More than 19 years ago, after months of research, I adopted my first two prairie dogs rescued by conservationists from a development site and that’s when I fell in love with the beguiling critters. Chip and Digger (featured in video) were brothers, but had distinctively different personalities, just like people. Chip was aggressive and always picking on Digger, who was more reserved. Digger’s tail grew out crooked, because Chip was always chomping on it.
They are currently starring in Keystone Prairie Dogs Duke it out to Chopin video taken from an 18 year old VHS tape that was improved as much as modern software could make it. Still, it’s important for the public to see prairie dog behavior that’s not normally available.
The similarities prairie dogs have to humans has not gone unnoticed by anyone who has spent time observing them, like biologists and wildlife rescue stewards. They live in underground families called “coteries.” The tunnels can be up to 15 feet deep, which have sleeping quarters, potty areas and birthing centers. Some prairie dog relatives get along better than others. Each prairie dog has a different temperament and a different job to do in the community. They are social, playful creatures, but will chase away strange prairie dogs from adjacent colonies, with an instinctive nature to protect their family units, even from their own kind.
In reality, the under dogs of the Great Plains have been given a bad rap for over a century.
The US Agricultural Department first designated prairie dogs as “vermin” in the mid 1800s, which allowed millions of the unfortunate creatures to be shot, bulldozed and poisoned as thousands of acres were converted for cropland. The bad label has stayed with them as ranchers, landowners and special interest groups added the description of “rats” and “pests” along the way. But scientists disagree and they claim prairie dogs are actually a keystone species, with dozens of other animals, birds, reptiles, insects and native plants depending on them for survival.
Dr. Con Slobodchikoff has spent years studying prairie dogs and wrote Prairie Dogs: Communication and Community in an Animal Society, which claims they possess a sophisticated language using sound and touch that rivals that of dolphins. They can distinguish between predators and the level of threat they pose; have different alarm calls based on size, shape and color of clothing for humans that frequently visit their colonies and whether or not they are carrying a gun.
Nonetheless, experts say prairie dogs have an image problem. Books, videos, websites, ecotourism and eBooks are being used more frequently to educate the public on how valuable, personable and misunderstood they are.
Keystone Prairie Dogs (KPD) is a fledgling conservation project started in February 2012, which aims to broaden the conversation about prairie dogs and help change their negative image by utilizing an assortment of humorous videos and eBooks filled with satirical, campy memes, scientific information and resource guides. It also seeks to highlight the difficult work environmental groups do to protect prairie dogs across their fragmented range, including Prairie Dog Coalition, WildEarth Guardians, Prairie Dog Pals and many more. They negotiate with ranchers, municipalities and private landowners to provide non-lethal methods like relocation options for unwanted prairie dogs.
Media mogul Ted Turner owns Vermejo Park Ranch in Northern New Mexico, which is an ecotourism and guest ranch. Turner has carefully repopulated it with iconic short-grass prairie species like bison, black-footed ferrets, pronghorn antelope and prairie dogs. His ranch offers nature tours for people who desire to shot wildlife with cameras instead of rifles.
Yes, prairie dogs are a lot like people, but they can’t shoot back—no matter what their image.
NOTE: Often prairie dogs are captured for the lucrative pet market, but conservationists don’t advocate for prairie dog as pets, due to their strict dietary needs; the fact that chewing is necessary for healthy teeth and some may have a nasty bite if frightened or angered. When people buy prairie dogs based on their “cute” factor, then become disillusioned when they chew on a favorite pair of shoes or bite Uncle Charlie on the nose—the novelty wears off and prairie dogs lose. They deserve to be protected in their natural habitat or moved to a new one, instead of spending their lives in cages.
Jean Williams, founder, Keystone Prairie Dogs