Too bad prairie dogs were not at the manger in Bethlehem some 2000 years ago. We might more highly esteem the little rodents had they been part of the Christmas story.
I can envision one of the black-tailed animals sitting up on its haunches and peering across the stable at the baby in the straw.
Prairie dogs are smart rascals, after all. They are said to have memories and to distinguish among predators that stalk them, barking out specific warnings to their town mates.
Coyote! they yip and yap to warn of a loping danger.
Hawk circling at 12 o’clock! they chatter.
The human teenager with the Remington semiautomatic is back! they bark in alarm.
However, had a prairie dog scampered into the stable in Bethlehem, it wouldn’t have been alarmed by the babe in swaddling clothes. The curious rodent would merely have sat upright, its nose twitching now and then, as enthralled as the other animals by the special event.
And the angel said unto them, “Fear not...”
• • •
The prairie dog jumped down from its mound of dirt and scooted toward another mound some 40 feet away.
I had pulled the trigger on a .22-caliber rifle, sending dirt flying just to the right of the burrowing member of the squirrel family that sat watching me.
“Dang it!” I muttered and brought around the barrel of the rifle in the direction of the fleeing animal. Aiming slightly ahead of it, I pulled the trigger a second time but only kicked up dirt where the animal had been.
Once more I drew a bead on the furry rodent running parallel to me at about 30 mph. I calculated where it was going to be in an instant and squeezed off another round.
Again the bullet buried itself in soil just behind the animal.
Frustrated, I aimed hastily and repeatedly triggered the semiautomatic, hoping to triangulate my shooting and catch the fat rodent in its tracks. But all I managed to do was kick up puffs of dirt behind the scooting animal, which appeared to be running through trip wires and setting off small explosions all along its path.
Finally the animal dived into the safety of the second mound and scurried deep into its tunneled home, its heart probably pounding.
“Dang it!” I said, and my grandfather laughed.
• • •
We killed prairie dogs back then. The small animals — weighing about two pounds — were tunneling all over western Kansas ranches, destroying range land and creating holes into which horses could misstep and break a leg.
A hundred years ago, an estimated 5 billion prairie dogs lived in the western United States. One Texas settlement covered an area 100 miles by 250 miles and contained 400 million of the animals.
But eradication programs have starkly reduced the population. Last fall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture poisoned thousands more in South Dakota.
In all honesty, shooting a prairie dog didn’t thrill me, though I never doubted the need to do so then, nor do I now. Cute doesn’t excuse their destruction. But live and let live, I say today from the decidedly non-prairie East Coast.
These days I do penance for the prairie dogs I didn’t miss. I cheer for anthropomorphic creations of Disney, Don Bluth and DreamWorks that gamely outsmart man.
This time of year, I also conjure visions of sociable little prairie dogs sitting in awe on the edges of the nativity scene. If chipmunks can sing a Christmas song, prairie dogs can bark a welcome to the Christ child.
Giles Lambertson is associate editor of The Wilson Daily Times and former editorial page editor of The Greensboro Record. He writes a Sunday column for the News & Record. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.