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Robby Ford Speaks

Speedy Guards His Carrot

Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, June 3, 2008

A haven for prairie dogs
Woman rescues, houses the animals
By Kevin Leininger

WABASH - From the outside, Dianne James' license plate - “prarydg” - provides the only hint of what's been going on inside her white farmhouse for the past seven years.

James hopes that discretion will persuade the Allen County Board of Zoning Appeals to approve her request to relocate a shelter for rescued prairie dogs to an otherwise obscure tan ranch house at 8916 Arcola Road when it meets next week.

“There are no words to describe what they mean to me. Everybody wants to hurt them, and they're not normally trusting animals. But when you make them feel safe, they are very loving and spiritual. They can feel your emotions,” James said as she held one of the 14 prairie dogs she has received from shelters, owners and other sources nationwide.

Some have been injured, others poisoned by efforts to remove them from their natural habitat in the Western United States, Canada and Mexico. But whatever their past, the animals' future is brighter because of James' passion, which began unexpectedly 10 years ago when her daughter's friend needed to find a home for an unwanted prairie dog.

She named the animal Jesse - as in Jesse James - and started searching the Internet for information on a species she knew nothing about. What she learned shocked her into action: Over the last 150 years, the number of prairie dogs has declined by more than 95 percent - including a 60 percent decrease in the number of large prairie dog complexes in the last 15 years alone. When a second donation quickly followed - this one named after Jesse James' brother Frank - James had found her calling. “I connected with them in a way I never did with other animals,” she said.

The cages in her house, comfortably equipped with exercise wheels, food, burrows and other comforts, may not replace the animals' dwindling habitat. But James' obvious love and concern provides a safe refuge - and a cause she eagerly shares with a network of other prairie dog lovers over the Internet.

Originally, James provided a shelter for unwanted prairie dogs, hoping to find homes for them. But keeping the animals as pets is illegal because of the monkeypox outbreak of 2003 when the disease spread to prairie dogs at a pet store in Illinois. Today, she simply wants to give her animals a loving place to live and, eventually, die. Most live about six to eight years in captivity. James said all of her animals have been screened for disease by veterinarians and have received the necessary federal permits.

Although James' shelter is a registered not-for-profit operation, she said tax-free donations are not enough to pay her annual operating expenses of more than $5,000 plus her living expenses. That's why she wants to move from rural Wabash to the house just west of Fort Wayne: to be nearer employment opportunities that would provide the money needed to feed and care for her beloved prairie dogs - not to mention her dogs, chickens and a goat.

“They're like squirrels with big personalities,” said James. “When I first held Jesse, I could feel every little muscle in his body relax. They love to snuggle and talk to you.” In fact, James said, different breeds have distinct “languages”: Her Gunnison's don't sound like her black tails, and she keeps the breeds in separate cages because they seemed overly agitated when kept together. A shop vac is always close at hand to keep the cages clean.

James wants her would-be new neighbors to know that her operation would have not hurt them - the prairie dogs would be kept inside - but would be a great help to an endangered breed of potentially loving animals. “I want to keep (the shelter) small,” said James, who admits to feeling a deep sense of loss at the death of 13 prairie dogs she has “rescued.” To James, each was as unique as human children, with their own distinct sound and personality.

I asked James whether she cares for prairie dogs for their sake - or her own. Both, she said. She loves them, but she also loves how they love her. “I want to do this forever,” said James, 51, a former administrative assistant.

She knows some people will find her passion for prairie dogs a little, well, unusual. She doesn't much care.

“Out West, they might think I'm a nutcase or a tree hugger,” James said, caressing a prairie dog as others ate, played and slept in long cages nearby. “But I don't hug trees. I do hug prairie dogs.”

Videos courtesy of Dianne James, Midwest Prairie Dog Shelter.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton