To be honest, I am not certain when I first saw a prairie dog, but I am pretty sure it was love at first sight. More than likely, it was one of the many trips between Iola and Kinsley to see my grandparents when someone pointed out the cute little critters. After all, I still remember many times of being glued to the window and looking for prairie dogs once we had made it far enough west to reach the places where they would call home.
However, it may very well have been at the Emporia zoo too when they first came into my life. While that memory from my early childhood may have been lost, there was another that has lasted from a time in Emporia during my youngest years. My sister and I had wandered into a pet store in the Emporia mall, and there high above me and out of reach was prairie dog in a cage. Needless to say, that led to many ideas forming in my toddler mind, but my mother resisted each request for a new pet to join our household. Plus, that said prairie dog wasn’t for sale either. Still, I can remember it to this day.
Since those early years of my life, prairie dogs have come in and out of my world. During another Kinsley trip, my Grandpa Feldman took my grandma, mother, sister, and me to Dodge City out to eat and then to Wal-Mart. Right next to the parking lot was a prairie dog town. Needless to say, I wanted to go back every time we were back in that part of Kansas, but I don’t recall our ever doing so.
Then there was the one and only time for me to ever touch a prairie dog. During my days at Emporia State University, I served as a docent at the Emporia Zoo. While my hopes of getting to pet one of their lemurs never came true which may or may not have first motivated me to take on that volunteer job, I did get to have many other great experiences. Just a few of the stories would be Lucy and Ricky the ball pythons helping me overcome my fear of snakes (although that was short lived thanks to Spartacus, another ball python, who was my roommate for a while (about equal months of my not knowing and knowing about his being in the apartment) and put the fear right back in me), Karla the Kinkajou wrapping her tail around my arm, the gay ducks at a zoo open house, and an evil chinchilla who used its razor-sharp teeth on my poor, defenseless finger. Those are all stories for another time though. The one relevant to this post was one time when I was in one of the employee-only buildings, and I met a recently acquired domesticated prairie dog. Hungry for attention, it would climb the side of its cage wanting someone to pet it. The zoo keeper warned me the adorably cute prairie dog could possibly bite; however, she still let me scratch its little belly through the cage, causing the little guy to make sounds of pure bliss. The look on his face of such happiness is one I will never forget, and truth be told, a similar look probably was on mine as well.
Another happy time with prairie dogs was when my great friend Ben from Australia spent some weeks with me in 2007. On a road trip to Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills of South Dakota, we made a quick stop near the Badlands after I noticed a prairie dog town near the road. It was there Ben saw for the first time the cute little critters. Later, he told me they were one of his favorite parts of his American adventure, and that too also makes me smile.
There have also been some close calls with prairie dogs. I received a lecture one time from Mormon John on our way back from Colorado when I may have swerved to miss a prairie dog who had wandered out onto I-70. The prairie dog and we were all safe, so all’s well that ends well. Thankfully, I also missed a Utah prairie dog who had scampered out onto the road my mother and I were taking on our detour to have lunch in Telluride on our journey from Moab to Monument Valley back in May. They were all over along parts of that highway, and they were adorable, and they were traffic hazards, but we made it past them A-Okay. Keep in mind, I am also the guy who tries his best to dodge butterflies.
Then for the last eleven years, I have been living in a place where I get to see prairie dogs on a regular basis, especially after Target closed which then in turn increased my trips to Wal-Mart. The prairie dogs are one of the many reasons why I love Hutchinson. It has also been fascinating to watch their expansion too. When I first arrived back in 2007, they were largely hanging out in a completely useless piece of land at the corner of Highway 61 and 17th. However, the city of Hutchinson attempted to rid themselves of the prairie dogs for some unknown reason. A giant vacuum cleaner was brought in and the prairie dogs were sucked up. Then came the PR nightmare when the relocation of said prairie dogs was to a home of many badgers who were pleased with the dinner delivery. Some of the prairie dogs managed to escape that fate, and they expanded to another spot nearby. They too were marked for relocation several years later, but still some of the prairie dogs managed to stay behind and expand their town once again.
Now relatively large, the prairie dog town has become quite the colony on both sides of 17th, north of Wal-Mart and around, rightfully so, Petco. Plus, there is another colony south of Home Depot too. The prairie dogs are not without their controversy, but they are also a source of delight for many as I have found many times when I have been spending some evenings watching them eat, play, and simply be highly amusing. Often times, other people will park their cars and watch the prairie dogs for a while. I have seen people bring food to one of the unofficial observation parking stalls to have the prairie dog antics serve as a dinner theatre of sorts. Just the other evening while I was taking photos of the prairie dogs for this post, there was a car with a California license plate and a van from Alabama that were both parked to allow their owners to take in the same sight I was enjoying. Plus, the people were all friendly as we talked about the prairie dogs and how much fun to watch they are. The same held true with the truck driver originally from the Ukraine who stopped and chatted for a while as he asked me what exactly they were. He too smiled as he looked out at the town.
This fascination with prairie dogs, I think, is rightfully so, for they are indeed fascinating little creatures. With that said, a negative campaign has also been launched against them with many viewing them as pests. The three biggest pillars of that said campaign are 1. Cattle break their legs thanks to the prairie dog holes, 2. Prairie dogs carry the plague, and 3. They are horrible for the land. Well, it turns out that while some cows and horses have been brought down from time to time thanks to a prairie dog burrow, it really is not a common thing at all according to different studies. This problem may have been more prevalent during the days of cattle drives, but cows just hanging out in a pasture tend to be smart enough to avoid the holes from what I could find online. In fact, some ranchers have found prairie dogs and cattle can live in harmony just like bison and prairie dogs had done for many years before the United States was conquered by Europeans (if you want to read more about that set up, click here and here for tales of different ranches that have embraced both prairie dogs and cattle). As far as the plague goes, prairie dogs are susceptible; however, scientists have also found ways to vaccinate them, including through peanut-butter flavored vaccine-loaded blocks.
Now when it comes to prairie dogs being horrible for the land, that could not be further from the truth. Sure, they may not create the kind of land a developer or a rancher wants, but looking at what they do from an ecological point of view, then prairie dogs are fantastic. For starters, they control the growth of weeds like sagebrush and mesquite that are noxious to livestock. Their turning up the soil allows for aeration, and they also provide fertilizer through their waste, which leads to the grasses being higher in both protein and nitrogen, thus making the area better for wildlife like deer, bison, and antelope to graze. Furthermore, they help keep down the grasshopper population.
The presence of prairie dogs leads to the presence of other animals. In addition to attracting the previously mentioned grazing animals, their burrows can also become homes for the burrowing owls, black-footed ferrets, and swift foxes. Furthermore, thinking about prairie dogs in the Circle of Life mentality, they are an important food resource for many animals and birds too.
All of these things come together to lead scientists to describe prairie dogs as a keystone species. Basically, if one removes the prairie dogs, one removes all of the benefits they bring and the other animals too, which then accounts for endangered status of the black-footed ferret thanks to the eradication of prairie dogs. Places have found out the hard way the negatives that come with wiping out prairie dogs. For an example, former Mexican prairies have become deserts filled with mesquite after the poisoning of the prairie dogs who had once kept that invasive weed at bay. The hope is by reintroducing them to the area, the prairie ecosystem can return, but needless to say, tons of damage that may not reversible was done to a land once rich in life thanks to the shortsightedness of handling the wild prairie dogs.
Along with being great for the land, prairie dogs are just amusing to watch, and I think much can be learned from them too. For starters, their communication is rich. Northern Arizona University’s Professor Con Slobodchikoff has studied their language for over 30 years and found that the noise they make not only identifies the predator (coyote, hawk, human) but also describes them too. One could easily argue prairie dogs have one of the most complex languages in the animal kingdom.
This complex language goes hand-in-hand or paw-in-paw with the social nature of prairie dogs. Spend some time watching them, and it is easy to be delighted with watching them interact with each other whether it be wrestling around or watching for each other when possible predator appears. If you have never spent the time doing so, here is a video I took last Friday night:
Without a doubt, prairie dogs demonstrate the importance of a community. They seem to watch out for each other, including giving signs to those in their colony through the extremely adorable jump-yips the black-tailed prairie dogs will do when they leap onto their back paws and throw their front ones into the air (watch the video to get full appreciation).
Furthermore, prairie dogs are remnants of a world that once was before the rise of towns, cities, and other developments throughout the former Wild West. Prairie dogs have found, when not poisoned, ways to try to adapt with the changing landscape, and along with it, they create a tie for others to follow suit. In a way, they seem to symbolize the spirit of the Frontier Strip is still alive in these parts with its finding a way to survive among the domestication of the Great Plains.
Last but definitely not least, the prairie dogs in Hutchinson are a good reminder to take some time and take in the little things. It would be so easy to drive right by them and not notice the whole ecosystem in between a road and a parking lot. However, by looking over to their town, watching them frolic, and seeing one maybe throw its paws in the air to then have another join him or her, we can all be reminded about how something so small can be so crucial to the lives of so many others. After all, everything plays a part in the bigger picture, and as those prairie dogs dig their burrows and keep the weeds at bay, they are playing an important role in the grand scheme of things.