Prairie dogs and progress are skipping along, arm in arm, out in Lubbock, Texas. This prolific relative of the woodchuck, once considered the scourge of the High Plains, is now described by the local chamber of commerce as "the lovable rodent." Against the changing skyline of Lubbock, one of the many fast-growing cities in Texas, frisky prairie dog families carry on in a pampered Prairie Dog Town.
Pete the Prairie Dog festoons city brochures as he invites the world to come and share in the glories of Lubbock. Never before have a city and a member of the animal kingdom linked arms so closely in a march toward bigger and better things. Lubbock proudly announces that more than a million people a year come to see its prairie dogs. Although the city lies off the main migration route of the tourist horde, travelers divert their cars 250 miles or more just to revel in the antics of the romping residents of Prairie Dog Town.
These visitors learn of the esteem in which the citizenry of Lubbock hold their playful rodents upon reading a dignified sign which says: PRAIRIE DOG TOWN. POPULATION? $500 FINE FOR MOLESTING PRAIRIE DOGS.
If the visitors are especially lucky, they get to meet Kennedy N. Clapp, the Mayor of Prairie Dog Town and the man who, with a big assist from the dogs, made this rodent community the drawing force it is today.
Officially, Clapp is the chairman of Lubbock's Park and Recreation Commission but, though I had never met him, I knew as soon as he walked into the hotel that he was the Mayor of Prairie Dog Town. There was an air about him that set him apart from the younger men talking progress in the lobby.
Tall and slightly stooped, his clothes hung on his lean frame with a natural grace. His big hat had a soft, floppy brim, unlike those of the three-gallon hats so popular in modern Texas. His lean face was wrinkled in a cheerful sort of way, and I was soon to learn that his laugh was one of his most notable characteristics. It was a loud laugh, frank, hearty and carefree. When something funny came up he would throw back his head and let his big, round laugh roll out. When he did, those in the vicinity turned and smiled as though they wished that they could laugh like that.
After a get-acquainted cup of coffee we headed for Prairie Dog Town. We didn't have far to go, for the dogs live inside the city limits, almost in the shadow of Lubbock's taller buildings. The dog town is in Mackenzie State Park, 547.63 acres which the city leases from the state and operates as a city park. A mile and a quarter from the dead center of Lubbock, Clapp stopped the car beside a low, concrete block wall, enclosing a six-acre expanse of level, green prairie. Earthen craters up to a foot high dotted the greensward, marking the underground homes of the prairie dogs.
There was plenty going on around town from the moment we got there. Dozens of dogs sat upright on their mounds, on the lookout for danger and ready to sound the alarm. Others fed on the thick Bermuda grass. After pulling a tuft of grass they sat up on their haunches and chewed rapidly, usually clutching the grass in one paw, like a boy chewing on a candy stick.
There were wild chases, which sometimes ended in a fight. These battles were of only a few seconds' duration. A pair of fat males would roll on the ground, scratching and kicking furiously, then separate and walk away as though nothing had happened. Some were digging new holes, while others repaired their mounds. Clapp said the mounds kept water out of the holes and were used as observation posts.
The town was noisy as well as busy. Frequently a prairie dog would rise suddenly from all fours to a standing position on its hind feet, with the front paws held high. While rising to this posture it emitted an ecstatic "Wheeee!," a sort of good-to-be-alive shout. Others barked. The bark of the prairie dog is more of a high-pitched yip, and the dog puts all he's got into it, popping his tail with every yip.
A RIDICULOUS TAIL
Some animals are innately comical, and the prairie dog is high on the list. The Lubbock dogs are gray to reddish-brown, 12 to 15 inches long and weigh two to three pounds. The eyes are at the top of the head, like those of a frog, enabling the prairie dog to peek out of his hole to spot his enemies without exposing himself. The tail is downright ridiculous—only three inches long with a black tip. Another species with a white tail lives at higher altitudes.
Sitting on the wall of Prairie Dog Town, Clapp told me the history of Lubbock's highly successful rodent community.
"It took me seven years to learn how to keep 'em fenced," he said. "Their theme song appears to be, Don't Fence Me In."
Lubbock stands on the site of the greatest of all prairie dog towns, a vast rodent city which scientists estimated to contain 400 million prairie dogs at the turn of the century. But agriculture and prairie dogs were not compatible. The bug-eyed critters were gassed and poisoned to the point of extermination.
In 1938 a government man working with the Civilian Conservation Corps was looking for some poison with which to kill the last of the prairie dogs in that vicinity. Two holes had been discovered, and each hole contained two dogs.
"Why not let 'em be?" Clapp said. "In ten years they'll be a big attraction around here."
That was the beginning of Lubbock's modern Prairie Dog Town. It was also the beginning of a lot of headaches for Clapp.
"The little devils went down onto the golf course and started to work," Clapp said. "They dug two holes right on one of the greens. There was hell to pay. I knew I had to confine 'em, but I didn't realize how smart a prairie dog can be."
He wrote to various zoos seeking advice on how to localize prairie dogs.
The Bronx Zoo in New York City had tried prairie dogs and still had the jitters from the experience. Their dogs had promptly dug out of the enclosure and spread over the zoo. They hired a trapper who spent a whole summer trapping prairie dogs. The National Zoo in Washington suggested galvanized chicken wire buried in the ground. Clapp experimented with the wire, but still escapes were common. Small volcanoes of earth would appear outside the fence. Ranchers and farmers reported new dog diggings from one to three miles away. Prairie dog stock sank to zero.
Experimentation finally proved that the best fencing was heavy steel mesh, 30 inches above ground and 18 below. It seems that a prairie dog will dig under a wall, but when it meets a mesh wire it becomes nonplused and digs elsewhere.
"Very seldom have any of our dogs tunneled under the 18-inch underground fence," Clapp said. "But don't sell prairie dogs short on brains. They're smart."
The fencing problem led Clapp into a lengthy study of the life and times of the prairie dogs. As the city of Lubbock grew, he made friends with construction men digging cellars for the new buildings. When their power shovels encountered old dog diggings, they would notify him. Armed with pencil and pad he'd get down into the excavation and make diagrams of the holes of dogs of long ago.
His activities caused considerable concern among his friends. Occasionally some oldtime cattleman would lean over the edge and yell, "Clapp, what in the hell are you doing down in that hole?"
"Some of them thought I was half-crazy," Clapp said, "and there were others who thought I was all crazy."
Several dogs paused in their feeding while the mayor laughed again.
"Well, I drew the profiles of more than 150 dogholes," he resumed. "And I learned plenty."
His researches disclosed that a prairie dog home is an L-shaped burrow descending almost vertically from 12 to 20 feet and then horizontally from six to 15 feet. Three to six feet below the surface, there is a small room which Clapp calls the "barking room and turntable." When alarmed, the prairie dog dives into his hole and barks defiance from the safety of this room. If the enemy appears at the mouth of the hole the prairie dog dashes to even safer depths.
The horizontal branch of the burrow rises somewhat, and above it there is a cavern which contains the grass-lined nest. There is also a long tunnel slanting to the surface, but this appears to be used only during construction. In completed burrows it is usually filled with dirt and trash. There may be other rooms formerly used as nests and then filled with dirt when a new nest is built. Clapp found only two dogs' homes that had more than one entrance.
An old western belief holds that in every prairie dog town there is one hole reaching down to water. This is untrue. Clapp points out that oil wells dug in prairie dog towns have gone down 1,000 feet without striking water. The dogs obtain all the moisture they need from the grass and plants they eat.
Clapp experimented with various types of grasses to grow for the dogs but found the Bermuda grass to be the best. A thick turf of Bermuda is maintained in the dog town with the aid of fertilizer and a sprinkling system. This constitutes the only food of the dogs except the bread and other human comestibles tossed them by visitors.
In the spring, from April 10 to 20, the old dogs come out with the young, and the whole family sits around the mouth of the hole. The young average three or four, but Clapp has seen a family emerge with seven prairie puppies. At this time the town is liveliest, the parents trying to maintain some sort of discipline and the young romping all over the place.
"They play just like kittens," Clapp said. "When tourists see 'em for the first time you could brush their eyeballs off with a whisk broom."
As the fame of Lubbock's Prairie Dog Town spread, other cities became jealous. They wanted some prairie dogs, too. Clapp said California put a bill through the legislature to enable Oakland and Sacramento to import males, and males only, from Lubbock. They were afraid the two sexes might turn sunny California into one big prairie dog town.
Other cities demanded dogs. Clapp sent them some, but now he has a strict set of rules for dispensing the engaging rodents. Dogs are sent only to zoos with adequate prairie dog facilities. None are sent to confinement in floored cages or boxes, and none are sent to individuals.
"These restrictions are due to 20 years' experience, much of it sad—the aspirin variety," Clapp said.
The next morning he drove me out into the surrounding countryside to see where the prairie dog host once lived. The flat land, reaching unbroken to the horizon, was clothed with cotton and grain sorghum. The cotton rows were a mile long as the land is farmed in sections. Lucky Lubbock stands over a vast reservoir of water-bearing sands which provide irrigation. The result is farming so intensive that there is hardly room for a single prairie dog hole. It was easy to see why the dogs had to go.
Back in Lubbock we returned to the park for some more dog watching. The wind which whips in from the plains had died down. The sun was bright, and the dogs were busy. But with calmer weather there were also owls. Small, burrowing owls, called dog owls, poked their heads from abandoned dogholes or stood stiffly erect near the mounds.
"Last spring I counted 24 pairs of those dog owls in there," Clapp said. "There is an old tale to the effect that the prairie dog, the owl and the rattlesnake all live in the same hole in perfect friendship. This is far from the truth. They use the same holes but not at the same time.
"If an owl gets into a live hole the feathers will fly. And an owl is not averse to a meal of young dog. The dogs make a special racket when a snake comes around. I'm telling you, when they give that snake alarm the dogs come from all directions. If the snake has gone into a hole they start filling the hole with dirt. I've experimented by turning a rattlesnake loose in the town. It really stirs things up.
"These dogs are wary. If you put a trap in their hole they'll starve to death before they'll come out, and if you shoot one within two feet of its home it'll give a death leap into the hole. They're smart, I tell you. That's why it took so many years for me to learn how to keep 'em fenced. But now in the evening of life I think I've got it pretty well figured out."
He laughed again and, although the mayor is 69 years old, I saw no signs of evening.
After a last look at the dogs we drove into Lubbock. And now I learned that, although rapid expansion is claimed by many communities, Lubbock seems to have clinched the title of fastest-growing city in Texas. In 1940 its population was 31,853. Today it is about 135,000.
Lubbock is mighty proud of this growth, and its citizens predict even greater things for the future. But you can bet your bottom dollar that it will never be as big as the great prairie dog town it has replaced.