Sunshine the Prairie Dog


Sunshine the Prairie DogBack a few years ago my husband & I and our daughter, Amanda, visited the Georgia Mountain Fair held annually in Hiawassee, GA. This is primarily a craft fair with many local artisans showing off their talents. I am always envious since I have no such skills. Anyway, the Fair is always accompanied by a rather rough collection of amusement type rides and games and since that’s where they sell the funnel cakes we always end up there. As we walked the midway being hawked to play this or that game, Amanda noticed a ball toss game offering very small juvenile iguanas as the “Grand Prize”. Having grown up in an animal crazy household and being hyper aware if what happens to animals used like this, she decided that she must try to rescue at least one. She went to the man and asked if she might simply purchase one. He looked around and recognized that his business was not exactly booming and that reptiles are not a great prizes in the very Bible-oriented and conservative North Georgia Mountains so he showed his capitalistic instincts and sold her one for her last $20.00. She was delighted but in her rush to save the little guy she had forgotten that her mother (me) was positively phobic about reptiles. We discussed it there on the spot and although I was not excited about the “snake with legs” I didn’t really think it should suffer its’ likely fate with this man, so Amanda brought him home.

At the time Amanda was an undergraduate student majoring in Biology at Western Carolina University, about 20 miles from home and she had taken up residency in a basement area of our home as her “apartment.”  It was cheap and she could keep pets. We went out and bought all the stuff we thought the little “snake” might need but really had no clear knowledge of what was required to keep a health reptile. Amanda read up on iguanas and we hoped he would be happy and healthy in his new digs. Several weeks passed and she noticed that he had a small dark patch on his side that appeared to be getting larger and that he might need some special attention. She was in school full-time and I was afraid to get close enough to him to take him to the vet so I did the only thing I could think to do to help. I went and visited with the nice lady at a new small local pet shop to see if she had any suggestions for what to do. Upon my arrival she showed me her collection of scaly things which she obviously loved and took great pride in. She suggested several items, which I gladly purchased but coached that a basement apartment in the mountains of Western North Carolina was really not a great place for an iguana. She taught me a bunch about how difficult reptiles can be for beginners to maintain.

While getting ready to check out I wandered into the warm and fuzzy area of her shop which draws me like a moth to a light bulb. There in a little cage only about 18 inches by 2 feet sat the cutest little rodent I had ever seen! The sign on her cage said ”Nibbles I. Bite.” She sat up and looked at me with the sweetest face and I was in love. The lady saw the sucker sign flashing across my forehead and began her pitch. It appeared that “Nibbles” was the last remaining baby Prairie Dog of a litter born in the spring to a pair of captive parents. She had taken her in on consignment since, kind of like the “snake with legs,” “big rats” weren’t a big seller in the mountains either. Now labeling an animal’s cage with “Nibbles I. Bite” is not a great marketing strategy so she didn’t have to work to hard for me to know that Nibbles was not real likely to find a great home. She was approaching an age that made her difficult to manage and not as desirable as a cute little baby Prairie Dog might be. I resisted my instincts, thanked her for her help, took my lizard health kit, and headed home.

Once home, I could not wait to tell Stan, my husband, about “Nibbles I. Bite.” Neither of us had ever seen a Prairie Dog up close and personal so to see one in our little mountain town was a big deal. He warned me not to tell Amanda ‘cause as usual she’d “want one”. I promised to keep my mouth shut but Amanda had hardly come in from school when I could resist no longer. She was excited since she had never seen a Prairie dog either and hoped to get by the pet store as soon as she could between classes “just to look.”  I reminded her that she could only look since she had already accepted the responsibility for the “snake with legs” and that he would require much more attention than she had originally anticipated. She said she knew “she couldn’t have one” and would only look. A few days past and Amanda had a busy schedule so she never made it by the shop. Saturday came and Amanda and I were running errands in town when “we” remembered that she had yet to see the Prairie Dog. We stopped in and there in her little cage sat “Nibbles I. Bite” Upon hearing the lady come from the back of the store to greet us Nibbles “barked”. It was all over, before I could finish reminding Amanda that she couldn’t have one. She negotiated a deal to trade her “snake with legs” (and probably fungus) to the pet store lady, who said she was sure she could cure him, for a reduction in the price tag on Nibbles. Now I have to take a moment to thank God for giving me an understanding husband and father to my children. He, although not growing up in an extremely pet friendly home, had come to understand that critters where almost as important to me as air so when we arrived home he took Nibbles in stride. He never was wild about the “snake with legs” so it seemed like a happy ending for all since the iguana would go to a lady who actually liked scaly things and I would not be afraid to visit Amanda’s apartment anymore. Besides, Nibbles was about the cutest rodent he’d ever seen too and we had had quite a few rodents when the kids where little.

Re-named Sunshine, first thing that had to happen was to get her an appropriate sized home. Her cage although meeting the basic animal welfare act was woefully small and she was already displaying neurotic tendencies. We ordered a two level cat cage and Stan modified it with 2 sheets of plywood providing her with 3 level living. He cut “holes” from one level to the next so it would be a more natural environment for her. Amanda purchased a huge hamster wheel which Sunshine delighted in flipping over and over and would work tirelessly trying to drag it from the top level through the little Prairie Dog sized holes in an attempt to remove it. She liked hay and we found Prairie Dog food on the Internet. It seemed even that “Nibbles I. Bite” had even given up her last name as well! She was too cute. She would sit up in her house on her little round Prairie Dog bottom with her little prairie dog feet turn skyward looking like a little pudgy Buddha statue. We got her a giant hamster ball, which she rolled around the house in and seemed quite interested in exploring. She spent less time pacing in her new house. All seemed to be turning out perfectly. Even the “snake with legs” who Amanda visited periodically at the pet shop had gotten over his skin problem and was thriving with a new mother who understood his needs.

Then came the realization that Sunshine would reach sexual maturity in the spring and would probably become a hormonally charged land shark if not permitted to breed. Amanda asked her mentor Brad Smith our local Vet if he would be willing to spay Sunshine. She got a response we had heard from him on several prior occasions. “ I don’t know anything about (whatever odd critter or problem) but I can try.” You gotta love Brad for all the odd things we have put him through, sheep with inverted eye lids, rescue donkeys, goat C-sections, deaf cats, etc. He still encouraged Amanda on into Vet school. I suspect looking back it was self-preservation since if she were the Vet he wouldn’t have to deal with all our weird critters!

Amanda got as much information as possible to Brad on general anesthesia and surgery on Prairie Dogs although there was not much to be found. The day came and Amanda and I took Sunshine in her little travel cage for her operation. Brad gassed her down in a crate inside a plastic bag. The surgery was surprisingly uneventful and Sunshine began to wake fairly peacefully. So as not to let her stress to much Amanda held her cage in her lap and we got in the car and headed home. That’s when disaster struck. As soon as Sunshine was fully awake she begin to remove her stitches. She was unsewing herself right before our eyes. We both went into a complete panic turned back and went rushing to Brad. He put her back to sleep and restitched her wound. He bandaged her as best he thought one can bandage a prairie dog and we tried again. Brad sent home extra bandaging materials so we could change her dressing. After several hours Sunshine would have none of this bandage. She began to chew the bandage so aggressively we could hardly get her attention. Nibbles I. Bite returned when we tried to stop her from her self-mutilating behavior. Amanda was in tears and I was in shear panic. Amanda kept her wrapped in a towel in her lap so she couldn’t get to the bandage. She shredded the towel and keep right in going through Amanda’s fingers and back at the bandage. We reinforced the bandage with the extra material Brad had provided but nothing seemed to slow her down. We all made it through the night with Sunshine in Amanda’s arm but we knew we had to get a better plan. The next morning we returned first thing to Brad who was almost as stressed as we. He decided to put her back to sleep and cut off the majority of her front incisors. I knew that rodent teeth grow through out their lives so these would, we believe eventually re-grow and hopefully give her time to heal. He bandaged her tightly in a full-length bandage like a Prairie dog Tamale. He used a bunch of vet wrap and tape so that it was difficult for her to bend over enough to get to her incision. She came to and although she tried to chew she could only reach the top and bottom edge of the tamale dress so it seemed as though we had a solution. We took her home with instruction to change the tamale ever day. We all got a little more sleep that night and it seemed we had turned the corner one more time. Then came the first bandage change.

The tape that held it all together was glued to her fur so we had to cut the hair away just a little at a time. Sunshine firmly reestablished her last name so it took quick fingers, heavy gloves, and the patience of a saint to handle the project. By the time we were done all of us were panting. We got her back into the tamale dress and she settled in to just chewing the top and bottom edge. The following day we noted that she had begun to make real progress at gnawing away her little cocoon so we decided she should not be left alone in case she was ultimately successful. That’s when Sunshine entered the Real Estate business.

I had the good fortune to work in a small firm in town with owners that had been very patient with my endless parade of troubled creatures. They had tolerated bottle lambs in laundry baskets and rescue kittens in crates. They really were not to shocked when I arrived that morning with a Prairie Dog tamale. Everyone immediately fell in love with her and she discovered that realtors eat lots of junk food, especially cookies. Everyone in the office would keep an eye out and when Sunny would begin to eat her dressing, Bob the owner, would break out the butter cookies. We all watched over her and when I had clients, the others visited with her and fed her more cookies. Amazingly enough Prairie Dog teeth grow with the speed of light so every 4 or 5 days we had to go visit Brad for additional dental work and a professional bandage job. We were able to handle the in between bandage changes more and more efficiently. Sunshine began to realize that no one wanted to hurt her. She became amazingly tolerant of have her fur tugged and pulled and as long as you kept it brief she would be fairly patient, She lost her last name for once and for all. Since she chewed around the clock if not distracted we all began to take turns allowing Sunshine to sleep in our beds. (We are back to that tolerant man again). For 4 weeks Sunshine was a first class cookie-eating machine by day in the Real Estate office and a marginal bedfellow at night. Brad’s office kept her for most of the day when she came in for her tooth trimming. They fed her healthy raisins and everyone who saw her fell in love. Very few people in our part of the country have seen a Prairie Dog up close and she stole their heart one after the next. She would come to the side of her travel cage and give Prairie Dog kisses while begging for more cookies and raisins. Now this is a truly unique greeting, which strikes terror into the hearts of the poorly informed. Prairie Dogs greet by opening their mouth and sort of tasting your figures. It is very threatening looking but is truly a sign of real trust. In all her time at the two offices she only found a couple of people that she didn’t really like and she met hundreds since every time someone came in everyone in the Real Estate or Veterinary office had to show them “Our Prairie Dog, Sunshine”.

It finally came the day that she could be released from bondage and get rid of her Tamale dress. Brad put her to sleep for one last time, trimmed her teeth, and off came the bandage. Because she had been unable to move naturally for all those weeks her little prairie dog muscles had atrophied and her little pudgy tummy had gone away and she was remarkably thin. It seemed that the diet of cookies had been her salvation since without all those empty calories she would have starved to death. She regained her strength rapidly and her appetite for normal Prairie dog food. She never looked back. For many months she continued to visit the office with some regularity as she had made many friends. She traveled with us to Florida to visit Grandma and Papa where she made more friends. She was and is a natural ambassador. By meeting Sunshine people gained a new prospective about so called Prairie Vermin. Knowing what people in this country do to her wild cousins was sickening to many and opened many closed minds. She, by her rarity as a pet, commanded public attention and once the platform was gained she like all exotic pets had a positive impact on people’s view about what’s left of our natural world.

Then a second tragedy struck Sunshine when an unscrupulous animal wholesaler failed to use reasonable care and allowed some Prairie dog pups, aimed for the pet market, to have contact with a monkey pox infected African rat. The helpless little babies where sent to pet shops and homes sick and dying, passing the disease on to their new human friends. Never mind that the Prairie dogs where susceptible to the disease and where doomed from the time they contracted the disease. In the usual over reaction by our government officials to protect the public good, they took the opportunity to BAN ALL PRAIRIE DOGS AS PETS FOREVER. No captive Prairie dog exposed to this rat would have survived more than a few months to pass on the sickness anyway. The rapidly passed knee jerk law made it illegal for Sunshine to ever leave the house again to visit with her friends and extended family. She had never been in contact with the disease nor had the thousands of other prairie dogs safely in private homes or being bred by private owners for the pet market. She along with every other privately owned captive prairie dog in this country was sentenced to complete isolation from the public and even the ability to travel for veterinary care. The only way Sunshine could ever legally leave our home again was to travel to a vet for euthanasia!!

In the wild Prairie dogs have been the recipients of some of mans most horrific attempts to extinguish the species. They are shot and poisoned, sucked from their holes and destroyed on mass. Accused of causing injury to cattle with their Prairie Dog borrows and spreading disease by way of fleas. They are in many cases considered the Cockroach of the Great Plains. Vermin to be destroyed, having no value as a species. The blacked tail prairie dog, which Sunshine is, is listed as vermin and slatted for annihilation in many Western States. This new ban destroyed most of the hope, by way of captive ambassadors, for Prairie Dogs to regain a place in our world. Just recently, after the wholesale slaughter of so many, it has come to light that Prairie Dogs are vital to their Eco-system. They trim the tall grasses and open the prairie. The grass grows best in their presence as the constant turning of the shallow Prairie soils brings nutrients to the grasslands. They serve as an alarm system to other grazing species being hyper sensitive to the presents of predators. They provide shelter for other species when they abandon their homes or are evicted by burrowing owls and various other small mammals and reptiles.

Sunshine has retained the trust she gained in all those bandage changes. She loves to meet strangers if they come to see her at home and still gives Prairie dog kisses to everyone she meets. She is truly one of the sweetest animals I have ever known. She is always happy to see you and barks hello when she hears the sound of keys or the pop of an opening soda can. She is older now and sleeps a bit more. She still sits up on her round little bottom with back feet turned skyward and a somewhat larger pudgy middle looking like an older chunkier Buddha. Sunshine was and is still is a light in the darkness of the many tragedies that her species has been subjected to.

So after relaying this story to you, don’t let Sunshine’s legacy of sweetness on love die away. Tell someone about Sunshine. Remind them that many things considered of no value or lowly do have value. Sometimes that value goes un-recognized or misunderstood. Sometimes we must look past the negatives to find the positive. “Nibbles I. Bite” really didn’t bite to any major extent. For the most part she was just misunderstood. When she would come to the bars of her little wire cage she just wanted to know what you where and gapped to give you a greeting kiss and checkout the funny looking species on the other side of her bars. Those other babies who were strickened with a disease not even native to this continent, had no malicious intend and suffered a more horrific fate from the disease that they were given than did any of their humans families. Sunshine’s wild cousins are still massacred in huge numbers by people who don’t understand their value. We as a species who are so arrogant to think we know what place everything has in OUR WORLD would do well to remember that this is not our world alone and that the loss of things of no apparent value could spell our own demise.

Sunshine slipped quitely from our eyes and into our hearts today Nov. 1, 2010, at an ancient age of 11 years forever young! We will always love her and remember her legacy.