The beginnings of my interest in prairie dogs are lost to memory. I remember photographing them during my first trip to the Badlands when I was pregnant with my son, who is about to turn twelve. I photographed them again in South Dakota last summer, and I knew when I went to New Mexico last week that I would look for them again. When asked what I wanted to do while I was in the Santa Fe area, I said “find prairie dogs and look for tarantulas.” Most people want to shop on the Plaza; I want to find rodents and large, hairy bugs.
I didn’t have to go far, at least for the prairie dogs; the tarantulas skunked me on this trip. There is a park within easy walking distance of my hosts’ home that houses a prairie dog town. The many burrows are located in the center of a circular walking path about a third of a mile in circumference. Prairie dogs, you see, are everywhere.
These are controversial creatures, and perhaps more controversial than they should be. While it’s true that the collected burrows of a prairie dog town can be an unfortunate feature in a backyard, the fact is that prairie dogs are a keystone species. These animals are critical to the survival of many other species, as well as the prairie landscape generally.
Prairie dogs are undeniably cute, but that’s not why I’m so interested in them. Plenty of animals are cute, but prairie dogs have many more admirable qualities. They are tough, for one thing. Prairie dogs face mass poisonings, prairie dog killing contests, jerks using them for target practice, the elimination of 95% of their habitat, bouts with sylvatic plague, and the omnipresent threat of prairie rattlesnakes, hawks, and black-footed ferrets, all of which have a taste for prairie dog steak. If you are ever feeling sorry for yourself, that your life is perhaps too hard, go chat with a prairie dog. They will set your whiny ass straight.
Almost everyone is out to get the prairie dogs, and yet they soldier on. They do have their admirers, though, as evidenced by the fact that the city of Santa Fe has spent more than half a million dollars relocating certain populations of prairie dogs to a remote national monument called El Malpais, west of Albuquerque. For my part, I found their presence in a city park deeply comforting; it proves that we can co-exist with wildlife in our ordinary urban setting, that we don’t need to sterilize our urban environment and further separate ourselves from the wild things. As we so often see with these issues, though, this is not a unanimous position. One city councilor insists that he doesn’t hate prairie dogs, he just doesn’t want them in town – heck, other places just kill theirs.
On top of their other cares, prairie dogs are fastidious, enterprising creatures, the very soul of grace under fire. They live in extensive, well-maintained burrows with hollows separated by function: they have dedicated bedrooms, storage rooms, and bathrooms in their burrows. They keep their homes meticulously clean, and diligently chew the surrounding vegetation to a height that allows them to see predators more effectively. Frankly, prairie dogs could get along with most homeowner’s associations better than I do. And beyond this, studies show that prairie dog activity is critical to the grassland landscape. And despite fears that they compete with cattle for vegetation, their chewing actually benefits whatever ruminants are in the area, be they bison or cattle, and leave the most nutritious new growth for them.
But for this, they get compared to rats; pest control operators endlessly flog hysteria about mass prairie-dog spread plagues; some local laws still require their poisoning; gun stores sponsor prairie dog killing contests. Prairie dogs may have their annoyances, but this seems like an overreaction.
In 2006, a number of Tibetan Buddhist monks visited the very prairie dog colony I spent time with in Santa Fe. The monks blessed the prairie dogs, and the attendees reported that the animals emerged from their burrows, mingling their barking with the monks’ chants. Two years later, the monks visited again, but this time there was a predator overhead, and the prairie dogs, ever practical and judicious, stayed in their burrows. I find myself pleased by the idea of this, at the picture it conjured. These two events demonstrate that prairie dogs are the precise mix of mystical and rational, a good quality for a rodent.