Ask A PD Expert


A haven for prairie dogs

Woman rescues, houses the animals
of The News-Sentinel

WABASH - From the outside, Dianne James' license plate - “prarydg” - provides the only hint of what's been going on inside her white farmhouse for the past seven years.

James hopes that discretion will persuade the Allen County Board of Zoning Appeals to approve her request to relocate a shelter for rescued prairie dogs to an otherwise obscure tan ranch house in Fort Wayne when it meets next week.

“There are no words to describe what they mean to me. Everybody wants to hurt them, and they're not normally trusting animals. But when you make them feel safe, they are very loving and spiritual. They can feel your emotions,” James said as she held one of the 14 prairie dogs she has received from shelters, owners and other sources nationwide.

Some have been injured, others poisoned by efforts to remove them from their natural habitat in the Western United States, Canada and Mexico. But whatever their past, the animals' future is brighter because of James' passion, which began unexpectedly 10 years ago when her daughter's friend needed to find a home for an unwanted prairie dog.

She named the animal Jesse - as in Jesse James - and started searching the Internet for information on a species she knew nothing about. What she learned shocked her into action: Over the last 150 years, the number of prairie dogs has declined by more than 95 percent - including a 60 percent decrease in the number of large prairie dog complexes in the last 15 years alone. When a second donation quickly followed - this one named after Jesse James' brother Frank - James had found her calling. “I connected with them in a way I never did with other animals,” she said.

The cages in her house, comfortably equipped with exercise wheels, food, burrows and other comforts, may not replace the animals' dwindling habitat. But James' obvious love and concern provides a safe refuge - and a cause she eagerly shares with a network of other prairie dog lovers over the Internet.

Originally, James provided a shelter for unwanted prairie dogs, hoping to find homes for them. But keeping the animals as pets is illegal because of the monkeypox outbreak of 2003 when the disease spread to prairie dogs at a pet store in Illinois. Today, she simply wants to give her animals a loving place to live and, eventually, die. Most live about six to eight years in captivity. James said all of her animals have been screened for disease by veterinarians and have received the necessary federal permits.

Although James' shelter is a registered not-for-profit operation, she said tax-free donations are not enough to pay her annual operating expenses of more than $5,000 plus her living expenses. That's why she wants to move from rural Wabash to the house just west of Fort Wayne: to be nearer employment opportunities that would provide the money needed to feed and care for her beloved prairie dogs - not to mention her dogs, chickens and a goat.

“They're like squirrels with big personalities,” said James. “When I first held Jesse, I could feel every little muscle in his body relax. They love to snuggle and talk to you.” In fact, James said, different breeds have distinct “languages”: Her Gunnison's don't sound like her black tails, and she keeps the breeds in separate cages because they seemed overly agitated when kept together. A shop vac is always close at hand to keep the cages clean.

James wants her would-be new neighbors to know that her operation would have not hurt them - the prairie dogs would be kept inside - but would be a great help to an endangered breed of potentially loving animals. “I want to keep (the shelter) small,” said James, who admits to feeling a deep sense of loss at the death of 13 prairie dogs she has “rescued.” To James, each was as unique as human children, with their own distinct sound and personality.

I asked James whether she cares for prairie dogs for their sake - or her own. Both, she said. She loves them, but she also loves how they love her. “I want to do this forever,” said James, a former administrative assistant.

She knows some people will find her passion for prairie dogs a little, well, unusual. She doesn't much care.

“Out West, they might think I'm a nutcase or a tree hugger,” James said, caressing a prairie dog as others ate, played and slept in long cages nearby. “But I don't hug trees. I do hug prairie dogs.”

Kevin Leininger's column reflects his opinion, not necessarily that of The News-Sentinel. Contact him at kleininger@news-sentinel.com, or call 461-8355.

The Dark Side of Prairie Dogs
Kidnapping, cannibalism, murder and infanticide. Prof. John L. Hoogland has seen it all during a lifetime of studying prairie dogs. Now, his research has gained new political importance, as environmentalists and ranchers battle over protection
Far From the Prairie, Professor Makes Waves
U-Md. Researcher's Data on Rodent Become Fodder for Environmentalists

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 24, 2007; B01

FROSTBURG, Md. -- The world's expert on lust, violence and cannibalism among prairie dogs uses a slide in his lectures that sums up a lifetime of research. A pack of the squirrel-size creatures is shown perched on their hind legs: cute, cute, cute, cute, cute.

But then, next to each fuzzy head, John L. Hoogland has written something nasty he has seen happen in a prairie dog "town." "Promiscuity, kidnapping, pedophilia, murder, infanticide," it says. Not so cute.

"Studying prairie dogs is like watching little people," he says. "Whatever we do, they do as well, and usually more often."

Hoogland, a professor at the University of Maryland, has spent 34 years unraveling the daily routines of a burrowing rodent. It has always been interesting work: These towns can make Melrose Place look like Sesame Street.

But now, his research has gained new political importance as environmentalists and ranchers battle over protection for a quintessential Western species. Prairie dog advocates have seized on the findings of this East Coast professor, who calls his subjects "little woofers" and loves them in spite of what they do.

"I'm not doing anything different," said Hoogland, 58. "But now, everybody's interested in prairie dogs."

There are four species of prairie dogs in the United States, but their numbers have declined dramatically. Prairie dogs occupy perhaps 5 percent of their former territory, the result of massive extermination campaigns on the Great Plains.

Even today, they remain perhaps the most hated rodent in the West, because ranchers fear that prairie dogs colonies will eat pastures bare. The dogs are killed by the thousands with poisoned oats, long-range rifles and new technology such as the "Rodenator" -- which blasts their burrows with a propane-fueled explosion.

Environmental groups have sought to cut back on this culling, pushing for greater legal protection for all four species. They have repeatedly cited Hoogland's research in their arguments, because he found that prairie dogs seemed to reproduce more slowly than other rodents, such as rabbits and rats.

That, prairie dog advocates say, makes it hard for their populations to rebound from human slaughtering.

"They can't take these additional stresses on their population," said Nicole Rosmarino of a Santa Fe, N.M.-based group called Forest Guardians.

To learn this, Hoogland had to explore prairie dogs' dark side. He found that they keep their populations down by eating their own kin.

"They are herbivores, strictly," Hoogland says. "Except for eating babies."

Hoogland didn't set out intending to study prairie dog cannibalism. As a young researcher, he first tried to study a species of ground squirrel, but they just mated and then scattered. Despairing of ever being able to keep track of them, Hoogland says, he actually cried.

Then, in the early 1970s, he found prairie dogs. The animals spent most of their life within the same few acres -- and a good bit of it above ground, where he could watch them. Perfect.

"Within 10 minutes, I remember saying out loud to myself, 'I could study these things for the next 10 years,' " he recalled.

It turned out to be a much longer commitment than that. Hoogland found a job at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, which has an office here in this Appalachian college town.

It's not that there are any prairie dogs in Maryland; there aren't. The appeal was the flexible schedule: Hoogland's bosses let him live with prairie dogs for more than four months a year.

This month, Hoogland left for the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado, home to a colony of white-tailed prairie dogs. He and a team of assistants plan to capture all the animals and paint their fur with identifying numbers, racing stripes or other designs. Then they will climb up in seven-foot-high towers and watch what ensues.

And watch.

And watch.

They will note which dogs "kiss" each other, pressing their teeth together in a greeting gesture; who fights with whom; who spends the night in whose burrow.

They will watch up to 14 hours a day, every day -- doing work that can be tedious and tense at the same time.

"It always looks like nothing's happening," said Mark Hoogland, 29, one of Hoogland's four children, who often helped with research and were home-schooled to accommodate the family's schedule. "But then somebody sneaks into somebody else's burrow, and that's what you've been watching all day long for."

They have seen all kinds of things from their perches. There was mating-season chaos, in which males tried to keep females sequestered underground -- before they escaped out a back entrance. There were insights into prairie dog altruism: The scientists dragged a stuffed badger across the colony and noted which dogs would give an alarm call to warn others. Some warned their relatives. Some saved only themselves.

Then there was the baby-killing. Hoogland didn't notice it for seven years, because it usually happens only underground. One of his early clues was the sight of a female prairie dog emerging from another mother's burrow, licking blood off her claws.

"It was almost like I was watching Macbeth," he said, thinking of Lady Macbeth's attempts to wash an imaginary "damned spot" of blood from her hands.

Hoogland says he's still not sure exactly why they do it. It may be simply for a high-protein meal.

"You wouldn't find out a lot of these things unless you were just terribly persistent," said Pete Gober, a field supervisor with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service office in Pierre, S.D. "He never gets tired of it."

Hoogland says he still isn't.

"People say, 'Don't you see the same things?' " Hoogland said. "Never see the same things. Always something new."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

Dianne James, Wabash

Protector of prairie dogs
By Rosa Salter Rodriguez

The Journal Gazette - Fort Wayne, IN

When Dianne James was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2004, she says she had a secret weapon for fighting the disease – the love of her prairie dogs.

James began taking care of prairie dogs – in reality, not dogs at all but relatives of squirrels – while living in Rhode Island in 1998, when a friend of her daughter asked her whether she could adopt a prairie dog the little girl could no longer care for.


James knew next to nothing about prairie dogs at the time. But soon she found herself so enthralled with the creatures that she founded Prairie Dog Rescue of Rhode Island and was working with a local zoo, animal control officers and a knowledgeable vet to take in displaced or unwanted prairie dogs from around New England and find them permanent homes.


When she moved to a small Indiana farm in 2001, she continued her avocation, founding the Midwest Prairie Dog Shelter – The Last Stop, which she operates in conjunction with Carmel-based Indiana Proactive Animal Welfare.


A widow with two grown children, James has cared for up to 30 prairie dogs at one time. She now has 14 of her own, which she calls “The James Gang” and has named them after infamous outlaws and their cohorts.

Two of the gang’s original members – Jesse, the first animal she took in, and her much-beloved Frankie – passed away from complications of old age.


But James says they nonetheless “ministered to me on a daily basis” while she underwent surgery, six months of chemotherapy and 33 radiation treatments to battle breast cancer, which had spread to her lymph nodes.


James recently went back to work as an administrative assistant. She now spends some of her free time advocating for prairie dog conservation, and she recently was named a Foster Parent of the Year by Indiana-PAW for her work fostering hard-to-place dogs, including a Katrina refugee.


Prairie dogs, James says, face an uncertain future. Because of their still-disputed role in the monkeypox outbreak in 2004, the federal government has banned transporting them and selling them as pets. The animals also face threats in their native habitats from people who view them as pests or impediments to land development.


James agrees that the animals don’t belong in pet stores. But she still calls her little band of burrowers “the loves of my life” and notes: “There is no love in all the world like the love of a prairie dog.”


So, tell me, how did you learn how to look after prairie dogs when you got your first one?


“Well, I had seen them in a local zoo and in Arizona, but I had never considered one as a pet. ...We had some vacation coming, so we got in the car, and I drove out to Denver and sat in the middle of a prairie dog town to observe their behavior and habits because I wanted him to be happy. ... And I found a Web site by Pat Storer, an expert who had written a couple of books, and I read them. But there wasn’t much out there then.”


So what do prairie dogs need to be happy? Do they need to live outdoors so they can burrow?


“I live in the country on three acres of land, and in an ideal world, prairie dogs should live in natural conditions, but they live in my home. I don’t have a dining room anymore. I have a prairie dog town. I have enclosures that are homemade – there are a few 3-by-6-feet enclosures and a 40-by-50-inch one, and there’s one that’s over 6 feet. And there are tunnels made out of tile drains, and I provide computer paper (for them to burrow in) and tons of hay – tons, literally. And they have 15-inch exercise wheels to play on. It’s their home, and they love their home and their life.”


When you talk about “love” from a prairie dog, I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t understand that.  What do you mean?


“They’re very much like people. They’re very social animals, and they live in families like people do. ... They need constant interaction – they’re like a 2-year-old child. They’re as vulnerable as a 2-year-old child, and as curious. And they listen about as well. (Laughs.) They’ll follow you around the house, and will just sit in your lap. ... like a total lap dog. ... When I had breast cancer last year, they took care of me. You have days when you don’t want to be around anybody, and they still want to be around you. You see the love from these animals, and it just gets you going. It might not make sense to some people, but it would make sense to an animal person.”


I would imagine with the federal ban, there wouldn’t be as much of a call for rescue and placement.


“Yes, but people still move, get sick; kids develop allergies. There is still a need, and I’m approved both federally and locally (to take in animals). But I believe it’s going to diminish over time.”


Are you involved in any new projects?


“I’m a member of The Prairie Dog Coalition, which is based in Colorado, and Dr. John Hoogland, who is a scientist who studies prairie dogs, and I just launched a project online called “101 Questions and Answers About Prairie Dogs: Ask a Prairie Dog Expert.” People can e-mail questions in and we’ll answer them. ... I also have a Web site (www.prairiedoglover.com) with information, where we have a care sheet and where I try to do education.  I’d like to dispel myths. … There’s also people who do what I do in other countries, including Belgium and Germany, France, Canada, all over. I try to help them out with their rescue groups.”


You said that you think prairie dogs have been unfairly implicated in the monkeypox situation. Can you explain a little more about that?


“First, it didn’t originate in prairie dogs, which are indigenous to the United States. It originated in Africa, and was brought to this country by Gambian rats who were being brought in by pet dealers. Sick animals got into our borders, and the prairie dogs caught the virus in shipment and in a confined environment in a pet store in Chicago. But federal officials acted quickly to halt the spread of the disease in 2003. Monkeypox no longer exists in the United States, and it should stay that way, as long as we watch our borders.”


So what do prairie dogs need these days from people?


“They need a break! They are just the most misunderstood animals on the planet. They need people to get to know them up close and personal and find out what they’re about.”



Create a Free Website