Updated: Sep 2, 2020
(or, I’m Glad I’m Not a Prairie Dog! )
Pretend for a moment that you sell shoelaces for a living.
You got in on the colored-shoelaces fashion craze a few years back, and now the trend has spread, providing a healthy market in your town for your growing assortment of brightly colored and wildly patterned shoelaces, which you produce yourself on equipment you purchased just for that purpose.
Your business is thriving. True, it’s only a local business. After all, you can only produce a certain number of shoelaces in your little personal factory. However, you’re happy with the success of your little neighborhood business, and you take pride in the return of your loyal clients week after week, as they come in to see what new shoelace designs you’ve come up with. You are more than a shoelace salesperson. You are a shoelace artist.
One day, you hear on the news that there has been an outbreak of fevers and strange rashes in a small town on the other side of the country. Within a few more days, the sickness has spread to a dozen or more people in that town. And then, you hear something alarming — the local authorities in the town have traced the sickness back to a small shoelace factory in that area. After an investigation, it’s discovered that the materials the factory used to make the last batch of shoelaces were infested with a microscopic parasite which has been infecting customers with a highly contagious respiratory illness. Soon, nearly 20 people in that town are hospitalized with the illness. A wave of panic passes through the entire shoelace-producing community. Though the illness is easily treatable, it gives the medical authorities quite a scare, and the tiny factory in that far-away town is shut down.
A few days later, you are notified that your factory is being shut down as well. The disease is spreading quickly, and because medical authorities are worried that the infected shoelace materials might have been used at more than one factory, they ban the production of shoelaces nationwide.
Soon shoelaces become a thing of the past. Those who own “clean” shoelaces from the pre-infectious period still wear them from time to time; everyone else just uses Velcro.
What is a shoelace artist to do? (And what does this have to do with prairie dogs?)
Some may suggest trying to adapt, finding a creative way to design colorful and wildly patterned Velcro. But what about the stock of shoelaces you had produced prior to the infection? You know they are “clean;” they were produced long before the suspected material ever entered the country, aside from the fact that you make your shoelaces from materials produced at a local distribution center. Your materials would never have come in contact with the infected batch.
What are you to do with all those shoelaces? According to government regulations, shoelaces are no longer allowed to be bought, sold, or transferred, regardless of when and where they were produced. Do you use them for decorations in your home? As stuffing for a new pillow? Or do you simply hold on to them, in hopes that one day the ban will be lifted and you can resume your life’s work?
Now imagine that instead of shoelaces, we’re talking about a living creature which has to be cared for and looked after; which can’t just be packed in a box to wait until the ban is lifted. What would you do then?
This is exactly what has happened with the case of prairie dogs.
Briefly gaining popularity on the exotic pet market, prairie dog sale and transport was banned in 2003 due to an outbreak of Monkey Pox in a localized trading circuit. The Monkey Pox, which began with a group of infected exotic rats, spread to a group of prairie dogs caged nearby them in the same pet store. Monkey Pox, similar to Chicken Pox, is highly contagious and infected the pet-dealer as well as the family who purchased the prairie dogs. Though treatable, the disease spread quickly enough to cause great concern within the CDC, which consequently placed a permanent ban on the sale of prairie dogs nationwide.
The trouble is that prairie dogs are not like shoelaces. They can’t be stored away in a closet now that the ban is in place. So what happened to all the prairie dogs which had previously been bred or captured for the pet trade?
Well, as Diedtra Henderson of the Boston Globe mentions, some prairie dog dealers have “simply picked up a skill from the animals” and “moved underground.”
Others have opted for a less controversial route, and have devoted their time (and considerable portions of their homes) to housing abandoned prairie dogs and providing access to stocks of supplies for those residual prairie dog owners from the pre-ban period. However, even this becomes a bit shady, as the ban also prohibits the trading of prairie dogs in any form, requiring a veterinarian’s clearance and quarantine procedures for even simply transporting the animal.
So what becomes of all the prairie dogs?
Surprisingly, prairie dogs have bigger things to worry about.
Considered a pest in many places, the prairie dog has suffered a variety of unfortunate injustices*, including being vacuumed out of its home and used as a food source for endangered ferrets, as a target for sporting events and as the main ingredient for cookoffs. And if that isn’t bad enough, scientists have officially labeled the prairie dog’s main function in life as being a primary food source for other animals.
The next time you’re having a bad day, just be thankful you aren’t a prairie dog.
*I happen to be a residual prairie dog owner from the pre-ban period, and I’ve got to say, they’re really very charming animals! Okay, so mine went through a phase where he rabidly attacked people, but now he’s perfectly sweet and loving, and has a wonderful personality. And though wild prairie dogs may be perceived as pests, they also serve an important function in the ecosystem (even if it is partly just as a food source for other animals).