Photography by Danny Fulgencio.
Here’s a message from Emily the prairie dog: p[3oiRT.
Prairie dog communication is so complex and expressive that it constitutes nothing less than a language. But unless anyone has Dr. Dolittle on speed dial, we may never know what Emily was trying to say.
As the pet prairie dog crawls across the keyboard, dashes across the floor and scurries up the shoulder of owner Shelby Bobosky, it’s safe to assume the message wasn’t a cry for help. She’s clearly having fun.
It’s a typical Tuesday night as Bobosky’s family of five gathers in the master bedroom for playtime with pet prairie dogs, Peter and Emily. The pair climb up their humans and perch on their heads, looking for the highest vantage point, before scampering back down. When they finally tire, they nestle into the crook of their owners’ arms.
“They’re really loving and affectionate,” Bobosky says. “They just love hanging out.”
Peter and Emily came to live with Bobosky and her husband, Michael Aigen, after being rescued from an exotic animal breeder in Houston. Authorities found more than 100 animals in stacks of filthy cages at an apartment and transferred some to the Houston Humane Society for treatment.
As staff members started looking for new owners, Bobosky seemed like the perfect candidate. As president of the Texas Humane Legislation Network, she could provide the specialized care that prairie dogs need to thrive as domestic pets.
Introducing Peter and Emily into her family was a delicate process. The first-time prairie dog owners learned a lot on the fly from Wikipedia, and many fingers got bit along the way.
But the prairie dogs quickly warmed to her three boys, 10-year-old Zarley, 8-year-old Ziggy and 5-year-old ZJ. The animals now feel at ease resting on the boys’ heads or crawling up their shirts if one of the brothers sees an opportunity to pull a prank. They were even willing participants in Zarley’s science project about what music prairie dogs like best. Discovering that they prefer classical to techno is just one reason why Zarley is considered the family’s prairie dog whisperer.
“When people find out we have prairie dogs, they’re surprised and interested,” he says. “They want to hear more. They want to see them in person to make sure we’re not making it up.”
Aigen has other ideas about their usefulness.
“It’s a great pickup line. Women love to come back and see the prairie dogs,” he says as Bobosky shoots him a disapproving look.
Prairie dogs may seem as cute and playful as dogs — in fact, barking like dogs is how they got their name — but Bobosky says she can’t recommend them as pets. The rodents, closely related to squirrels, need a lot of time and special care.
The animals need their cage cleaned every day and restocked with Timothy hay that they chew to file their large incisors down to a reasonable size. They must also receive a special diet of vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, every other day — on top of a daily exercise regimen.
Besides the daily care, prairie dogs have a propensity to chew and dig. Peter, for example, tunneled his way through to the inside of an armchair. If given the chance, the pets will enlarge any existing holes in the house with their burrows. The instinct can’t be suppressed with training, so the family plans to install an aquarium filled with sand and dirt underneath their three-story cage.
When Bobosky first took them to the vet to get spayed and neutered, they awoke from anesthesia on the ride home, chewed through their cloth carrier and started crawling around the car traveling 75 mph down the highway.
Despite the mishaps, the prairie dogs bring an abundance of love and laughter to the family.
“We don’t want it to be a trendy thing because they’re difficult pets,” Bobosky says. “But now that we have them, we’re fortunate. They’ve taught our family a lot about empathy for rodents. I’m very attached to them.”
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