Prairie dogs kiss like humans do. Specifically, they kiss like the French.
So, when explorer and scholar Capt. John Williams Gunnison was traversing the American Southwest in the 1850s, he would have trailblazed through prairie dog towns thousand of acres wide. Steadying himself in his saddle, he would have seen prairie-dog tongue action as far as his collapsible telescope could see: Males frenching females, females frenching their young and, less frequently, males frenching each other - not that Gunnison would have known how to tell a prairie dog's gender.
The sight of all that seemingly free public lovin' would have inspired a moment of reflection for Capt. Gunnison, considering his area of expertise: polygamist Brigham Young and the Mormons of the Great Salt Lake. He authored an anthropological text about their culture and, in return for his advocacy and adventurism, the Utahns christened a town after him.
And the kissing prairie dogs of New Mexico? They also assumed his name.
Cynomys gunnisoni, Gunnison's prairie dog, inhabit a deep and old burrow in the hearts of Santa Fe's preservationists. Even St. Francis, his bronze self, stands outside city hall, blessing a beer-bellied prairie dog for all eternity. A cynic could argue that animal-rights folks are guilty of lovey-dovey Bambi-zation; one man's kissing prairie dog is everyone else's vermin.
Then again, it's not the ability to love that makes an animal conscious.
In 1789, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham reframed the dilemma of sentience, the differences between humans and animals: "The question is not, 'Can they reason?' nor, 'Can they talk?' but, 'Can they suffer?'"?
Prairie dog experts would argue that the rodents' uncanny ability to adapt and survive in areas as small as a strip of landscaping at a Giant gas station isn't a miracle; it indicates the capacity to reason. As for language, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff, a biologist at Northern Arizona University, has documented a whole lexicon based on terror, an alarm for every predator - coyotes, badgers, ferrets, hawks. And like humans, the languages vary from town to town, the dialects from coterie to coterie. The noise a prairie dog from Galisteo Road makes when humans have it trapped in a plastic canine carrier is a cross between a cheap car alarm, an irritating tropical bird and a toddler abusing a maraca: CHEP CHEP CHEP CHEP CHEP CHEP.
For the prairie dogs in the swath along the proposed Rail Runner route between Zia and Rodeo roads, the kissing was cut short this spring. They awoke from hibernation in mid-March to the vibration of heavy machinery above. As they emerged to feed, they began disappearing, snared in traps. Then came the floods, spooking them out of their burrows into the hands of waiting relocators.
The Gunnisons couldn't have known that the last grains of sand were falling from the hourglass; at the end of April, their towns will be flattened to make room for the Albuquerque-Santa Fe stretch of the Rail Runner commuter train.
Now they're waiting in stock tanks, the kind of water troughs cattle drink from, for their human saviors to lead them to a permanent and protective home, a prairie dog's Promised Land.
If Capt. Gunnison were to rise from his grave today, he might be saddened to see the great, sprawling make-out parties of the prairie reduced to litter-dotted strips of roadside. (He might even be as surprised as he would be to hear that a Mormon who shot "varmints" for fun had run for president.) ***image3***Plague, poisoning, hunting and development are the four horsemen of the prairiocalypse: the first is transmitted by fleas, the rest are caused by humans.
This time, what seems like Armageddon to Gunnison's dogs may actually be the ordeal that ensures its species will live to kiss another day.
It's 2 pm on March 29 and Lynne Hough is late getting out in the field, mostly because she has to drive down from Taos. All the Galisteo Road prairie dogs must be caught and evacuated within the week; whoever is left will be bulldozed for Rail Runner construction.
A painter by day and weekend volunteer and member of Santa Fe-based People for Native EcoSystems, Hough lays 18 traps around the area, each partially buried outside a flagged burrow entrance. Then she begins driving in circles around the mile-long perimeter. A prairie dog shouldn't be trapped above ground for more than 20 minutes.
Two hours and zero catches later, she pulls around a bend in Galisteo Road to see a frustrating scene unfolding in front of the most threatened site. Twenty feet from the first burrow, a photographer leaning on a tripod is arguing with a security guard parked in his sedan over the media's right to shoot pictures on New Mexico Department of Transportation property.
Hough chases them off, explaining that the best thing for everyone is to have this First Amendment debate someplace where they're not spooking the prairie dogs with their heated presence. The photographer agrees to set his tripod up across the street. The guard apologizes, but starts talking about his horse, and how he'd had to shoot it after it broke its leg tripping in a prairie-dog hole. Even though she doubts that he can really blame it on the dogs, Hough buttons her mouth - prairie-dog relocators know as well anyone how hard it is to lose an animal.
Hough follows the two off the site, parking her truck on a side street. She opens a spiral notebook and notes the incident and the time. Then she leans on her steering wheel and focuses a pair of binoculars on the traps near the train tracks. In khakis, she's dressed for a safari.
The Galisteo Road colony is a prairie-dog ghetto, a littered patch of land bisected by the Santa Fe Railway and sandwiched between a suburban road on one side and a Budweiser beer distributor on the other. A German shepherd with bad hips patrols the parking lot of the neighboring mechanic garage to the soundtrack of St. Francis Drive traffic. The prairie dogs here are cautious to the point of skittishness because joggers and their canines cut through the colony all day, every day.
Winter lasted longer this year and the prairie dogs are only just now emerging from their slumber. This is a great source of anxiety for Hough. Originally, the DOT had only agreed to relocate the large colony down by the trails at the corner of Zia and St. Francis. With that batch, the relocators had until April 22. Then the DOT gave in to pressure to add the Galisteo group to the order, but it only gave relocators until April 7.
Flushing out prairie dogs with soap suds is the quickest and surest way to extract prairie dogs from their holes, Hough says. But that job belongs to the full-time contracted head relocator, Paula Martin, who is recovering from surgery and won't be well enough to flush for at least a few more days.
"No one gets results like Paula," Hough says. In the meantime, she can trap.
The traps are designed for squirrels, but they work for their shorter tailed cousins as well. The wire cages are the size of shoe boxes with a door that swings down when a dog crawls over a platform to nab the bait.
The menu? Lettuce, carrots, seeds. Martin swears by powdered ***image6***mini-doughnuts and the brightest colored Doritos on the shelf. Prairie dogs love sweet and colorful food; the moist lettuce serves as a cup of tap water to wash down the junk food.
Hough checks her watch. Fifteen minutes have passed and it's time to drive another loop around the block. Hough believes that there are those who have it - a prairie-dog mojo. A watched pot may never boil, but provided the watcher's got it, a watched trap will indeed snap.
There's nothing in the other traps, so she settles again in her parking spot across from the Galisteo site. She scans with her binoculars from right to left and then holds. Everything out there looks like a prairie dog: rocks, mud clumps, the desert flotsam.
"Is that a prairie dog in that trap?" she asks outloud, adjusting the middle ring of her binoculars. "No! Thats two prairie dogs!"
Yearling twins. That's a boon that sends her in a half-run across the street, towel in hand. She returns with a cage covered like an illusionist's magic box. A couple that lives in the neighborhood allows Hough to borrow their sun room to transfer the two dogs into a plastic dog kennel filled with straw.
"When I see a prairie dog standing up in the sun, I see trust and hope and a ***image7***willingness to interact with all species," she says. "They give you a look that just goes through you, a very optimistic, very sweet look. I also feel an ancient connection; they're ancient beings and it's hard to say I dont feel profound sadness."
With the carrier in her backseat, she's heading back to the trap circuit when her cell phone rings. It's the security guard from earlier; on his way home he spotted an injured prairie dog near Siringo Road. She guns it up the road, eyes darting between the three lanes for a lump of tan fur.
The creature is in the left lane. Only its hind legs are recognizable, the rest has been run over and over and over, grinding it into a goopy smear of blood and guts. She parks on the shoulder, retrieves a shovel from the back of her truck and buries it on the embankment.
On her way back down St. Francis, her melancholy turns suddenly to hope as she spies another dog lying by the side of the road. This one isn't a goopy smear of blood and guts, but a healthy-sized and intact prairie dog. She wonders if this is the one the guard was describing.
She doubles back through side streets, throws her hazards on and pulls up to the median. She walks just inside the painted line, careful of the whooshing rush-hour traffic. It's too late. The dog is lifeless, broken. She picks it up in a towel and cradles it like baby. Close up, she sees that what looks like the animal's left eye is hanging more than an inch outside its socket. The impact of whatever hit it, surely, was instantly fatal.
As the sun dips its toes in the horizon, she picks up the traps, all of which are still empty. She sighs. Two caught, two dead. It feels like they have canceled each other out.
In December 2007, CIA Director Michael Hayden confirmed, in a memo to employees, that he had ordered the destruction of videotapes of agency interrogators using the simulated drowning technique known as "waterboarding" on two al-Qaida operatives.
Never to be deterred, several news networks staged their own waterboarding experiments to illustrate the technique to the public. Investigative reporters and ex-military men volunteered for the treatment; with the cameras rolling, they were tilted back in a supine position, their mouths covered with fabric or cellophane, while gallons of water were slowly poured over their faces. Those ***image9***who have experienced it describe an uncontrollable panic seizing their bodies and an irresistible survival reflex over-riding their willpower as their bodies are convinced they are drowning.
Videos of prairie-dog-burrow flushing have a very Gitmo-like feel to them; "extraordinary rendition" seems an apt way to describe it.
"It's certainly traumatic for the prairie dogs," Martin says. "But flushing is really the only way to make sure you get all of them."
The American use of flushing may actually predate the American use of waterboarding. In 1902, according to the New Yorker, the American public learned that the US Army employed it on Filipino insurgents in the Spanish-American War (President Theodore Roosevelt ordered the officer in charge be court-martialed). But the first American prairie-dog flooding occurred nearly 100 years earlier during the Lewis and Clark expedition:
"[W]e arrived at a spot, on the gradual descent of the hill, nearly four acres in extent, and covered with small holes: these are the residence of a little animal, called by the French petit chien, who sit erect near the mouth, and make a whistling noise, but when alarmed take refuge in their holes," William Clark wrote in his journal on Sept. 7, 1804. "In order to bring them out, we poured into one of the holes five barrels of water without filling it, but we dislodged and caught the owner. After digging down another of the holes for six feet, we found, on running a pole into it, that we had not yet dug half way to the bottom."
(One live prairie dog would be sent to President Thomas Jefferson, who described it as a "most harmless and tame creature." A year later, a political cartoonist attacked Jefferson's plans to purchase West Florida by portraying the founding father as a prairie dog puking up gold coins at the feet of a Spaniard.)
A little more than 203 years later, on the last Sunday before construction is set to begin on the Galisteo site, Paula Martin is leading the charge with her ***image10***improved flushing technique. Saturday was a bust. Despite the scheduled relocation, the DOT's private contractors had begun running their equipment nearby. The dogs keep to the subterrane all day.
Martin is accompanied by Hough and another helper, Rick Green, a Sotheby's real estate agent who has accepted refugee dogs on to his ranch property. Green, wearing dusty overalls and a mustache the color of a prairie dog's pelt, is in charge of the trailered 400-gallon tank filled with dish-soaped water. Martin is the one who rolls up her sleeves and submerges her bare hands into the burrows.
Martin and Green drive the circuit around the various sites, waiting for a prairie dog head to pop from the soil. When they see it, they swerve to the side of the road to catch it before it can seal itself off in one of its safety chambers.
Green switches on the tank's pump and unwinds a long hose with the end bent over to create a pressurized surge of foam. He kneels by the hole and lets the hose flow until the suds begin to back up, which is how they know the flush has penetrated the deepest chambers of the burrow. Martin shoves her arm in up to her elbow and waits for the suds to bubble or swirl, an indication that a prairie dog is making its way to the surface.
If the first stage looks like torture, then the second looks like childbirth. In a single smooth motion, Martin pulls a mound of squirming suds from the hole to a waiting towel. Hough's standing by as a nurse, ready with eye drops and food coloring. Martin squirts saline into the confused animal's eyes, then color codes it so she can sort it with the rest of its family.
Prairie dogs may be lovers, but they're also war-markers, as territorial as Los Angeles street gangs. When a prairie dog crosses into foreign territory, it can expect to be challenged with claws and teeth that are used to drilling into hard earth. Martin says she hasn't been bitten in two years.
They repeat this process all day and the back of the SUV is filling up with kennels.
This is taking a visible toll on Martin. She is only just out of the hospital and all the bending and squatting is agitating her wound. She's driven by the time constraints, but also, perhaps, by grief. A week earlier her pet prairie dog, Sunshine, passed away. The pup had a mineral deficiency and required treatment, so she adopted her. Sunshine used to climb up her body and kiss her on the lips, Martin says. She lived to be seven, three years more than the usual longevity of a prairie dog.
Suddenly it's do or die; the relocation team has almost run out of time. So far, they've caught close to 70. Martin thinks that may be all of them, but there's only one way to be sure. They must flood each and every hole on the Galisteo site one last time, regardless of whether they've seen any dogs pop their heads up.
Martin and Green work their way around the site, while Hough and two new volunteers, who saw an article about flooding in the daily newspaper, scan the area to make sure the dogs don't escape from a secret entrance. After 20 minutes, the area is a plain of shallow pools, like a volcanic beach at low tide. They leave empty handed. Either none are left, or the remaining dogs are too smart and resilient for their own good.
At 8:45 am the next day, as construction begins, a half-dozen concerned citizens mill around the Galisteo site, waiting for city and state officials to meet and settle a property-line vagary. The community has set up a ***image12***memorial on a stack of rusted train parts - flowers and ribbons not unlike what one would see by the roadside to mark a fatal car wreck. A poster is staked to the ground: "Save our prairie dogs."
Martin's not there. As a state contractor, she feels it would be inappropriate. And she's already antagonized the New Mexico Department of Transportation enough. Now what's important is to find a place to put the little buggers.
"There are already several relocation sites established around the state so one of the other things that we are committed to is looking at a dedicated site," Chris Blewitt, the DOT employee appointed to manage the relocation, says. "We've been working on this over the last three or four months to identify another site. That's still going on."
Nicole Rosmarino isn't satisfied.
As wildlife program director for the WildEarth Guardians, the environment organization formerly known as the Forest Guardians, she has negotiated prairie-dog protection with the City of Santa Fe. With the Rail Runner project, she has lobbied for more time for the Galisteo colony without much success. Now what's bothering her is the relocation site the DOT has chosen: a 12-acre parcel next to US Department of Land Management property off Route 599.
"This isn't the way to do a relocation," Rosmarino says. "They should be moved to place where they will be safe and that is adequate sizeâ€¦I mean, you have the DOT, which has substantial holdings throughout the state, and they can't even produce a site where they can take prairie dogs they've dislocated. That's not fair to put that burden on the relocator."
Martin says she has never relocated a population to an area this small. The general rule of thumb is to allow 10 to 15 Gunnison's prairie dogs to an acre. The real deal-breaker for Martin is that the DOT would not guarantee any kind of protection for the prairie dogs. Not only is the site impermanent, but Martin says she received a letter from the DOT that says, in no uncertain terms, that in a few years the dogs will likely need to be relocated again. In other words, it's more of a refugee camp than a settlement.
Throughout the trapping, Martin has been searching for a private property where she can establish the population. As of deadline, the prairie dogs were still living in tanks while Martin was in the final negotiations with a ranch property north of Santa Fe. At the same time, WildEarth Guardians is canvassing private landowners so they won't be put in this position the next time.
"I think people like to hear stories that the prairie dogs were safely relocated out of the way of danger, but we know that relocation is traumatic on prairie dogs," Rosmarino says. "We can't just keep relocating to address these conflicts. We need to find places in the city where prairie dogs can be safe and can remain."
If nubile, bi-curious sorority girls can have live Web cams, then why not kissing prairie dogs, too?
Out on the Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge, 20 minutes or so north of Socorro, a streaming Web cam is trained on a 100-acre patch of nothingness called McKenzie Flats. As a storm system moves over Los Pinos Mountains, the camera trembles in the gusts of desert wind.
Watch long enough (that is, until the sun comes out) and prairie dogs will emerge from their chambers. This is how they were meant to live, in wide open spaces in a functioning, self-sustaining, concrete-free ecology. These dogs might beg to differ; two years earlier they were thriving at the Santa Fe Railyard. If it weren't for the Web cam, Santa Feans would never have the chance to see them again.
The Sevilleta refuge is managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in partnership with well-funded researchers at the University of New Mexico. The refuge has a strict policy of accepting only species native to the land; manager Dennis Prichard says the refuge had been approached before by prairie-dog scientists, but the prairie-dog species so far had always been alien to the habitat. However, this range had been home to thousands of Gunnison's prairie dogs, before ranchers poisoned them into non-existence.
The refuge agreed to accept 450 prairie dogs from the Railyard, provided that UNM researchers would document how the "classic keystone species" altered the ecosystem. With back hoes, Fish and Wildlife employees dug nearly 100 holes, each 6 to 8 feet deep with an upside-down bucket at the bottom to serve as a temporary den until the dogs were adjusted enough to dig their own tunnel systems. Like a gardener spreads seeds one by one in a plowed field, they dropped the prairie dogs family by family into the pits, They covered the entrances with cages to protect them from predators long enough to establish themselves. Then, it was just a matter of sitting back and watching.
As it turns out, prairie dogs affect the ecosystem substantially.
"Here's why: Once prairie dogs are established, there's about 200 species of animals that come to live with them," Acting Refuge Manager Dennis Prichard says. "The first thing you think of is rattle snakes that live in their burrows, but also burrowing animals. There's a whole host of underground invertebrates like insects and bugs and worms and things like that. There's even a lot of predators that come in that weren't in abundance before, such as badgers, hawks and bobcats. Even mountain lions will take prairie dogs if they can get them. All these different things start to change their ranges, change their way of living to focus around the prairie dog town."
A symbiosis evolves, Prichard says. But it wasn't all Hakuna Matata and happy Circle of Life from the get go. In the first year, more than half of the 450 Railyard prairie dogs died.
Whatever precautions the relocators take, the Galisteo Gunnisons will likely suffer the same fate. As city dogs, they just aren't immediately equipped for the nasty and brutish cycle of natural selection. When they are introduced, they will be easy pickings for their predators. The good news, Prichard says, is that the Railyard dogs' natality increased substantially in the second year.
"When they're contained in their artificial burrows you have to put lot of hay and food in the cage because that helps them to feel safer," Martin says. "As a prey species, they have that flight response when they're released. They want to leave, they just panic. You've got to get them over that in order to remove the cages from burrows."
But they'll adapt within a matter of weeks, she says.
The Refuge is currently entertaining proposals for increasing its prairie-dog population, but it won't go through in time to help the Galisteo and Zia dogs. But in the long term, relocation to a peopleless preserve may be the optimal solution for Santa Fe's 103 displaced dogs.
Rosmarino, though, is worried about how the Great Furry Flight will affect the city's human communities. In the last 10 years, she says, the city has lost 80 percent of its prairie-dog population. At that rate, within a few years the only prairie dogs in the city will be the colony kept on display at the Jackalope folk-art store on Cerrillos Road.
"I think that they preserve an important link with the wild for our human
community," Rosmarino says. "I know countless people that eat their lunches ***image15***on benches next to prairie dog towns so they can watch the prairie dogs and get a piece of solace in an otherwise hectic day. I think that they remind us of our own communities. They remind us of us. If we create enough space in our hearts and imaginations to allow these animals to remain in our community, I think it will improve the human community."
So far, she says, Santa Fe's stakeholders have yet to hold proper discussions about the future of the city's colonies, which colonies should stay and which open spaces should be reserved permanently for the dogs. Many saw Frenchy's Field as a place where prairie dogs and humans could co-exist. Drive by the park now, she says, and you'll see that city workers have ripped up the entire field with trenches several feet deep. The prairie dogs watch from a thin sliver of dirt on the sidelines, marveling at the human's digging.
"The conversation needs to occur citywide, and it needs to occur between a lot of different people," Rosmarino says. "I think there are a lot of colonies where the prospects, the future is unclear. We need to have a conversation about whether their presence is really conflicting with any other [land] uses and whether they can be protected. We've just never had that conversation. It's just been ad hoc relocation whenever there's the least sign of conflict and the result is 10 years later, eight out of 10 prairie dogs are gone."
In the first quarter of the 20th century, the philosopher Carl Jung changed the understanding of human psychology with his concept of "collective unconscious," the idea that humans share a collective library of experiences. In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, a skeptic of metaphysics, introduced a variation: the concept of "memes," units of culture and collective knowledge that are passed down generation to generation as a sort of genetics of information.
Both ideas were forwarded as ways to understand human behavior but, theoretically speaking, they could be applied to any social animal, particularly those with language.
"I respect their intelligence, their capacity to reason, to adapt and reason," Hough says of prairie dogs. "I think that's their strongest survival skill. It's certainly not their reproductive strategy. Any animal who mates only once a year is not relying on sheer reproduction. They're smart, but the things we've presented them with is beyond their reason to adapt."
In early February 2008, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added the Gunnison's prairie dogs of the montane regions of Colorado and northern New Mexico to its endangered species waiting list. These mountain dogs represent 35 to 40 percent of the species' population. The remaining 60 to 65 percent, which includes Santa Fe's dogs, don't yet warrant listing. In New Mexico, scientists estimate that the Gunnison's prairie dog dropped from 11 million in 1916 to 355,000 in 1961 to as few as 9,000 in 2004.
If one prairie dog is squished by a car, it's sad, but not the end of the world. The destruction of an entire colony, though, is erasure of a rudimentary culture, generations of knowledge about avoiding predators and gathering food. Their vocabularies disappear like fluff on the wind before scientists have had a chance to study how they develop in an urban setting. There is still so much they don't know, Dr. Con Slobodchikoff says, including why prairie dogs kiss.
"We've been working on a theory that this also transmits information about the kind of food that any individual [dog] has been eating, but it might also be something that has developed due to life in burrows as a way of identifying individuals,"? he says. "You know, each individual has its own unique taste. If you're down in the burrow system where there's no light, this might be a way of determining whether you're meeting up with Sam or Joe or Sarah or whoever."
At the very least, he says, it's a tool of social cohesion, a bit of glue that holds the colonies together. And who knows, perhaps the Galisteo and Zia prairie dogs French kiss differently than the prairie dogs at the airport. Perhaps their kisses include epochs of wisdom about adapting to development, the results of architectural trial and error, even how to put up with humans - decades from now, those kisses could tell a tale of biblical proportions: a Great Flood, exodus and exile to the desert and, finally, if everything works out, a Promised Land.
"But ultimately, we don't really know what the reason for it is," Slobodchikoff says.
And if all the cities' dogs go to heaven, we never will.