numb the pain and reduce swelling.

3. Avoid scratching. The blisters are easily broken and infected and can leave permanent scars.


Swarmed by Killer Bees

The Swarm, a 1978 big-budget film set in Houston, introduced the concept of killer bees some fifteen years before the insects themselves actually winged their way into the state. The cast of thousands—valiantly fought by the likes of Michael Caine, Richard Widmark, and Henry Fonda—manages to off a slew of hapless humans before succumbing to military overkill. But parts of the movie’s premise came true: Africanized honeybees—that is, a hybrid of a high-honey-producing African strain and a domesticated breed developed in Brazil—did indeed move north to the U.S. in the early nineties. Today the bees have spread as far west as Las Vegas, but the largest concentration in the country is, for some reason, in Abilene; this summer, in nearby Big Spring, a man hired to remove a hive was fatally stung by hundreds of bees.

Killer bees have a serious anger-management problem. Each colony of hundreds, or even thousands, will attack en masse in response to a perceived provocation or threat, which may consist simply of your firing up your mower a hundred feet away. Because the bees usually relocate during the fall and spring, they also favor sites such as barbecue pits left unused over the winter. So be on the lookout for solitary “scout” bees, and listen for buzzing.

If you find yourself besieged by Africanized honeybees:

1. Run! You can outrace them, although you’d better be in shape: They may chase you as far as five hundred feet. Try to get inside a house or car, or zigzag through trees, bushes, or tall weeds to gain some protection.

2. Don’t swat at the bees. It just ticks them off even more. And don’t jump in a pool or other body of water. They will likely hover, waiting for you to surface.

3. If you are stung, wait until you are safely away from the bees and then use a fingernail or the edge of a credit card to scrape the top of the stingers they will pop up and out of your skin. Don’t try to squeeze them out. That will only further damage the already swollen skin. But don’t leave them in either. They can continue to release venom for up to ten minutes.

4. Treat the stings with ice to reduce the swelling and, for the pain, a paste of baking soda and water or a topical anesthetic.


Lost in the Wilderness

Whether you’re wending your way to the Window in Big Bend or pointing your SUV down a temptingly rugged Hill Country path, you can easily fall afoul of Mother Nature (sudden downpours, surprised wildlife, and more) and her friend Lady Luck (car breakdowns, sprained ankles, or worse). But the sneakiest trick that the great outdoors can play is disorientation. It’s easy to get turned around in an area where all the majestic vistas blend into one another and where water is scarce and sunshine is not.

If you decide to go wild on your next vacation, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. Like a pilot, you need to file a flight plan; that way, if you don’t show up on time, you know help will come sooner or later. Carry plenty of water, at least one gallon per day per person, and don’t hike alone. If you do get lost, the best advice is to stay put and await the arrival of a search party; moving around will only leave you more tired and confused. “If you’ve got water and a little shade, you’ve got no reason to move,” says Big Bend supervisory ranger Laura Van Inwagen.

But what if you get lost in the middle of nowhere, you forgot to tell anyone where you were going, your car won’t start, your cell phone won’t work, and you just ran out of Ozarka? You may have to take drastic measures:

1. Signal for help. Blow a whistle if you’ve got one or honk an SOS. You can also flash a mirror in the sun to attract attention. Recognized distress signals include firing three shots, lighting three fires arranged in a triangle, or outlining a triangle on the ground, using sticks or rocks. If no one responds after several hours, consider backtracking or forging ahead on foot, but be sure to leave some kind of message or rudimentary signal, even if it’s only an arrow made of rocks.

2. Check out the lay of the land. There are ups and downs to this step: You can climb to the nearest high point to get your bearings—ideally, you’ll spot a building—or you can try paralleling a creek or river as it moves downstream, where people are more likely to have settled. If you travel downhill, stay on the more visible ridges, not in the hidden arroyos.

3. Look for water. The most promising sources lie below rock slides at the bases of cliffs or in the damp sand that underlies dry stream beds (tall greenery and animal paths help you locate the latter). You can chew the flesh of cacti or the pith of their stalks to at least moisten your mouth (after first de-spining and peeling the plant, of course), but do not swallow the fibrous goo. (Overall, this practice has killed far more cacti than it has saved hikers.)

4. Be prepared for temperature extremes. If possible, bunk down under a ledge or in another site offering protection from wind and rain. During the heat of the day, be sure to cover your head. Rest a few minutes every hour, in whatever limited shade you can find, but don’t sit on the ground; it’s much hotter than the ambient air.


Rules of Survival

Someday you’ll look back and laugh, right? Yes, if you remember to follow these all-important tips.


1. Call 911.

The first rule in any emergency is to phone for help and make sure trained professionals are on the way. Call even if you are uncertain about the gravity of the situation; better red-faced than dead.

2. Watch out for shock.

The brutality of a predator attack or the sound and fury of a tornado can induce shock, a dangerous medical condition caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure. Symptoms include cool but sweaty skin, rapid or irregular pulse, anxiety, thirst, and nausea or vomiting. In general, after administering emergency first aid, cover the victim with a sheet or blanket and reassure him until help arrives. Keep him on his back unless he is vomiting or bleeding from his mouth; in that case, roll him on his side. Do not give him food or water.

3. Beware of allergic reactions.

The average Texan will merely suffer miserably if he or she is swarmed by fire ants or struck by a rattler, but pity the poor soul whose system is hypersensitive to a particular toxin. In addition to pain, an allergic victim will experience flushing, tingling, or numbness, break out in hives or a rash, or develop breathing difficulties and facial swelling. Prepare to perform CPR, wait for paramedics, and pray.

4. Keep emergency supplies handy.

If you live in flood or tornado country (that is to say, Texas), always have the following ready and waiting: containers of fresh water (at least a gallon per person per day), nonperishable food, a manual can opener, a battery-powered radio and flashlight, essential medicines, and a first-aid kit. For a detailed list of recommended emergency supplies, go to redcross.org or txdps.state.tx.us/dem.


Threatened by a Tornado

Because of its size, Texas has more tornadoes every year than any other state (as many as 232, a 1967 record). Interstate 35 is known as Tornado Alley because so many of the funnel clouds have cruised southward on the invitingly smooth road, wreaking havoc in assorted towns along the way. The state’s weather experts have long feared a severe tornado hitting the Dallas­Fort Worth Metroplex; noted one meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Fort Worth office, “It is not a question of if, but when.” Such a storm could directly hit as many as 38,000 structures, 87,000 vehicles, and 178,000 people. Despite the scary statistics and the even scarier weather, Texans have always maintained their sense of humor. After a 1964 tornado hit Wichita Falls, one family put up a sign in front of their ruined home that read “Who Says the Bakers Don’t Throw Wild Parties?”

In Texas, a funnel is more likely to touch down on an afternoon in May than at any other time. So if you’re busy decorating the maypole and look up to see a twister approaching, just follow these instructions:

1. Get down. Lie in a ditch or a similar low spot and cover your head with your arms. With luck, the tornado will pass right over you.

2. If you’re driving, pull over and get out, then follow the above directions. You can’t outrun a tornado, and it’s powerful enough to pick up your vehicle and toss it into the air.

3. If you’re at home, go to the basement, if you have one, or otherwise the smallest room with the fewest windows (usually a bathroom or closet). If possible, drag in a mattress and crawl under it.

4. If you’re in a mobile home, get out! Because it has essentially just been plunked down on the ground, it is a plaything for a tornado.


Caught in a Flood

It’s been pouring all day. By mid-afternoon your kids are home from school, calling you at work every fifteen minutes with a mini-disaster update (“There are five geckos in the sink . . . The yard furniture got knocked over and washed all the way down to the Wilsons’ fence”). The increasingly dire flash-flood warnings start to make you nervous, so you duck out early and dash home, anxious to reassure yourself that all is well. And all is—until you reach the water crossing just a hundred yards from your house. The marker shows only eighteen inches or so of what looks like foamy chocolate milk flowing by. But shoot, you’re driving a big ol’ SUV, so you boldly edge out into the stream and press the accelerator. In response you feel the car move—sideways. You and your Texas-size vehicle are being swept away.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, Central Texas is the flash-flood capital of the U.S., and the state as a whole reported some six-hundred-plus fatalities between 1960 and 1995, more than twice as many as any other state. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, more people drown in their cars during a flood than anywhere else. So don’t even think of driving through a flooded low-water crossing, no matter how big your vehicle. Turn around.

But if you misjudge the situation and are swept downstream, here’s our reluctant advice:

1. Unbuckle your seat belt. You’re not going anywhere with that thing on.

2. Get out of the car as fast as you can. Your best bet is to open your window (even electric windows should continue to work several minutes after submersion); the water pressure may not allow you to open your door. If necessary, you may have to use a tool—even your foot—to break the glass.

3. Let the current carry you downstream, keeping your feet forward as much as you can. Attempt to grab a tree and hold on for dear life. Try not to grab floating debris; it can easily injure you, and it may harbor snakes and other unhappy wildlife.

4. Wait for rescue. But save your energy for calling out until the noise of the rain and the roar of the creek have subsided or until you spot people on dry land.


Stung by a Jellyfish

Hypnotically undulating and even fetchingly fluorescent in public aquariums, jellyfish can inflict an agonizing sting when up close and personal. Their balloonlike tops are harmless, but their trailing tentacles contain stinging cells called nematocysts that can leave painful burning welts on the skin—even after the creature has died. The one most often encountered in Texas waters is the beautiful, purply-blue Portuguese man-of-war (which isn’t really a jellyfish, for reasons too long and complicated to explain, but then again, jellyfish aren’t really fish; they’re invertebrates. Now, back to our program).

If you cross paths with a jellyfish:

1. Wash the stung area with seawater. Use a stiff, straight-edged object, such as a credit card or the back of a knife, to scrape the area and remove any clinging “jelly.”

2. Make a paste of meat tenderizer and rubbing alcohol or water and spread it on to ease the pain. Enzymes in the meat tenderizer help break down the poison. Or apply hydrocortisone cream.


Struck by a Rattlesnake

Although Texas has fourteen species of venomous snakes, the most common and widespread is the Western diamondback, an aggressive rattlesnake found all over the state. Since they are large—often as much as seven feet long—they can easily inject life-threatening amounts of venom. But they rarely do: Less than one percent of Texas’ snakebite victims die, including those bitten by our eight other kinds of rattlers, three varieties of copperheads, and the equally unfriendly Western cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin). That leaves only the colorful coral snake, with its bands of black, red, and yellow. You can distinguish this cousin of the cobra from similarly vivid but harmless species, such as the king snake, because it is the only Texas snake whose red and yellow rings touch. All Texas schoolkids memorize the couplet “Red and yellow kill a fellow” or, in some areas, “Red and yellow, tell Saint Peter hello.” Although bites from coral snakes are rare, their neurotoxin is particularly potent; besides hurting like hell, it can induce respiratory failure.

According to nineteenth-century Texas folklore, the victim of a rattler bite could cure himself simply by biting off the head of the offending snake. Modern medical experts frown on this method, so . . .

If you are bitten by a venomous snake:

1. Call 911. If you’re in a remote area, dispatch a fellow hiker for help or give three short blasts on a whistle as an emergency signal. Says Big Bend’s Laura Van Inwagen: “Remember, you could go into shock or develop heat-related problems on top of the snakebite, so your judgment will most likely be impaired. Just stay where you are.”

2. Remain calm. Panic heightens cardiovascular activity and accelerates the spread of venom throughout the body.

3. Remove rings, watches, and other jewelry worn in the vicinity of a bite before swelling makes it impossible to do so.

4. Sit or lie down and keep the injured limb below the level of the heart. If possible, use a smooth tree branch, walking stick, or similar object as a splint to immobilize the limb.

5. Don’t play doctor! Don’t cut into the skin, don’t try to squeeze or suck out the venom, don’t use a tourniquet or an elastic bandage, and don’t apply ice or cold packs. All these methods of treatment are more likely to worsen the damage than to reduce it.


Swept away by a Riptide

Also called undertows, riptides can mean RIP time. Here’s how they form: Relatively minor currents resulting from the agitation of breaking waves flow through the tunnel caused by the curving walls of water and build up force, only to crash into one another. That forms a whirlpool of sorts that heads outward from the beach toward the sea. Because the currents churn up silt and sand as they swirl together, they sometimes have a brown hue and a choppy surface that make them stand out. Matagorda Beach, where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, has long been famous for severe riptides, which, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association, are responsible for some 80 percent of ocean rescues nationwide.

If you’re swimming alone on an isolated stretch of beach and feel yourself gripped and pulled out to sea by a riptide:

1. Go with the flow. This will conserve your strength. Don’t swim against the current; the water will win.

2. When you feel the current’s pull lessening—which could be as much as one hundred yards from shore—change direction and swim parallel to the shore or diagonally toward it until you’ve outstripped the rip. The waves will help wash you back in.


Pricked by a Cactus

Say you’ve spent the night in a darling little bed-and-breakfast in the country, and during a morning walk you discover a bumper crop of tunas—those pretty pink fruits of the prickly pear—ripening all over a massive stand of cacti. Carried away by the retro idea of making prickly-pear jelly, you start madly picking the tunas and storing them in your pockets . . . and then your fingers start to twinge. After close examination you realize that their tips are covered with cilia-like spines called glochidia. Forget the big thorns—these tiny barbs are far worse. Shaped like a fishhook, they lodge securely in your skin and are extremely hard to remove. And unless you try to get them out, they can create sore, swollen pustules that may last for as long as nine months.

If little pricks get under your skin:

1. Go pluck yourself. Attempts to remove the glochidia with fingers or teeth will only spread them to other parts of the body and prolong the pain. For best results, follow this two-step approach: First, use tweezers and a magnifying glass to remove as many as possible. Then apply a regular household glue, such as Elmer’s, to the affected area, cover it with gauze, and, when the glue is dry, pull off the bandage.

2. The nasty big needles can usually be removed with fingers or tweezers if a large enough portion is sticking out. If one breaks off, the easiest solution is to apply a cold pack for several minutes, then squeeze the skin on either side of the needle (it should shoot out like a bullet).


Stricken with Heatstroke

You don’t have to be sunburned to develop heatstroke, a condition in which your body overheats so fast or so steadily that you dehydrate and your sweat glands can’t work fast enough to keep you safely cool. An afternoon of gardening or a midday game of Frisbee may induce exertional heatstroke, but the condition can also build up over a few days—say, in a house with a defunct air conditioner. Heatstroke isn’t a Hollywood-worthy medical situation—its main symptoms include dizziness, confusion, weak or rapid pulse, flushing, headache, and dry skin—but it is life-threatening. It is difficult to self-diagnose, so hope your companions are paying attention.

If you think you are suffering from heatstroke:

1. Play it cool. Get inside, or at least into a shaded area. Sprinkle water on yourself or tie a wet bandanna around your head or neck.

2. Drink lots of cool water or sports beverages such as Gatorade.

3. Loosen or remove exterior clothing and fan yourself to help lower your body temperature.


Charged by a Raging Bull

Tooling around the back roads, you and your honey-pie find a little pasture that’s perfect for a romantic picnic, with only a few live oaks obscuring a 360-degree view of verdant October Texas. You scale the barbed wire, spread a cloth under a tree, and set out a loaf of bread and a jug of wine—when suddenly a snort alerts you to the presence of a large and highly displeased bull. There’s nowhere to hide. A bull can knock over even a sizable tree trunk. Two years ago when a two-ton Charolais charged his uncle, Lyle Lovett ended up with a shattered leg because, fine Texan that he is, he did the right thing: He used a distraction to draw the animal’s attention away from the older man to himself. Only trouble was the distraction was himself, and he didn’t manage to get his right leg over the fence quite fast enough.

If you too have a close encounter of the bovine kind:

1. Stay calm. Rise slowly and stand very still. With luck, the beast will lose interest and look away, at which point you can sprint for the fence.

2. If the bull starts tossing his head or pawing the ground, distract him. Wave a T-shirt, hat, or other item; when the animal charges, throw it in one direction and run like hell in another.


Surprised by a Deer in the Road

For Texas deer, November is the cruelest month; more collisions between bucks and Buicks occur then than at any other time of the year. Deer are more active in general in mid- to late fall, during the mating and hunting seasons. In 2000 the Department of Public Safety reported that 15 people in Texas died and some 1,500 were injured when their cars hit deer (the animals rarely survive).

To avoid rack and ruin, carry comprehensive auto insurance; basic collision does not cover a car-deer encounter. While driving, be especially alert at dawn and dusk, when deer (and other wild animals) are most likely to be out and about.

And if you see the flash of your headlights reflected in a deer’s eyes:

1. Don’t swerve! Brake and hold the car steady. The DPS says that more drivers and passengers are hurt or killed by trying to avoid a deer than by hitting one head-on.

2. If you hit the deer, call 911. Report the collision and any human injuries. If the animal isn’t dead, the law enforcement official who comes to the scene will dispatch it.

3. Don’t carve it up and take it home. It’s illegal to keep roadkill venison; a highway clean-up crew will remove the carcass later.


Stuck Outside in a Lightning Storm

“If you’re caught on a golf course during a storm and are afraid of lightning, hold up a 1-iron. Not even God can hit a 1-iron.” That’s the tongue-in-cheek advice of Dallas native Lee Trevino, who in 1975 was struck by lightning near Chicago during the Western Open. But seriously now: If you can, bolt for home. During a storm, anyone who stays outside is at risk—in August an Aldine student was injured as he sat on a bench in front of the high school—and remember that the weather conditions that produce lightning may occur up to ten miles from the site of actual thunderheads. If your hair stands on end the way it did when you played with a Van de Graaff generator in science class, you’re in immediate danger.

If that happens:

1. Get indoors if possible. It’s the safest place.

2. Otherwise, think small. Lightning arcing groundward will hit the closest tall object, so never take shelter under a tree. Squat down and tuck in your head; that way, if you’re struck, the electricity may pass through you with minimal damage.

3. Make a break for your car if it’s close by, but be aware that there’s a chance—albeit a slim one—that lightning could hit the car and electrify its metal parts.


Menaced by a Mountain Lion

People are so fascinated with the state’s only remaining big cat that they report sightings all over the place, from the Panhandle to East Texas. But our largest native predator (it can weigh as much as 170 pounds) is really a shy pussycat that hangs out mainly in Big Bend, the site of Texas’s only mountain lion attacks over the past century (four total, none of them fatal). Unless it’s truly ravenous, the mountain lion would rather avoid humans altogether, so apply an ounce of pounce prevention. When in cougar country (not counting the University of Houston), don’t hike alone and don’t let children wander away from you; kids are the victims in about two thirds of all attacks.

But if you’re exploring Big Bend, say, and you turn a corner of the trail and find yourself face-to-face with a snarling lion:

1. Don’t run! The cat will instinctively give chase.

2. Make noise. Yell, sing, bang your walking stick on the ground—this may scare it away.

3. Make eye contact. Mountain lions prefer to jump on their victims from above or behind. If they lose the element of surprise, they often abandon their pursuit.

4. Try to make yourself look larger: Gather your fellow hikers into a group; lift your backpack up over your head; spread out your shirt or jacket; pick up children. The cat wants a small target.

5. If attacked, fight back. Even a token effort to hit a lion can encourage it to find less troublesome prey.


Attacked by a Shark

It’s a beautiful day on the Gulf of Mexico, and you and your friend Sandy are frolicking in the waters of Galveston Bay. Sandy dives down, tickling you as she swims past. You surface and look around for her, only to feel her nudge your hip as she glides by again. But wait: There’s Sandy, in her eye-catching red bikini, a few yards toward shore. So what just bumped you?

Three shark attacks off the Texas coast this summer left that many young people injured and thousands of nervous vacationers deciding to merely watch and wade. The culprit in each attack—two off Galveston, one near Freeport—was likely a bull shark, a common gray monster that can be more than ten feet long. Short of depriving yourself of the pleasures of sun, sand, and surf, is there anything you can do to prevent or foil a shark attack? Yes, but bear in mind that, Jaws notwithstanding, swimmers and surf fishermen rarely see a dorsal fin slicing menacingly toward them. Most sharks stay completely submerged, sometimes in as little as three feet of water.

If a shark joins you while you’re swimming:

1. Don’t panic. Splashing and screaming will only heighten the shark’s interest. And don’t turn your back or try to swim away. That’s like waving a red cape at a bull (shark).

2. If the shark lunges at you, try to hit it in the eyes or gills or on the nose. These areas are particularly sensitive, and besides, no shark is used to its prey fighting back. Your going on the offensive should discourage a bite or, if the shark has already chomped down, persuade it to release you.

3. If you are injured—and the shark has vamoosed—place your hand directly on the wound and apply pressure to slow the bleeding. Move slowly toward shore and yell for help. Lie down and use towels or blankets to wrap your wound, and continue to apply direct pressure until paramedics arrive.


Sprayed by a Skunk

What does Bambi’s friend Flower have in common with the natural gas that fuels your stove? Both contain mercaptan, a sulfuric compound with a serious stench. It is added to odorless gas so humans will know when there’s a leak, but for skunks it’s an all-natural built-in defense system. Most people who spot a skunk have enough scents—er, sense—to stay well away, but few dogs are noted for their caution and judgment.

If you or Fido tangles with a skunk:

1. Flush eyes thoroughly with water.

2. Strip off exterior clothing (if applicable) and throw it away or burn it.

3. Generously apply Skunk Shampoo (Mix 1 quart hydrogen peroxide, 1/4 cup baking soda, and 1 teaspoon dishwashing liquid in a large bowl (it will foam up; be prepared). Use it while it’s still bubbling. This concoction interacts with chemicals called thiols in the mercaptan to help remove the stink. Be sure to keep it out of your eyes.) to hair (or coat) and repeat as needed.

4. If all else fails, shave your head—or the dog.


Infected by an Armadillo

Sometimes referred to as “possum on the half shell” because it so often ends up as roadkill, the armadillo has pronounced myopia, a penchant for digging, a slow waddle, and a long tail that, as many a country boy knows, makes an easy handle for pulling the silly critter out of its hidey-hole. Or maybe it’s the country boy who’s the silly critter: Some 15 percent of Texas’s armadillos carry the bacteria that cause Hansen’s disease, a.k.a. leprosy. But don’t panic. “Today it’s a very treatable disease,” says Dr. M. Patricia Joyce, a former Texas resident who is an infectious disease specialist at the National Hansen’s Disease Programs, in Baton Rouge. Texas reports many of the nation’s cases—probably because the armadillo is our official state mascot. “Texans play with them,” Joyce notes. “At the annual festival in Victoria, two-hundred-odd people race them.”

If you forget to don gloves before making friends with ‘dillos at a petting zoo, try this advice:

1. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

2. See a doctor if you develop a rash or bumps that are lighter or darker than your surrounding skin and that feel numb to the touch. Meanwhile, don’t worry about pariah status: The incubation period for Hansen’s disease ranges from nine months to (jeez!) twenty years.

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