At the southern entrance to the Badlands, there is a large yellow sign that says “Prairie dogs carry the PLAGUE!” The word “plague” is capitalized and slanted slightly, as if being yelled out into a strong wind. PLAGUE! At first I was confused, because every national and state park in the area has a prairie dog exhibit. These animals are a draw. At Wind Cave, there is an extensive parking area next to the prairie dog towns. What were we supposed to conclude from this sign? Was this part of some vicious anti-prairie dog agenda? I was skeptical. This single yellow sign, posted at only one entrance to the park, seemed like an awfully equivocal warning for something as dire as The PLAGUE!
If there was real danger of human infection from prairie dogs, shouldn’t these alarming yellow signs be posted, say, right outside the Roberts Prairie Dog Town, where unsuspecting photographers like me fraternize with them? So I got on the iPad to investigate. And it turns out that the danger of human beings contracting plague from prairie dogs is still mostly theoretical. Real enough to warrant a yellow sign outside the south edge of the park, but perhaps not so real to move the park officials to place one next to the prairie dog towns themselves.
The biggest danger is to the prairie dogs themselves, and to the already-endangered black-footed ferret that feeds on them. It’s the familiar story; fleas carry the bacteria for sylvatic plague, fleas bite prairie dogs, prairie dogs die of the plague.
As if the plague weren’t enough, prairie dog towns also harbor prairie rattlesnakes. So if you think about it, these little animals are tough.
One morning while we were watching a town, we saw a pack of coyotes trot through. Prairie dogs communicate through vocalizations, and when one of them detects a threat, it will raise its little front legs to the sky and yelp, like a football fan starting the wave. The rest of the town joins in. (Really, if the itching doesn’t do in the buffalo, I would think that the noise of the prairie dogs would.)
When the ruckus commenced, I looked through the binoculars at the coyotes. I expected to see the town emptied of prairie dogs, as I assumed they would all scurry down their holes at the approach of the canine predators. But there were several big, fat prairie dogs within fifteen feet of the coyotes that were still squatting at their holes, stuffing their faces with grass. Meh, once you’ve faced down the plague and prairie rattlers, who cares about a coyote?
For my part, I was just hoping to photograph some animals that aren’t dangerous. Between alligators, bison, or mountain goats with sharp horns that spend their time on precarious perches, prairie dogs seemed so benign. But it turns out they’re plague-harboring, snake-attracting varmints. Yeah. I’m a prairie dog photographer. It’s a dangerous game, but what can I say; I’m an adrenaline junkie.
They tell me that symptoms of the plague develop within six days. I’ll be waiting.