I've written about Lubbock and its prairie dog issues before (here, here, and here). The Texas Magazine in Sunday's Chron gives a nice profile of Lynda Watson, the "Prairie Dog Lady", considered the best in the world at catching the little rodents barehanded.
Why is that important? Well, the original way of catching prairie dogs was via a vacuum cleaner. That had its problems:
Prairie dogs are caught in two ways. The first and most efficient is by literally vacuuming them out of their holes. An adult prairie dog can weigh 2 to 5 pounds and stands 12 inches to 14 inches upright (a favorite position). His circumference is only a few inches, however, and he can easily fit through a 6-inch-diameter hose. Powerful vacuums pulled by tractors can suck up hundreds of prairie dogs in several hours, drawing them rapidly into large, mobile tanks.
Animal-rights activists, however, say many prairie dogs are killed in the process, beaten to death against the tank walls or smothered. Dealers say the pups that live suffer lung damage from the mass of dust that accompanies them in the tank and die at an early age.
Watson's method is more humane, more tedious and more hazardous for the trapper. It requires two people: Watson's eyesight prevents her from operating anything larger than a four-wheeler, so she rides in the passenger seat while someone drives a pickup with a water tank on a trailer behind.
Once Watson spots a family she watches to mark the hole they run to. The driver then pulls slowly over the burrow and stops just as the tank passes the opening.
Watson jumps from the truck before it stops ("I can't count my sprained ankles") and moves quickly and quietly to the opening. Holding a hose, she aims a slow stream of water down the hole. When she sees or hears the first evidence of a prairie dog emerging, she thrusts her arm into the opening, down the blind chasm, and grabs him.
With good luck she may retrieve several adults and a half-dozen pups, catching as many as 150 on a good day. On a bad one she may be bitten by the first one or encounter one of the black widows that like to live just below the rim of prairie-dog holes.
"I've been bitten by spiders a couple of times," she says. "Obviously, it didn't kill me, but it forms a hole, and the flesh just rots out of it."
Usually, however, Watson pulls a series of wet, squirming rodents from their lair and tosses them with practiced ease into a trash can. The animals are then sprayed for fleas and placed in cages to be taken to Watson's home. The younger animals can be domesticated and sold. The adults are relocated.
Adults caught in the wild remain feral animals. Only pups are suitable for domestication, and only those born in captivity or caught by hand can be guaranteed to be healthy. As a result, a sort of cult grew up around Watson in Japan, where pet prairie dogs have become a fad among children.
Brokers estimate that around 12,000 prairie-dog pups are exported from the United States yearly, and a large percentage of those go to Japan.
"Japan is a very small country with very small houses and many apartments," says Kaye Takahashi, owner of Cynomys, a prairie-dog retail outlet in Tokyo. "Many apartment owners do not allow big pets, dogs, cats.
"Prairie dogs are not too loud and don't smell too bad, so they are very popular. Prairie dogs from Lynda Watson are most popular. We sell them with a certificate (from Watson), and we put in a microchip in the neck so the prairie dog can always be identified."
In Tokyo, where inflated prices for almost everything are the norm, an albino prairie dog from Watson is sure to bring $3,000. A palomino sells for $1,000, and the average brown and gray sells for $300.