WHAT THE TWO PERCENT ARE SAYING
I didn’t see a single prairie dog. I scanned a landscape dotted with piñon and juniper; I could spot bare patches among the rabbit brush and grama grasses. The dirt berms that circled the burrow entrances were obvious, but the only things moving were ravens, my companion, and me.
A volunteer involved with prairie dog relocation had brought me here, to an alluvial plain downstream from an escarpment along the Rio Grande. She was careful to protect the secrecy of the spot; I signed a confidentiality agreement before I got out of her truck, and promised not to divulge the location under any circumstances. So we may or may not have been in the Rio Grande Valley, and maybe I just like the sound of the words escarpment and alluvial plain. A collaborative team had moved almost five hundred Gunnison’s prairie dogs away from the path of development around Albuquerque and Santa Fe; the group was invested in the animals’ survival and their continued future in northern New Mexico. Considered by ranchers, horse owners, and weekend gardeners to be the vermin of the American Southwest, prairie dogs are killed more often than rescued. Gunnison’s prairie dogs, which were once abundant across northern New Mexico and southern Colorado, have declined by 98 percent in the last one hundred years; the other four species of prairie dogs have experienced similar declines. Texas once claimed the largest prairie dog town, covering 25,000 square miles and hosting four hundred million prairie dogs. But that was in 1901.
A rodent in the same family as chipmunks and marmots, a prairie dog is a pear-shaped bundle of fur and fleas with a short, straight tail. It can stand on its hind legs and hold food in its front paws, which are shaped like an old man’s hands. Black-tailed prairie dogs were first described by Meriwether Lewis in 1804 during the Lewis and Clark Expedition across South Dakota; he called them barking squirrels. Its genus, Cynomys, comes from the Greek word for dog mouse. They are also known as yaprats, petit chiens, and sod poodles.
As my companion and I approached the relocation site, three sentinel prairie dogs popped out of their burrows on the other side of an arroyo. The three formed a wide triangle, guarding the edges of their territory. Their alarm calls, faint in the distance, sounded like a cross between a Northern Flicker’s caw and a Chihuahua’s bark, notifying their community they had guests. No other prairie dogs showed themselves, however, and eventually even the sentinels returned down under. I wondered what was happening underground, hidden and mysterious to those who didn’t speak their language. Creatures like me.
Studies have shown that prairie dogs have one of the largest vocabularies in the animal kingdom, with more sophisticated language skills than whales, dolphins, or parrots. Prairie dogs have different calls for hawk, coyote, dog, and rattlesnake. They have a call for human and can add syllables to that call to say tall human in a blue shirt and thin human in a white shirt and short, fat human in a yellow shirt. A prairie dog in Utah can invent a new call for something she has never seen before, and a prairie dog in Colorado will understand what that call means the first time he hears it. Prairie dog dictionaries are not needed.
Prairie dog alarm calls convey information about the speed at which a predator is approaching and from what distance. This information is essential to their survival; they run for cover faster if a low-flying hawk is diving than if a coyote on a ridge line is trotting. I could only imagine what the sentinels were saying about the two women hiking toward them, one carrying a bucket of sunflower seeds, the other perhaps recognizable to them. I hoped they had a word for friend.
Research has deciphered about 100 prairie dog words, which doesn’t indicate the limits to their vocabulary—it only indicates the limits of the research. Words not discovered include, for example, the prairie dog words for housing developments, bulldozers that level their towns, or the concrete that plugs what were once their homes. Nor is it known if prairie dogs have a word for the plague that decimates populations across the American West. Although New Mexico reports more than half the human cases of bubonic plague in the United States, fewer than three percent of those infections were transmitted through prairie dogs or their fleas, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
The federal government has spent tens of millions of dollars poisoning prairie dogs, and state and local governments do the same. In late 2013, the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming announced a plan to poison or shoot 16,000 prairie dogs within park boundaries. In South Dakota and Wyoming, landowners are required by law to poison prairie dogs living on their property. Fines for noncompliance range from $50 to $2500 a day.
One style of prairie dog hunting is known as “whack ’em and stack ’em”. Hunters hang push-button counters on lanyards around their necks to track their body count. The Red Mist Society delights in watching the impact on prairie dogs from their exploding dum-dum bullets. In parts of New Mexico, hunters refer to prairie dogs as tails, because that is often the only body part remaining. A gun shop in Los Lunas, New Mexico held a contest in 2013; the shooter who collected the most tails won a semi-automatic rifle. The final tally of the weeklong competition was 1500 tails; the winner bagged 239.
Research has shown that prairie dogs have a call for a person who has fired a shotgun, and that it’s different from the call they used for the same person before he fired the gun. I want to add that word to my vocabulary, and try it out on friends in Utah and Colorado and see if they know what I mean. Prairie dogs continue to use the new name for that shooter for up to two months, whether or not he carries a gun. This tells me that prairie dogs have memories, but the more interesting consideration is whether the call implies the degree of danger that the person with the shotgun poses, or whether the prairie dog is expressing a different sentiment. Outrage? hatred? or simple disgust?
My companion had been monitoring the health and success rates of the prairie dogs in their new burrows for the last five years. We were out in late October, past the start of prairie dog hibernation time. She said that the animals reach a body weight that triggers a chemical in their blood, signaling when to tunnel into the warm earth to live off stored fat. From October until May, they inhabit the underworld, in tunnels up to fifty feet long by six inches wide, sleeping close together in small, dark rooms. As we walked across the field, we saw no more prairie dogs, not even the sentinels. We did find fresh scat, which told us the burrows were still active. I tossed handfuls of sunflower seeds down those openings, hoping an alert prairie dog would wake from a seasonal torpor long enough to find lunch. I imagined the landscape in the spring when the ground is green with sun sedges and broadleaf forbs, and prairie dog calls ring across the valley. I tried to imagine what they dreamed about all winter, and if they prayed for rain.
In North America, prairie dogs are a keystone species, which means they make the world a better place without even trying. Keystone species are named for the stone at the apex of an arch. Like an arch without its keystone, an ecosystem can collapse if a keystone species disappears. Just the presence of prairie dogs makes the environment richer, despite the poverty of their numbers, and benefits hundreds of other species. Prairie dog burrows help channel rainwater back into the water table, preventing runoff and erosion. Prairie dogs aerate the soil across grasslands and can even reverse the soil compaction that results from cattle grazing. Their foraging forces new grasses to grow. In turn, the fresh grasses offer more nutrients for large herbivores like bison, pronghorn, and deer, who prefer to graze on land that they have shared with prairie dogs. Their gifts to us might not be as immediately recognizable as a welcoming entrance hole to a burrowing owl, or lunch for a black-footed ferret. Life depends on prairie dogs in symbiotic relationships not quite understood.
Prairie dogs live in communities of loosely formed families called coteries. They greet each other by approaching slowly and then pressing their mouths together in a gesture called a greet-kiss. Biologists who study prairie dogs don’t know why the animals do this, but have posited various theories—that they get information about the type of food the other prairie dog has eaten, or they identify individuals, or they set hierarchies within the coterie. All these theories have been invalidated by observation over time. What has been shown, however, is that a greet-kiss between males from different territories leads to a madcap chase, although rarely physical combat. A greet-kiss between females results in a foraging party.
My guess regarding the greet-kiss is based on my vision of life in the middle of a fourteen-foot tunnel. It’s hard to know who you’re bumping into in the dark. I can think of no better way than a greet-kiss to establish identity, mine or other tunnel navigators. Identifying another individual in the dark means knowing who you are, who your cousins are, and who your enemies are. By defining ourselves, we define the other, and we can choose to let that definition separate or unite. The ability to self-identify, like language, is an attribute historically awarded only to humans. The thought that we are not separate from animals is a hard realization for many people to embrace. What’s left that makes us human—desire? ambition? or the ability to screw things up on a global scale?
Prairie dogs solve the challenge of changing direction in a dark, confining burrow by carving out side chambers called turnarounds, small enough to just accommodate an animal who has decided to reverse course. Scientists have gleaned few facts from the underground lives of prairie dogs; they are often the first to admit that the more they learn, the more they realize they don’t know. When I was a young girl, I believed heaven was whatever you wanted it to be. My heaven was a place where all of life’s mysteries would be revealed and I would finally have some answers. In heaven, I’ll know what kind of UFO crashed in Roswell, New Mexico and appreciate quantum physics. But I probably still won’t understand why we allowed prairie dogs to disappear.
A prairie dog alarm call lasts only a tenth of a second. But if you record it, slow it down, and slice it up, you can unpack the information and hear the syllables contained in each call. If you slow it down enough, it starts to sound like a song of a humpback whale. If you speed up a whale song, it starts to sound like human speech, although the noises might seem as indecipherable to human ears as prairie dog calls in real-time. A typical male Gunnison’s prairie dog dies before he reaches age five; a humpback whale can live to be fifty years old. What does this tell us about the way these animals experience time, and their sense of urgency? I have already outlived the norm for either species. What message does this promise for me, if I could only listen?
Most Americans live by the clock; time is money. Time flows, like water in an arroyo after a hard rain. We can waste, save, and kill time. The future is budgeted; the past is spent. But not all cultures live by the clock. Some languages have no words for past or future. Some languages have no verb tenses. But not all cultures live by the clock, and many individuals live outside clock time. Consider the young, the old, or the sick. Maybe it’s someone you knew or will know, in the past or future. Maybe you wish it could be you.
For the remaining two percent of the billions of prairie dogs that once called the American Southwest home, the clock is ticking. If they are aware of their future, we see no indication. Perhaps time is solely a human construct; maybe humans are the only ones who are concerned about the future. But I am painting with too broad a brush—some of us are not worried at all, and most of us are not worried enough.
As I carried the empty sunflower seed bucket across the arroyo, I looked over my shoulder, hoping for one last glimpse of a prairie dog. At least I knew the colony was still active, unlike other colonies across the Southwest that have been destroyed in so many ways, whether from plague, development, or eradication. A spotted towhee called from the top of a cottonwood. How would my view of the world change if I understood the language of prairie dogs? How would our sense of time and community change if we all understood? Unless we carve out our turnaround, we may never know.
Renata Golden has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Houston and works as a writer and editor in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She has also worked as an adjunct professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe. She has several text books published by HPE Press and has had essays published by Terrain.org. She also has an essay in an anthology by Weeping Willow Books scheduled for publication in April 2017.
Author’s note: Thanks to Dr. Con Slobodchikoff at Northern Arizona University and Dr. John Hoogland at the University of Maryland for their decades of research on prairie dogs, and for sharing their knowledge with a yaprat like me. When I started learning about prairie dogs, I knew next to nothing about them. What I’ve learned leaves me with more questions than answers, like this one: What would you spend your precious days talking about if you realized your time left on the planet grew shorter with every breath?