Prairie dogs found in pet stores and pounds

  • Rebecca Fischer usually rescues domesticated prairie dogs

    Mark Matthews photo
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

"So this is where prairie dogs live." That was the first thought in Rebecca Fischer's mind as she drove up to a flourishing 300-acre dog town not far from the Marias River outside Shelby, Mont.

Although she hadn't seen a dog town since she visited Badlands National Park as a child, Fischer, who lives in West Simsbury, Conn., has probably handled more of the rodents than most Great Plains wildlife biologists. She has the scars on her hands to prove it.

On the East Coast, owning a prairie dog has become the newest pet fad. The animals sell for up to $150 apiece in pet stores. In Japan, pairs reportedly fetch up to $3,000.

But oftentimes, the wild creatures don't make good pets. So two years ago, Fischer, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, organized Prairie Dog Rescue of New England.

Since then, Fischer has handled about 200 unwanted pets, finding them new homes with other prairie dogs. She also convinces about 10 people a week to try new ways to handle their pets to alter aggressive behavior.

Fischer saw her first prairie dog up close while visiting a dog pound.

"It had chewed through the thick steel bars of the cage and was bashing its head against the bars," she said. "It was bloody and scabbed up." That day Fischer took two of the rodents home, with no idea how to care for them. "They were crazed, wild and terrified," she said. "And my husband was terrified of them."

Fischer can still point to the scar from her first prairie dog bite.

"They can bite through welder's gloves," she said. "Their giant incisors are like little chisels. They are fast and don't let go once they grab on and they grind into the flesh. They leave a deep slice wound that is usually gushing blood.

"The terror comes when thinking, "Has it taken my finger off?" That's how painful it is."

Most people instinctively react to a bite by banging the animal against a wall, injuring or killing it, rather than staying calm and prying open the jaws with the free hand.

"I can see why people want to give them away after that," Fischer said.

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