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On Why We Shouldn’t Kill Prairie Dogs

I know Defenders of Wildlife have done some wonderful things for wildlife. I get e-mails from them about their campaigns, such as combatting the aerial gunning of wolves in Alaska, which is beyond barbaric. Today I received an e-mail about the continuing war humans have raged against the prairie dog, and Defenders wants to put a stop to it. Here’s my issue: Defenders doesn’t really want to protect prairie dogs, according to my e-mail, to protect prairie dogs. They want to protect them because of what they provide for other animals. They are useful.

  • They provide food for eagles, hawks, badgers, swift fox, endangered black-footed ferrets and other Great Plains predators. And I’m not talking about cooking them dinner–they are dinner.
  • Their burrows provide shelter for burrowing owls, salamanders, black-footed ferrets and other creatures.
  • Sure, they mention that the "tunneling creatures . . . stand to suffer," but the main point is that "so many other creatures depend on prairie dogs for survival."

Over 70,000 prairie dogs were allowed to be killed in 2005 alone, and thousands since. And the Forest Service wants to make it easy to (legally) poison them again. I wonder, though, if prairie dogs weren’t so useful for other creatures–particularly endangered ones like the black-footed ferret, would Defenders care? Would anyone care? It appears that utility to our projects (like the reintroduction of the swift fox), in addition to utility to projects we hold dear (certain grasslands we want to protect) are what dictates which creatures are deserving of saving.

In a blog entry called A Dog Named Chester, ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, who is the author of PLEASURABLE KINGDOM, which I reviewed (it’s a favorite of mine) nearly a year ago, writes about meeting a six-year old prairie dog. The rodent, named Chester, was making the best of a life in captivity (he was rescued from being held illegally as a pet), and Balcombe describes his observations. What’s most interesting is that Balcombe sees Chester as an individual and gives you a sense of his personality. Defenders, on the other hand, while pleading for the lives of prairie dogs, gives me no way to connect to them. Prairie dogs carve out tunnels and are prey for other animals–that’s it. That makes me think that the people behind Defenders don’t grasp the individuality of the creatures they’re trying to save. The creatures are part of a system and the system needs them to continue effectively–that’s the message.

But the reality that they are each individuals with their own interest in not being someone’s dinner, and not being poisoned, is entirely absent.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. prad #

    while i can agree with the not killing prairie dogs, dow's rational for it is a bit misguided. it is likely that they are just trying to utilize whatever leverage they can (ie prairie dogs are valuable to such and such, hence, we can make a case based on that).

    i guess while it may make sense
    to use what you can get, be careful not
    to lose what you can be.

    June 25, 2007
  2. Mike Grieco #

    As a supporter of Defenders of Wildlife,i also am aware they "have done some wonderful things for wildlife".
    Yes prairie dogs do provide food for other creatures,and i see their reasons for explaining this fact,BUT…being a link to the food chain is not the ONLY reason we must protect prairie dogs.
    They are sentient beings like you and i,and they deserve to be protected under a "animal rights" issue.
    This is why/where i give my money(for animal rights),because murder in the wilderness is murder in the wilderness!
    Mary your blog June 22/23 is a real link to this Praire dog topic,i hope others are aware of your words of wisdom.
    The POWER of MONEY.

    Respect,Appreciate & Celebrate All Life!

    June 25, 2007
  3. prad,

    I don't disagree that they might have been using what they had. However, this reminds me of vegans who, when asked, don't say that they wish everyone was a vegan because they don't want to be labelled "extreme." They refrain from, well, telling the truth, because they fear how they might be viewed. Or abolitionists who wax on about suffering (and the suffering is legitimate–that's not my point) rather than saying: We have no right to eat, wear, or otherwise use animals. If you think the prairie dog is inherently worth saving, you should say so.

    Part of what I'm attempting to do on Animal Person is bring attention to the way we all frame our beliefs and arguments. I think reframing and re-constructing is necessary, and I think (probably because of my doctorate in applied linguistics) that that begins with language.

    June 26, 2007

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