"There is an old Navajo warning that if you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for the rain..."
-Stephen Harrod Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine
I didn't see a groundhog on Tuesday, but I did see one of our zoo's black-tailed prairie dogs (no word on whether she saw her shadow). That surprised me. This time of year, I would have put the odds on it being more likely that I would have seen a wild groundhog than a captive prairie dog. Prior to that brief glimpse, I can't think of the last time that I saw one. Weeks, maybe.
If it seems strange that a zookeeper would go for weeks without actually seeing on of his or her animals, it is... unless the animal in question is a prairie dog (which is not a dog, of course, but a ground-dwelling squirrel). Everything about prairie dogs is weird, from a captive management standpoint. Unlike any other species in our collection (down to the hissing cockroaches), I can't tell you how many prairie dogs we have at any given time. That's because the entire theater of their life, except for brief foraging expeditions, takes place beneath the surface. They breed underground. They are born underground. They die underground... and when they die, they do so in chambers which are then sealed off by the others.
They even poop underground - the poop being deposited in special chambers (and there aren't just bathrooms - there are bedrooms, pantries, you name it). That, of course, means that I don't have to clean in there. Basically, I add food and water. Easiest exhibit in the zoo.
If you exclude the aquariums and aviaries, I think prairie dogs might be the one species which has been exhibited at every single zoo I've ever visited. Maybe one or two didn't have them, but that's it. They are among the most ubiquitous of zoo critters. Visitors love them. What's always surprised me, then, is how no one ever seems to have developed a truly great prairie dog exhibit.
Prairie dogs have a great story to tell. Forget about rattlesnakes or wolves, they are one of the most feared and loathed and misunderstood animals in the Americas. Ranchers and farmers have waged wars of them for centuries, accusing them of ruining grazing land and leaving holes all over the place for their horses to step into a break legs. They've been popular live-targets for every kid with a gun in the western states. While prairie dogs have remained fairly common across their range, their once immeasurable numbers have diminished greatly, often to the severe detriment of animals that rely on them (sometimes exclusively so).
Image obtained from Arizona Game and Fish Department
And other animals certainly do rely on them. The burrows of prairie dogs shelter a host of other animals, from burrowing owls to toads to the black-footed ferrets which feed almost solely on prairie dogs (talk about ingratitude). Besides ferrets, the dogs feed hawks, badgers, coyotes, and snakes. The constant tunneling of the rodents churns the soil, improving the grazing for other herbivores, such as bison and pronghorn. All of this makes a fascinating story zoo visitors would lap up.
It doesn't hurt that prairie dogs are cute as buttons (I mean, to the extent that buttons really are cute, which is a concept I've never understood) and tend to be active and full of bustle and energy - at least, during periods of nice weather. Guests love them... blissfully unaware of how savage they can be to each other (imagine Watership Down meets Lord of the Flies).
Changes in zoo exhibition techniques have revolutionized how visitors see some animals. Reversed lighting has turned bats, small cats, and other nocturnal animals from sleeping blobs to fur to active and energetic creatures. Underwater viewing has transformed hippos and crocodilians from floating lumps to star attractions and allowed visitors to see how penguins "fly" underwater.
It's interesting, then, to wonder about the possibilities of underground viewing. I've been to a few facilities that show a tiny section of cut-away burrows (National Zoo has side-by-side displays for prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in their Small Mammal House), but they've been on a very small scale. I'm talking about something grand and sweeping, the difference between a 10-gallon glass tank and the shark tank at a major aquarium - a sprawling exhibit where prairie dogs - displayed with their non-predatory cohorts in a mixed-species exhibit - can be viewed above the ground and below. You could see them tunnel, observe how they utilize different chambers of their network, and watch how animals interact below the surface. It would also allow keepers to have the opportunity to track their charges throughout their lives, rather than just rely on a few snapshots of cameo appearances on the surface.
How will it work? Haven't gotten there yet. I've seen it done with taxidermy mounts, but getting live animals to work in such a set-up, tunneling alongside viewing windows, would be tricky. Maybe the answer right now isn't to actually show visitors with their own eyes, but to use technology, like laparoscopic cameras, to sneak-peeks down the tunnels. Whatever the case, it would be fascinating to let visitors gain an entirely new perspective of an animal that many of them thought they knew.