The title of this entry may actually be an exaggeration: the prairie dogs that my fellow intern Michelle and I have been working with this week probably don’t have Yersinia pestis(bubonic plague). Even so, we’ve been taking precautions like wearing long sleeves (or in my case an old jumpsuit) in the desert heat to avoid flea bites and heavy leather gloves to avoid prairie dog bites. It turns out that both were great ideas since I’ve picked a few fleas off my arms and been bitten a few times without the gloves being pierced.
This current project that we’ve jumped into is intended to evaluate the effectiveness of a new method to treat Utah prairie dogs for fleas that should save time, money, and labor. The Utah prairie dog (Cynomus parvidens) is actually an endangered species; others, e.g. white-tailed prairie dogs, are common as dirt but there are likely at most ten thousand Utah prairie dogs left thanks to habitat loss and misguided extermination efforts in decades past funded by the government, ranchers, and farmers. Several months ago, a few colonies were filled with bait laced with an anti-flea drug. Our job is to gather the data on how the flea counts are now. “But how will you count fleas on prairie dogs?” you might ask. Let me tell you.
The first step is to trap them. We’ve been setting out standard small mammal traps at the entrances to burrows and lured them inside with delicious off-brand peanut butter: they respond much less favorably to name-brand stuff, apparently.
After we’ve trapped them, we anesthetize them with a compound called isoflurane. It’s administered with an improvised face mask made from an old sports drink bottle because funding is always tight when you work for the government. We sometimes gently whisper things like “Sleeeeep” or “It’ll be all right, sweetheart” or even “Breathe deep, seek peace” just in case the animals can understand us and will calm down a little; they hate the smell of the stuff and are understandably a little panicked about the whole procedure.
Once the prairie dogs are out cold, we tag their ears if they haven’t been caught before and then groom them. The fleas like to hide in the thickest patches of fur, so we comb the whole drugged animal with a flea comb. All the fleas need to be sent to be identified, so we stash them in bags labeled with each prairie dog’s ID number.
When we’re done, we take off the mask and the poor, woozy critter is placed back into a cage so that we can drop it at the site where it was caught. They don’t seem to mind the whole process that much. Who could blame them? They get peanut butter, ear tags, and all the ectoparasites combed out of their fur. It’s sort of like a five-star dinner, new jewelry, and a spa treatment.
Being interns, we’re not major players in this project and we’re only involved for three days, but that’s part of the beauty of it. Michelle and I continue to get to take part in all kinds of projects here in southern Utah. We’ll both keep updating as we get to do more.
Nelson Stauffer from Cedar City, Utah over and out.