If Mindy Wendling had not seen it with her own eyes, she might not have believed it. There was an armadillo in her backyard.
Late Friday night her children called her downstairs because there was an animal kicking dirt and mud at the window. It was around 11:30 p.m. and it had been raining so Wendling decided not to go outside to see what it was. Her daughter said it looked like an armadillo. Wendling said she and her other three children who were home at the time laughed at the idea.
The next night it happened again. An animal was kicking dirt at their basement window. This time, she shined a flashlight at the animal and it jumped “really high,” Wendling said. That was when she could see that it was, in fact, an armadillo. She was shocked and said when she thinks about armadillos, she thinks about them being in Texas not in her backyard located just east of Pekin.
“It was in our basement window well and couldn’t get out because they’re pretty deep,” she said.
Wendling decided to set a live trap for it. It was lowered down into the window well with fruit, vegetables and dog food inside.
Around 10:30 p.m. Sunday night the armadillo walked into the trap. Not really knowing what to do next she decided to text her former co-worker Jason Juchems who has an extensive science background.
He came out that night and identified the unexpected nocturnal visitor as a nine-banded armadillo. It was roughly the size of a medium-sized cat.
“Jason said it was a full-grown male,” Wendling said. “It had a real skunk odor. He told me that some people have three or six-banded armadillos as pets, but this wasn’t someone’s pet. It was a nine-banded one.”
Juchems took the live trap with him and called his friend Scott Ballard, a heritage biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources in southern Illinois.
“(Ballard) said he considers them wide-spread in Illinois now which is interesting,” said Juchems. “It was a matter of time. They do tear up property. They’re insectivores so they dig (to find food).”
Wendling emailed Francisco A. Jimenez-Ruiz, a zoology professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. He was extremely interested in learning about the location of the armadillo. Wendling said that if he can confirm the specimen, it will be the northernmost tracked armadillo that is alive.
He also wrote to her that “armadillos are already common in Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Oklahoma and all of the Gulf states. Models predict that they will continue their dispersion north east toward New Jersey. These same models would predict that their northern limit more or less would be the parallel 40. The line that divides Kansas and Nebraska, it is about 36 miles south from your place. To my knowledge, your armadillo is the northern-most record in Illinois vouchered with a specimen, which is extremely important.”
Wendling added that he was interested to track them, especially in the winters of central Illinois.
Juchems recalled a story the Chicago Tribune ran in 2005 about a dead armadillo found in the suburb of Bloomingdale. They are native to South and Central America.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” said Juchems. “I’ll be curious to hear if more are spotted in that area.”
On Monday morning Wendling turned her wild weekend adventure into a learning opportunity for her sixth-grade students at Washington Intermediate School in Pekin. At first, she only showed her students pictures of the armadillo and did not even say what it was out loud. Using sticky notes, the class got busy writing down questions they had about it, connections they made upon seeing the photographs and information they already knew about armadillos. “I turned it into a non-fiction lesson,” Wendling said. “We just kept going with it. It was a learning experience.”
The Illinois Conservation Police picked up the armadillo Monday morning from Juchems’ residence.
Jimenez-Ruiz gave an interview for NPR Illinois last week and asked that anyone with pictures or information about armadillos in Illinois to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.