A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Killing Prairie Dogs Is Not an Option

So if Sunday you’re free,
Why don’t you come with me,
And we’ll poison the pigeons in the park.
And maybe we’ll do
In a squirrel or two,
While we’re poisoning pigeons in the park.

Singer, satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer wrote “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” in 1952. He might want to dust it off and bring it to Flagstaff, Ariz., where they’re poisoning prairie dogs in the city park.

The main trouble, apparently, is that prairie dogs dig tunnels, and people who are playing softball could potentially trip and twist their ankles.

The Powers That Be say they’ve tried lots of other ways to remove the dogs from Foxglenn City Park – backfilling burrows, planting rose bushes, trapping them and relocating them (photo right), and feeding them to ferrets (hmm), but none of this has stopped them from coming back. So it’s time for a final solution that involves burying zinc phosphide in the ground. When the zinc phosphide is eaten, it reacts with stomach acid to form a toxic gas that attacks cells in the heart, lungs and liver.

prairie-dogs-082012Steve Zimmerman, the city parks manager, says he’s open to alternatives. And for sure, the city doesn’t want to be sued by someone who twisted their ankle playing softball.

But as long as killing remains an acceptable solution, it’s unlikely that an alternative will be found.

It’s the same logic that used be trotted out by shelters taking in homeless pets: “There’s just too many of them and we’ve tried everything else.”

But until you take killing off the table, it remains the basic fallback position, and there’s no reason to try anything else. Only when you say that killing is unacceptable and impermissible do other options truly open up. (Necessity, as they say, becomes the mother of invention.)

Prairie dog massacres have been tried in other cities around the country. Earlier this year, the town of Frederick, Colo., (population 9,000) began killing two large colonies of prairie dogs, bringing in an extermination company to poison them. Home and property owners were encouraged to avail themselves of the services of the company, and those who failed to comply could be fined up to $1,000.

Are there too many prairie dogs? Quite the opposite, in fact. They are rapidly disappearing, and we are now down to about 2 percent of the prairie dog numbers that existed 100 years ago.

They’re also a key part of the intricate web of life that makes up the ecosystem of our grasslands. Nine different wildlife species depend for their own survival on the existence and habitat of the prairie dogs. They have a complex communication system that borders on language.

And far from being pests, prairie dogs are among the most fascinating of creatures. Professor Con Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University is the leading expert on the communication and social behavior of p.d.’s. He says they have a complex communication system that borders on language, and he has produced a series of videos that explain their communication system. For example, these animals don’t just have different alarm calls for humans, coyotes, domestic dogs, and red-tailed hawks; they can describe the size and shape of an individual predator – even what color shirt a human intruder might be wearing. He calls their way of communicating the most sophisticated nonhuman animal language system that has been described to date.

You can see some of the videos with Dr. Slobodchikoff’s explanations in this earlier post.

But someone might twist their ankle playing softball where the prairie dogs have their homes. So the solution is to poison them.

“If anybody has any better solutions,” said parks manager Zimmerman, “I’m open to ideas.”

Well, a few simple ideas would be to put up a notice warning people that the park is also home to prairie dogs, that they dig burrows and tunnels, so it’s good to watch where you step, and that the city is not responsible for anyone who trips up while walking there. Perhaps, at the same time, put some underground fencing around a small area of the park that would be safe for softball. And if that doesn’t work, then play softball somewhere else.

But the one thing that would be off the table would be killing the prairie dogs. Life is better with them than without them.