"With a little help from my friends"
Prairie dog towns were meant to expand naturally, but in a world that is constantly shrinking due to urban sprawl, prairie dogs often show up on forbidden territory such as private property or public recreation areas, and more and more are found near roadways where they are placed in imminent danger. Sometimes they are boxed into small areas and the displaced prairie dogs have no place to go. For mere survival, they wander in search of food. There are concerned citizens who want them moved safely, and fortunately for the prairie dogs, many small groups often come to their aid whenever possible. The prairie dogs are humanely captured using suds from a mild dishwashing liquid, which flush them out of their burrows so they may be moved out of harm's way. This effort causes a very brief disruption in their little lives resulting in minimal stress, and causes no harm to the ecosystem or the other wildlife that share a prairie dog burrow. These groups work fervently within a society that often condemns this misunderstood species, on little to no funding, while promoting education and awareness with an open invitation to the public to observe a relocation or even assist in relocation projects.
Spending a Day With Prairie Dog Specialists (PDS)
On an extremely hot summer day, I was invited to assist in a prairie dog relocation in the Denver area. The initials "PDS" stand for Prairie Dog Specialists, and in my humble opinion, it also means 'pretty darned special'. As a rescue for prairie dogs for discarded and displaced animals from the pet trade, I found it to be a mutually educational experience. Through rescue, I came to know prairie dogs up close and personally, and a side of prairie dogs that is very different from those who observe them on the prairie. Living with prairie dogs enable us to become an integral part of their existence, and they view us as members of their family and community. We have a very different relationship with them from that of a researcher, relocator, biologist or naturalist would have with them as an "outsider"; therefore our exchange of information was beneficial in understanding the complex nature of the prairie dog. Sharing stories and personal experiences enables us to understand behaviors, language, and other unique social characteristics of the prairie dog from our different perspectives.
It was interesting to learn from these experienced relocators, as they inspected burrow entrances and explained their findings. They pointed out the fresh scat and the fresh nose prints in and around the burrow entrance (see photo below) and explained how they could tell if prairie dogs were living there or if the burrows were abandoned. Occasionally, we saw cobwebs in some of the deserted burrow entrances.
prairie dog burrow
I was delighted to see the nose prints and then see the amazing construction of these burrows. It helped me to understand certain behaviors I see in my prairie dog family members. For example, I had often seen various members of my gang arch their bodies in a jack hammer-like stance and begin to pound away.. on me, a blanket, their hay, etc. and was finally able to make the correlation between that behavior and what they do in their natural environment.. their burrow making instincts are innate. They are God's little earth engineers!
Although my gang had not lived in an underground burrow since they were tiny pups, it was clear to me that the behavior I was seeing at home was innate behavior, and it was very interesting to see what that behavior can accomplish. I can appreciate their hard work in order to get these burrow entrances weatherized, and mounds that serve as an observatory to watch for predators. I have joyfully witnessed the ethics of prairie dogs and their work habits. It's pretty amazing! In my home, the females appear to work relentlessly.. digging, burrowing, pounding, arranging and rearranging things, while the males (sentry) occasionally chip in and help, but basically hang around unless company comes to visit.. and then come to attention and are on full alert. I observed the same behaviors in their natural setting.
prairie dog skull
Sometimes prairie dog skulls are found around the burrows. PDS collects some of the bones that are intact and use them as teaching tools during educational classes and lectures. As a pet person, it was very difficult for me to see the harsh reality that they were victims of predators and nature's food chain. I wanted to learn as much as I could about prairie dogs in their natural environment, but I prefer Walt Disney's approach - knowing this happens, but not seeing the 'bad' stuff. My goal was to understand the behaviors and characteristics of these amazing little critters that came to me through rescue, and to learn more about the plight of the prairie dog in the wild so that I could pass along the information.
As we walked toward the area, Kathy, Becky and Adam were scanning the field from a distance, watching for any movement around the burrows. They spoke of one very defiant prairie dog that they were unable to relocate with his family to a safer surrounding. We set up the equipment at the first burrow entrance that movement was seen, and everyone took their positions around the burrow. "Let's see if he's still here."
Adam, Kathy and Aunt Becky (left to right)
In this photo, Kathy was crimping the hose to slowly pour suds down into the burrow, as we all watched for a slight eruption in the suds, which indicated there was something moving around down there. Becky was preparing to reach down into the burrow to do the catching and Adam and I were waiting for the first prairie dog to be scooped out and quickly handed to us. Just then, a big white SWOOSH bolted straight up into the air out of the burrow - startling us. It happened so quickly and unexpectedly! I asked what the heck that was.. thinking it was a prairie dog that jumped up and ran, but Becky announced "that was one extremely ticked-off rabbit!" Boy, did we ever laugh!
After a few minutes, Becky reached down and pulled out the dog, and handed him quickly to Kathy who greeted the bewildered prairie dog with a big smile and explained that he would soon be with the rest of his family in a safer place and in a new home. She reassured him that this was just one bad day that would soon be forgotten, and then she handed him to me to apply the eye drops and I placed him into the kennel.
It was an unbelievably hot, (96 degrees) dry, smoky (wildfires) day in Denver, and these little ones must have felt a whole lot cooler than we did after their refreshing "bath"!
The group alternated catching, crimping the hose and towel drying. I had the opportunity to try it all, but couldn't bring my self to actually put my arm down into a burrow! I preferred towel drying them and placing the eye drops in their little eyes (soap stings), and then placing them into the crates filled with hay, while Kathy, Becky and Adam continued to catch.
Behind me in the photo above, is the water truck that is used to flush out the burrows. They are fortunate to have this truck available to them when they do relocations.
This little one was the last catch of the day...
and oops! she slipped away and ran back to her family!
Behind me you can see the barrier that the city puts up in an attempt to keep the prairie dogs off the jogging/walking path. It is buried below ground level in an attempt to stop them from burrowing past it. When they are seen on the other side of the barrier, PDS is called in and they flush the burrows that are close to the barrier and take them to a new location and release them.
At the end of the day, the prairie dogs were packed up with their families in separate crates - because they came from different areas of the field - in an attempt to keep families together - and they were taken to their new location to be released.
PDS offered relocated prairie dogs a generous supply of fresh corn on the cob when they release them.
What prairie dogs desperately need is land. In an ideal world, the land would be undisturbed and the prairie would naturally be restored. If there was land designated for them to expand the way nature intended, there would be no endangered prairie species because nature's management program works best, and we would have a healthier ecosystem. Due to urban sprawl, prairie dogs are currently crowded into smaller and smaller spaces, resulting in unhealthy towns, because it throws the prairie ecosystem off balance forcing them to move to where there is food. They either starve to death, or they venture onto forbidden territory seeking food and consequently are poisoned, shot for sport, bulldozed and buried alive, extracted with grain vacuums and fed live to predators, killed by predators, harvested for the pet trade, or hit by cars. They are labeled "pests" merely for trying to survive in this world. I cringe when I hear the term "prairie dog infestation" because that implies that there is an overabundance of prairie dogs, and that is simply not true. Education and management programs are critical if we're going to save this very important species; and we all need to be a voice for them so that the plight of the prairie dog is heard.
I am very grateful for the many friends of prairie dogs, including groups such as Prairie Dog Pals and The Prairie Dog Coalition of the Humane Society of the United States exist. All are not for profit, and consist of compassionate human beings who devote their time and effort to saving a very important species - through awareness and education - and teach that there are more appropriate options other than killing these special animals.