Prayer Dogs

Prairie dogs. Prairie gods. Pleistocene mammals standing on their hind legs in the big wide open.

What do they see?

What do they smell?

What do they hear?

What they hear is the sound of a truck coming toward their town, the slamming of doors, the voices, the pressure of feet walking toward them. What they see now inside their burrow is the well-worn sole of a boot, now the pointed toe of the boot kicking out the entrance to their burrow, blue Levi s bending down, gloved hands flicking a lighter, the flame, the heat, then the hands shoving something burning inside the entrance. Something is burning. They back up farther down their tunnel, smoke now curling inside the darkness as the boot is kicking dirt inside, closing their burrow, covering their burrow, tamping the entrance shut. They are running down, down, down, around. They cannot see. What they smell is fear, fear in the form of gas. They cough and wheeze, their eyes burning, their lungs burning, tightening, cramping. They try to run, try to turn, nowhere to turn, every one of them scurrying to escape, to flee, but all exits have been kicked closed. The toxic smoke is chasing them like an invisible snake promising an agonizing death, suffocation, strangulation, every organ in spasm, until they collapse into each other’s bodies, noses covered in blankets of familiar fur, families, young and old, slowly, cruelly gassed to death.

The truck drives away. The American flag is waving, the red-white-and-blue banner in the American West that says the rights of private landowners take precedence over the lives of prairie dogs who are standing in the way of development.

Above ground, all quiet on the Western front.

Below ground, a massacre.

Nearly 400 Utah prairie dogs disappeared in the summer of 1999 at the Cedar Ridge Golf Course. It is believed they were murdered, gassed to death. Two federal agents have been investigating the crime. This is a federal criminal offense. Penalties for killing or attempting to kill the federally protected animals range from fines of up to $100,000 to one year in prison. Some say the locals know who did it and are glad they did. Other locals are outraged. Both sides have offered rewards. One group has agreed to post bail for the offender; the other has offered a reward for the offender s arrest.

Gone. The prairie dogs are gone. Praise the Lord. Say it again with the Utah accent, “Praise the Lard.” Fat. Fat Cats. Money. Money in the bank. The golf course, emerald green, with perfectly cropped lawn, is the crown jewel of the town in desert country.

Almost two years have passed. Nothing has been resolved. No one is talking. The Incident at Cedar Ridge has been all but forgotten. Cedar City takes pride in being a clean, wholesome town.

Utah prairie dogs, Cynomys parvidens, numbered more than 95,000 in the 1920s. By the 1960s their distribution was greatly reduced, the result of intensive poison-control campaigns administered by the Department of Agriculture, indiscriminate shooting, disease and loss of habitat. By the 1960s it was estimated that only 3,300 Utah prairie dogs in 37 separate colonies remained and that the species would be extinct by the year 2000. Because of the dramatic decline in its numbers and distribution, the species was classified as endangered on June 4, 1973. In the year 2000, the Utah prairie dog did not become extinct, but it continues to be threatened. Their numbers now are estimated at 4,582 individuals. Sixty-five percent of the population lives in Iron County, Utah. Eighty-six percent of all Utah prairie dogs live on private lands. The situation grows increasingly contentious between ranchers in southern Utah who want them exterminated because “the dogs are ruining the range,” outside developers who want to cash in on the value of these open lands, and the federal agencies who must administer the Endangered Species Act. The hostile environment is fueled even further by the fact that southern Utah is one of the fastest-growing areas in the American West.

Iron County Commissioner Gene Roundy said, “I think it’s a crime against society that a prairie dog can move into your front yard and you can’t take care of it.”

Whose society?

The South African poet Breyten Breytenbach writes, “The real revolutionary question is ‘What about the Other?’”

There is a lion with his mouth open. I walk through it and enter TOTE-EM-IN, a roadside attraction off Carolina Beach Road in Wilmington, N.C. We are on vacation. Having worked in a natural history museum for over a decade, I am eager to learn what they may house inside. The interstate zoo boasts of having “over 100 exotic animals in a Dr. Dolittle atmosphere where you can ‘talk with the animals.’”

The list is impressive: alligator, snapping turtle, painted turtle, box turtle, cottonmouth, king snake, corn snake, green rat snake, copperhead, spur-thighed tortoise, squirrel monkey, weeper capuchin, mandrill, jaguar, binturong, peccary, palm civet, kinkajou, python, black leopard, golden spider monkey, black spider monkey, Himalayan bear, Siberian tiger, Bennett’s wallaby, Sitka deer, nilgai, camel, Patagonian cavy, zebra, aoudad, prairie dogs—my eye stops at a hometown species as the list continues.

“Where are your prairie dogs?” I ask the woman behind the counter of the gift shop inside.

“Out in back,” she says. “We had two of our own and took two others in that belonged to someone else. We tried to slowly introduce them to one another, but it didn’t work out.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“I mean there are a lot of people who love prairie dogs, but they are more than they can handle; they’re wild, after all. Some college students had them in their apartment, and the prairie dogs got out and made new tunnels in the heating ducts between apartments and escaped. They eventually found them and brought them to us, but they didn’t get along with ours.” She pauses. “It didn’t work out—they died.”

The woman is Sherrie Brewer. She and her husband, Jerry, run TOTE-EM-IN Zoo—bought it several years ago from George Tregemo, who started the zoo in 1952. Sherrie has kind eyes. Bucket in hand, she is on her way to feed the animals. “Come on out,” she says. “I’ll take you to the prairie dogs.”

Wearing an orange, knitted cap and a camouflage jacket, she pours the contents of the bucket into a yellow wheelbarrow, then lifts the wheelbarrow and steers it down the gravel aisle lined with cages on either side.

We walk past the squirrel monkeys and two black panthers pacing back and forth.

“Some weather we’ve had,” she says. “Record snowstorms for North Carolina this month, after a siege of hurricanes last summer.”

Sherrie stops at a hay-lined cage on wheels, 6 feet tall, maybe 4 feet wide, and makes kissing sounds with her lips.

“Where you at, little guy? You’re hidden real good now, aren’t you?”

We wait.

“It doesn’t say much for us that we spread out so much and ruin all their natural habitat, and this is where these animals end up, does it?” she says.

The guinea hens are crying for more food. Peacocks in the background are yelling, Halp! Halp!

“There he is,” she says. “Hi, little guy.”

We bend down and I see a prairie dog peeking out from a garbage can that is turned on its side and covered with hay. He scurries back in.

“How old do you think he is?” I ask.

“Probably 2 years.”

We wait a few more minutes.

He comes out again, walks toward me, sniffing, stands upright, nose twitching, tail vibrating like a metronome. A tractor comes toward the cart. The prairie dog runs back into the can and turns his back.

“I’ll leave you alone. If you need anything, I’ll be over by the cats.”

In time the prairie dog comes back out and climbs the side of the cage, his fingers with long, black nails grasping the chain links. I move closer and crouch down, eye to eye. This is the closest I have ever been to a prairie dog. It is also the only one I have seen in captivity.

My first impulse is to offer him something, anything. Without thinking, I click my tongue and offer my finger, which he takes. He just keeps staring. Eyes. His eyes. Black, unwavering eyes, like dark suns rising.

The characteristic mask is faded, a slight dusting of brown against beige. The black tip on his tail gives the species away. This is not a Utah prairie dog but a black-tailed prairie dog indigenous to the plains.

Suddenly he jumps down and begins chewing on hay, holding a piece in both hands. He is the color of dry grasses in the prairie, the desert, perfectly camouflaged, even in the hay.

Another visitor arrives. “How’s my boy? How’s my little boy, my little prairie-dog boy?”

The prairie dog climbs back up the side of the cage, and the man, obviously a regular, pokes his fingers inside to pat his stomach.

“Yes, that feels good, doesn’t it? What a good boy. What a sweet boy, yes, yes. You don’t get your belly rubbed every day, do you? Oh, yeah, yeah, that’s my sweet prairie-dog boy.”

The prairie dog puts his cheek against the chain link and closes his eyes as the man continues to rub his stomach.

“I come here a lot,” the man says.

Prairie dogs out—standing on mounds all along 1-70 from Grand Junction, Colo., to Cisco, Utah, just 25 miles from home. It’s been a mild winter.

Sentinels. Up on their haunches. Arms folded. Some barking. Some foraging. Some running from mound to mound, their bodies rippling through the grasses. Others standing guard. Eagles may be near.

Today I am surprised by how large they seem. I keep thinking of the little one in North Carolina, held captive, his willingness to have his belly rubbed, his shy sociability, the brightness and intelligence of his eyes in spite of his surroundings, a cart of straw and a garbage can turned sideways.

Lewis and Clark wrote in 1804, during their journey west, this “wild dog of the prairie…appears here in infinite numbers.” Naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton estimated that prairie dogs numbered 5 billion in North America in the early 1900s. The largest prairie-dog colony on record, in Texas, measured 100 miles wide and 250 miles long and contained an estimated 400 million prairie dogs.

Today the headlines in the Rocky Mountain News read, “Little Help for Prairie Dogs.” In Colorado 98 percent of the prairie-dog population is gone, as Colorado’s Front Range is being developed from Boulder to Colorado Springs at an alarming rate. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wants to list the black-tailed prairie dog as threatened, but they have no money for enforcement. Meanwhile developers of subdivisions and shopping malls are buying up land containing prairie-dog towns as fast as possible, having them removed by companies such as Dog Gone (dog suckers, they are called, who come and vacuum the prairie dogs up into the back of an enclosed truck with padded walls, then release them outside of town or sell them as ferret food), and starting to build immediately, before any protective measure might make any further development against the law.

What the spotted owl is to the old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest, the prairie dog is to the grasslands and prairies of Middle America. The prairie dog has become another “indicator species,” sounding the alarm for a disappearing ecosystem. The difference, however, between the owl and the prairie dog is the difference of perception: owls are symbols of wisdom; prairie dogs are varmints.

There are five species of prairie dogs in North America: black-tailed, white-tailed, Gunnison, Mexican and the Utah prairie dog. All of them are sociable creatures. All of them are seriously threatened.

Prairie dogs evolved in the Pleistocene Era and now represent the last of the Great Frontier. Historically prairie-dog towns followed the bison, aerating the soil after the great stampedes. These towns could range in size from one to 1,000 acres. Many in the Great Plains seemed to spread as far as the horizon. Within these communities are family units called coteries. A coterie, consisting of a single adult male, one to four adult females, and offspring up to 2 years old, can occupy a territory up to about an acre.

As above, so below. One could consider the double life of prairie dogs.

Above ground, prairie-dog colonies literally change the land. Mounds created from the excavation of burrows may be 2 feet high and 10 feet in diameter. These serve as lookout posts and will keep the burrows dry from rain. Their communication system is sophisticated. Biologists have identified 12 different vocalizations and a variety of postures and behavioral displays. One researcher studying a Utah prairie-dog population near Bryce Canyon National Park noted specific calls, distinguishing between the calls made when a truck versus a coyote crossed into their territory. When danger is near, a series of barks occur in a prairie-dog chorus, often led by sentinel dogs guarding the periphery of the colony. The word spreads. They quickly scramble and scurry across the desert and disappear into nearby holes. When danger seems to have passed, a prairie dog will carefully emerge, look in all directions, then stand on its mound and throw back its head, with its hands raised in what looks like a gesture of prayer, and give what has been called a jump-yip call that the coast is clear.

It is also common to see prairie dogs engage in what looks like kissing. The “kiss” is used to distinguish one coterie member from another. When prairie dogs recognize each other, they will participate in elaborate grooming behavior. If one of the prairie dogs is an intruder, teeth may be bared, territory fought over, claimed or reclaimed by dominant males. In most cases the outsider flees.

Below ground, a burrow will typically be 3 to 6 feet deep and about 15 feet long, although the size varies tremendously, depending on the landscape. Prairie dogs will often dig small chambers to the side of the main burrow where they can listen to what is going on above. Deeper inside the burrows, they make nests out of grasses they have pulled under, where they will sleep, give birth, and care for their young (four is the norm) in spring, with the babies usually not emerging until June. Native grasses comprise 70 to 95 percent of their diet during the summer, changing to seeds and insects, even roots, as fall and winter approach. Unlike other members in the ground-squirrel family, prairie dogs do not hibernate but rather lie dormant inside their network of burrows.

Prairie dogs create habitat not only for themselves but also for other grassland species. With their mounds and extensive burrowing systems (black-tailed prairie dogs typically have 30 to 50 burrow entrances per acre, while Gunnison’s and white-tailed prairie dogs have fewer than 20), their underground world is not simply the haunt of prairie dogs but home to myriad other creatures, as well. One study of black-tailed prairie dogs identified more than 140 species of wildlife associated with prairie-dog towns, including bison, pronghorn antelope, burrowing owls, pocket mice, deer mice, ants, black widow spiders and horned larks, and many predators, such as rattlesnakes, golden eagles, badgers, bobcats, weasels, foxes, coyotes and black-footed ferrets.

In a grassland community historically tamped down by the weight of stampeding bison, burrowing prairie dogs loosen and aerate the soil, keeping the land supple. In the spring and summer, they also spend most of their time foraging above ground. A single prairie dog may consume 2 pounds of green grasses and forbs per week. Their hunger alters the landscape.

Prairie dogs’ digging and scratching stimulates the soil, creating greater opportunities for seeds to germinate. With heightened water drainage due to the tunnels, plants grow. Plant diversity follows. Animal diversity follows the plants. Meadowlarks appear with an appetite for grasshoppers. Grasshopper sparrows appear in the abundance of seeds. Vacant or abandoned prairie-dog burrows become the homes of cottontails, kangaroo rats and deer mice. Burrowing owls, with their long, spindly legs, stand on the former mounds of prairie dogs with an eye for the multiplying mice. One successful life inspires another, creating the strength of a grassland community. If the prairie dog goes, so goes an entire ecosystem, including the black-footed ferret and burrowing owl, which now are endangered and threatened species.

Prairie dogs create diversity. Destroy them, and you destroy a varied world.

On my desk I have a small constellation of bones bleached by the sun. They belong to prairie dog: a skull with the jaw intact, two femur bones about the length of my little finger and two tibia, one broken in half. Alkaline sand from the Cisco desert still shakes out of the tiniest pores and teeth.

What is distinctive about this skull is the size of the eye socket. It is enormous in proportion to the rest of the skull. What does this vulnerable and venerable being see?

Niles Eldredge, a curator at the American Museum of Natural History, writes:

We are living amid a sixth extinction, one that, according to the Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, is costing the earth some 30,000 species a year. Biologists estimate that there are at least 10 million species on earth right now. At this rate, the vast majority of the species on earth today will be gone by the next millennium.

What are we to do?

The prairie dog is not a charismatic species, not a grizzly bear or wolf or whale. It is a rodent. We have gassed prairie dogs, poisoned them, and used them as targets. My own family calls them pop guts, which is what happens when you shoot them in the stomach. Their bodies are left to rot. They are expendable, despised, a lowly caste of animals, “the untouchables.”

A headline in the March 7, 2001, edition of the Denver Post reads: “Judge Limits Kill to Prairie Dog.” The article explains that a district judge has issued a temporary restraining order halting the extermination of a prairie-dog colony because of the danger to other animals. A state law protects all animals except rodents and birds from poisoning and trapping.

The issues circling the Utah prairie dog are the same ones shaping politics and culture in the American West. How do we define justice? How do we view progress? What kind of world do we want to maintain, and what kind of world do we want to create? Is economics the only standard by which we measure society’s values? Or is it possible to adopt another ethical structure that extends our notion of community to include a compassion toward all species?

The fate of the prairie dog is caught in the middle of an ethical war: traditional farming and ranching practices, continued growth and sprawl versus ecological sustainability. Bull’s-eye. Hit or miss?

What will we miss?

In 1950 government agents proposed to get rid of prairie dogs on some parts of the Navajo reservation in order to protect the roots of the sparse desert grasses and thereby maintain some marginal grazing for sheep. The Navajo elders objected, insisting, “If you kill all the prairie dogs, there will be no one to cry for the rain.”

The amused officials assured the Navajo there was no correlation between rain and prairie dogs and carried out their plan. The outcome surprised only the federal officials. The desert near Chilchinbito, Ariz., became a virtual wasteland with very little grass. Without the ground-turning process of the burrowing animals, the soil became solidly packed, unable to accept rain. Hardpan. The result: fierce runoff whenever it rained. What sparse vegetation there was, was carried off by flooding waters.

J.M. Coetzee, in “The Lives of Animals,” creates a character named Elizabeth Costello, a novelist, who defends the rights of animals before a skeptical university audience. She says, “There is no limit to the extent to which we can think ourselves into the being of another.”

A professor of philosophy, Dr. Thomas O’Hearne, responds, “We may certainly wish for there to be community with animals, but that is not the same thing as living in community with them. It is just a piece of prelapsarian wistfulness.”

Readers familiar with Coetzee s work as a South African writer know the passionate stance against apartheid, racism and specism that appear in such novels as “Waiting for the Barbarians” and “Disgrace.”

Coetzee writes of a dream:

In the dream I stand again in a pit. The earth is damp, dark, water seeps up, my feet squelch, it costs me a slow effort to lift them.

I feel under surface, searching for the bones. My hand comes up with the corner of a jute sack, black, rotten, which crumbles away between my fingers. I dip back into the ooze…A dead bird, a parrot: I hold it by the tail, its bedraggled feathers hang down, its soggy wings droop, its eye sockets are empty. When I release it, it falls through the surface without a splash. “Poisoned water,” I think. “I must be careful not to drink here. I must not touch my right hand to my mouth.”

A poisoned world. We are living in an increasingly toxic world, not just physically but emotionally. It is not a comfortable connection to make for most people: the ill-treatment of human beings and the mistreatment of animals. Both responses belong to arrogance, a lack of respect for life in all its diversity and complexity. We would rather not think too much about “what is being done to those outside the sphere of the favored group,” yet I believe we can make a strong case for the extension of our empathy toward “the Other.”

Schopenhauer writes:

Boundless compassion for all living beings is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry.... May all living beings remain free from pain.

I think about my encounters with prairie dogs, both inside a cage and in the wild. I think about what they know in their bodies that has nothing to do with morals or ethics or any manner of abstractions, how they sing and chatter, kiss and caress and groom each other’s fur, the interactions within their own families and the community at large, all this in the high desertlands of Utah, where eagles stand watch and coyotes skirt the periphery of prairie-dog towns. They are surviving, and given half a chance, they will survive us.

I believe prairie dogs know joy and fear and love and pain and that it is communicated within their tribe from every muscle and multiplying cell. All one has to do is stand on a bluff and listen to prairie dogs call back and forth to one another—this midday chatter, alongside meadowlarks and grasshoppers. Prairie dogs respond with their bodies, not with reason. It is a kinetic encounter, not an abstract one.

Call it instinct.

Call it “embodied knowledge.”

Call it survival.

Prairie dogs know when they are safe, and they know when they are in danger.

Do we?

The Incident at Cedar Ridge haunts me. That boot, that hand, that hand that lit the cartridge of gas and shoved it inside the burrow of the prairie-dog town and allowed them to “disappear” is my own hand if I choose to do nothing in the wake of those murders.

I want to live and love in a varied world. I want to encounter Prairie-Dog People, Bear People, Raven People, Deer People, too, in the wild and near our homes and not be embarrassed by feelings of kinship that in our cynical world are viewed as sentimental.

“One sort of love does not need to block another,” Mary Midgley writes in “Animals and Why They Matter,” “because love, like compassion, is not a rare fluid to be economized, but a capacity which grows by use.”

I cannot imagine the loneliness and cultural isolation we will suffer if we choose to live only in a world of our own making.

Without the diversity of the other-than-human world, without the individual intelligences and grace of other animals, our own intelligence and imagination are diminished.

We, too, are animals. We have evolved together. We evolved even with prairie dogs during the Pleistocene Era. Can we not continue our shared evolution, even the evolution of our own compassion? To deny our own animalness is to deny our both humble and powerful place in the scheme of life.

How do we wish to live, and with whom?

Once when I was walking the land near my home, a neighbor came up to me and said, “Have you seen any of them prayer dogs lately?”

“No,” I said. “Not here.”

“Damn if they didn’t used to be a nuisance.”

About the Author

Terry Tempest Williams

Terry Tempest Williams, author, naturalist and environmental activist, is perhaps best known for writing “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” a classic in American nature writing. Her other books include “An Unspoken Hunger,” “Desert Quartet: An Erotic Landscape,” “Coyote’s Canyon” and “Pieces of White Shell: A Journey to Navajoland,” and two children’s books, “The Secret Language of Snow” and “Between Cattails.”

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