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Are armadillos the greatest threat to civilization?

Sharks are on the attack. Wolves are invading cities. Armadillos are spreading leprosy. What's behind the rash of conflict between man and beast?
A nine-banded armadillo in evening sunshine. (Photo by Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket/Getty)
A nine-banded armadillo in evening sunshine.

Sharks are on the attack along the East Coast. Wolf-coyote hybrids are invading cities from Atlanta to New York. Now armadillos are apparently spreading the ancient scourge of leprosy in Florida. The next installment of "Planet of the Apes" isn’t due for years, but this summer Americans seem to be living through a popcorn-free preview of species-on-species war.  

It’s enough to make one think the greatest threat of our time is not a nuclear armed Iran or unchecked climate change or an air borne strain of Ebola. Those are dangers, no doubt, but they feel distant and vague when compared to the clear and present risk of open conflict between man and beast.

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Perhaps future historians will say that we should have seen it coming—this fight to the death for what’s left of our ruined earth. Humanity has chewed through at least a third of the land on the planet, slurped up half the fresh water, and harvested the ocean to the edge of collapse.

At every level of the biosphere, we’re driving other species to extinction faster than the fastest rate ever before known. We’ve halved the population of the average vertebrate species in less than a half century. Would it be any wonder if the animals were out for vengeance? Wouldn’t you be sick and tired of being cooked up with rice, run over with impunity, shot for sport, evicted from your home, and separated from your furry family?

“There’s a clear reason why this is happening,” Dr. Sunil Joshi, president of the Duval County Medical Society in Florida, told a local television station recently. “New homes are being developed and we are tearing down armadillos’ homes in the process.”

In other words, the animals seem to be fighting back against human encroachment. And it’s the same with the sharks. Shark attacks have been steadily rising since 1900, according to the International Shark Attack File. Researchers aren’t sure why. Mostly, they point to the simple fact that there are more people in the water, and those people are treating it like a combination bathtub and toilet.   

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But the animal revolt isn’t limited to armadillos or sharks. The Centers for Disease Control has been tracking interspecies murder for years, and the results are chilling. Spiders, ants, cows, dogs, bees, pigs, deer and “other mammals” have killed thousands of people in the last decade, suggesting a kind of guerilla war we’ve yet to fully comprehend.  

It’s hard to imagine anything slowing our roll. Our boot is so heavy on the throat of the planet that scientists have proposed a new geological epoch, one that recognizes us as something akin to Gods: the primary force of life, death, and everything in between.

But the animal world could still rise up and stop us. We’re outnumbers and surrounded, a mere sliver of the overall biomass on earth. If the global 99% decide to attack, humanity is finished.

This whole horrific threat was laid out in “Violence of the Lambs,” John Jeremiah Sullivan’s 2008 feature in GQ magazine. Sullivan, a National Magazine Award winner, warned of “the coming battled between man and beast.”

“Across numerous species and habitat types, we are seeing, in crudest terms, animals do things we haven’t seen them do before,” he wrote, detailing an alarming rise in animal attacks worldwide.

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Sullivan’s GQ article was a bit of a joke, of course, a prank complete with fake quotes from a fake expert. This is article is a bit of a joke too. Let’s take a deep breath, America.

Shark attacks are slightly above average this year, but still well within the normal range. Leprosy has been tied to armadillos, according to a 2011 study in the New England of Medicine, but there is no confirmed epidemic in Florida. The stories are based on some anecdotal comments from a local health official, not even a leprosy expert. And national leprosy rates have actually fallen since 1994, according to the CDC.

The only thing on the rise is bad trend stories. Unfortunately, there is no cure.