Why Is Everybody Always Pickin’ on Me?


Dispatches, July 1998

Rodent Rights

Why Is Everybody Always Pickin’ on Me?

They’re cute and furry, yet they get no respect. A look at the star-crossed plight of the American sod poodle.

Yes, it’s now official: prairie dogs have become the new national obsession. Lauded by scientists as a “keystone species” of prairie ecosystems, they are nevertheless detested by developers in Colorado, exterminated by
farmers in Kansas, and denounced for hosting plague-infested fleas by the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. Recently catapulted onto the covers of Smithsonian and National Geographic, the winsome furballs have been basking in the spotlight even as they continue to reign as the Toledo Mudhens of the animal kingdom. Here, we explore a few of the indignities visited upon these
noble rodents, and raise a plea on their behalf: Will somebody please cut these guys a break?

Gar‡on, S’il Vous PlaŽt
Although sport shooters slaughter up to 300 prairie dogs in an afternoon, they rarely bother making a meal of them. That’s a lot of dogburgers going to waste. For culinary counsel, we turned to Joe Pagano, sous-chef at Cibo, a prestigious Manhattan eatery. “I think you’d wanna do it with some carrots, a bit of bouquet garni, and maybe some nice wine — perhaps a cabernet,”
says Pagano, who advises braising the hind legs until “fork tender” and serving with a wild mushroom ratatouille. “Bring one to New York,” he promises, “and we’ll cook it for you.”

And Darkness Shall Descend Upon the Land
Prairie dogs offer stimulating targets for “sport shooters” in the infamous red mist Society of varmint hunters. Reason? A direct shot often makes the creatures explode, creating an exciting cloud of blood and vaporized dog parts that supplies critter-killing cognoscenti with “instant visual gratification.” Other shots that also offer quality IVG:

The Flipper
A glancing shot. Sends a dog flying end-over-end in the manner of an Olympic gymnast (hence its other sobriquet: the Olga Korbut).

The Chamois
On rare occasions, a bullet can actually remove an animal’s entire pelt and fling it into the air. Unusual and, shooters insist, extremely impressive.

“Hoover Time”
A head shot. Sucks up a “sod poodle” peeping from its hole while simultaneously molecularizing it into red mist. “It pops right out!” cackles one shooter.

Boy, Does This Ever Suck
Gay Balfour of Cortez, Colorado, enjoys the distinction of being the only professional prairie dog “relocator” in the United States. He siphons rodents through a 27-foot hose and bounces them off of a foam-rubber “ricochet wall” into a holding tank at 40 mph. Most survive the journey. Balfour’s record is 875 dogs, snared during a marathon two-day blitz across Nebraska. The key to
such remarkable success? “A suck system powerful enough to blow your hair dry in about ten seconds.” He calls his business Dog-Gone.

Annals of Rodentia: A Prairie Dog’s Odyssey
It was on September 7, 1804, in what is now South Dakota, that Lewis and Clark became the first Caucasians ever to encounter a prairie dog — a seminal moment that was commemorated by shooting the creature and serving it for dinner. The next day, while the party pursued a live specimen, the captains debated a name. (Clark lobbied for “ground rat,” Lewis for “barking
squirrel.”) After spending the winter in a cage, the captured animal joined four magpies, a grouse, and 25 boxes of hides and bones on a keelboat headed down the Missouri. The consignment was shipped 4,000 miles to Washington, where Thomas Jefferson reviewed the poor dog (who by now was thoroughly travel-sick), pronounced himself charmed, and then promptly packed the beast off to
the Peale Museum in Philadelphia — thereby conferring a singular honor: Never before or since has a wild animal been privileged to reside in both the home of an American president and Independence Hall. Alas, the distinction seems to have been lost on the little fellow; he died a few months later.

Oh, the horror!
Prairie dog eradication also includes bulldozing, poisoning, and toasting them alive with a flame-thrower. Defending dogs from this fate are animal lovers who, while saving lives, sometimes sow the seeds of a deeper tragedy: robbing them of their self-respect. In May, a salesman in a large, furry outfit paraded around Santa Fe, New Mexico, in support of “prairie dog family
values.” He was swiftly disavowed by rodents everywhere.

Illustrations by George Bates