Tutored By Prairie Dogs

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by Sherry Golden

I have two pet prairie dogs even though I am against ownership of exotic pets. I work with a local animal activist group called Habitat Harmony, Inc. Habitat's projects include relocating prairie dogs from areas where they are not wanted. This past summer we captured prairie dogs from the site where the new city fire station would be built.

Habitat also has an education program, taking presentations on the prairie ecosystem to young people and adults. We had thought that if the right circumstances ever materialized, we might keep a couple of prairie dogs for the education programs. They would be scientific props, visual aids, teaching tools. To that end, I obtained a Wildlife Holder's Permit with the Arizona Game & Fish Department. Then this summer we caught 2 very young juveniles without adults, and knowing that we could not release them, we decided to keep them. Of course, for educational purposes.

Ambassador Feisty Britches, a female, and Mr. Bo Jangles, a male, moved into my home. And then the education began.I was the one being educated!

While their ferret cage was being remodeled to suit their needs, they lived in my guest bathroom. I knew that prairie dogs have a sophisticated language, with different calls for different predators, and complete with adjectives to describe predators. But I didn't know that they would greet me when I walked into the house! My guest bathroom is a good distance from the outside door to the house. The bathroom door is always kept closed. This does not stop them from recognizing me when I get home. I open the door to the house and they start yipping loudly.

I have figured out that they know it is me coming in because they don't yip when someone else enters the house. So now I have 6 dogs to greet me when I get home: 4 cocker spaniels and 2 Gunnison's prairie dogs.

I knew that prairie dogs are highly social, having observed them greeting one another, playing together and grooming each other. But I didn't know the extent of their devotion to one another. On more than one occasion as I sat watching the traps at the fire station site, I saw concerned prairie dogs check on friends who were caught in the traps. They would continually go back and forth to the trap, circle around the trap, nudge it here and there, and then sit as close to the trapped friend as they could get.The trapped prairie dogs would calm down and sit still when they had a friend close by on the outside of the trap. But when the friend left, the prairie dog in the cage would frantically search for ways out of the trap, often skinning it's nose in efforts to pry the trap open.

I knew that prairie dogs are intelligent, but I didn't know that they could outsmart me! I have been feeding them sunflower seeds, whole oats, carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, collard greens and grass. I've been advised that they should have only a few sunflower seeds because of the high fat content, even though they love the sunflower seeds the best. I have been hand feeding them to help tame them. I give them collard greens or kale or grass first, and then offer a few bites of carrot or sweet potato. I want to save the sunflower seeds for the last, hoping that they will be almost full, and so won't mind that they are not getting more than 5 or 6 seeds.

Mr. Bo Jangles had arrived quite skinny, scrawny and sporting several scratches. To augment his diet, and help him gain some needed weight for the winter, at first I had given him more sunflower seeds, around 20 seeds. About the time I cut him back to 5 or 6, he started refusing his food. At first I thought Mr. Bo Jangles was either sick or going into hibernation. I attempted to feed him goat's milk, a substitute for mother's milk, with a syringe. I worried that by not eating, he would become dehydrated, so I tried to get some water down him with the syringe. I tried everything to get him to eat, finally resorting to offering him the seeds first. He gladly took the seeds from my hand, refusing the other food until he got his full helping - around 20 seeds, of course.

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I knew that prairie dogs are hardworking, constantly building on their homes, tilling the prairie and scanning for predators. But I didn't know that they are downright industrious. Ambassador Feisty Britches and Mr. Bo Jangles climbed up to a bathroom shelf about 12 inches from the floor and safely retrieved two large towels for their bed. This process took several days of maneuvering the towels that weighed much more than they do! One day I went into the bathroom and found that they were unrolling a brand new roll of toilet paper, dragging it all the way across the room and were busily stuffing it, piece by piece, into their nest.

I knew that their antics could be cute, but I didn't know that they would make me laugh out loud. There is one box placed upside down on the bathroom floor that they use as a way station on their bathroom excursions. Mr. Bo Jangles chewed a hole into the top of the box. When I enter the bathroom and he is in the way station, he pokes his head up through the hole and yips at me to give him a treat. They both love to be scratched, and will stretch out their heads and hind legs for better scratching positions. Ambassador Feisty Britches is round and fluffy. She sits up straight to groom herself, and will sometimes be so intent on grooming that she falls over backwards when checking out a hard-to-reach spot.

I knew that prairie dogs lived in families, but I didn't know that they would snuggle up together upon first meeting each other. I had been warned against putting prairie dogs from different families together because of the tendency to fight. For this reason, I had provided two nesting boxes in their bathroom habitat. Ambassador Feisty Britches and Mr. Bo Jangles were from different families but I discovered them cuddled up side-by-side in one box the first night they were together.

Having pet prairie dogs was not a goal of mine. But I have them and I am learning from them. People need prairie dogs. We need them to remind us that we are all connected. We share much in common with the prairie dogs: we are social animals, we have a language, we like to play, we all have a job to do, we have a home and we live in families. It is hard to imagine that the God who created us so much alike and connected us in such a marvelous maze of interdependency would intend the value of one to justify the destruction of the other.I knew that I liked prairie dogs, but I didn't know that I would fall in love with two adorable, energetic balls of fur. Ambassador Feisty Britches and Mr. Bo Jangles are my tutors. They are teaching me something about the slight distance between what we know about ourselves and what we understand about other creatures. I love them dearly!

Prairie Dog Life

Click on the burrow images to find out more.

Nursing Chamber

A mother keeps her young pups safe while the other Prairie Dogs investigate the snake.

Entering the Burrow

A prairie dog hears an emergency cry of "snake" and goes to investigate.

Listening chamber

A prairie dog sits listening just beneath the surface of the ground.

The Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake found a prairie dog burrow to sleep in but has been discovered by the prairie dogs.

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