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Totems: Prairie Dogs & Ground Squirrels

by Cie Simurro, a.k.a. Thunderbird Starwoman

"Is it time for you to openly show affection to your family, friends and neighbors? Would it give you joy to know yourself as part of the "community of critters?" We are PRAIRIE DOG, the people of the Plains. As courageous sentinels, we warn of danger. Together, we flourish as family members in our neighborhoods. We have much to teach you about nurturing each other - enjoying life and co-operative efforts. It is time to stand up for a resurgent, balanced ecology. Are you willing to speak for those who have no voice, against those who have no compassion? What can you do to make a difference?

The great North American virgin prairie was once a great expanse of high grasses from southern Canada to Mexico, between Eastern woodlands and the Rockies. The prairie had a unique ecology. Hardy prairie perennials were some of the most diverse families in the plant kingdom. Flowering plants called forbs, towered over grasses five-feet tall, together providing seed heads and flowers for herds of buffalo and antelope, birds and insects, and millions of prairie dogs. Hardly any of the true prairie of bluestem, switch grass, and Indian grass remains, having been replaced first by the small, ploughed farms of settlers, and now the huge fields of agri-business. Cattle and sheep have replaced bison. The root mass of the original grasses penetrated the earth six feet deep, resulting in rich, dark soil with lots of minerals. The current soil is denatured from pesticides, chemical fertilizers and the loss of the natural ecology of the prairie. The original denizens of the oceans of waving flowers and grasses were bison, antelope, foxes, wolves, hawks, owls, jackrabbits, coyotes, prairie chickens and prairie dogs.

Thriving dog towns were as much a part of the West as Indians and buffalos. The fate of the prairie and prairie dogs began with the decimation of native culture because First Nation people were as much a part of the ecosystem as any other organism. Attempting to exterminate the Native American population by taking away their food source, the government offered bounties on buffalo. The wholesale massacre of the bison ended this symbiotic relationship with the grassland. It was the beginning of the end of the prairie. Deliberate or inadvertent poisoning of predators added to prairie dog’s numbers. In irrigated farmland with plenty of food, they began devouring large portions of crops - a conflict of interest resulting in their demise - all beginning with the destruction of the Great Prairie. Ranchers fear their cattle will step in prairie dog holes and vie for grass. The fact is that prairie dogs eat weeds cattle won’t touch. Their mounds and tunnels rejuvenate and aerate the soil. Those who kill these charismatic, socially complex creatures fail to understand that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. If, like Native Americans we considered how our decisions affect the next seven generations, we might have kept much of the prairie, interspersed with farmland. All that has escaped destruction are isolated pockets, waste areas, and a few protected sanctuaries for the prairie dogs. Environmentally conscious ranchers who reintroduce prairie dogs and ferrets are pariahs in their communities. What conviction-filled courage they have!

Prairie dogs are part of the squirrel family, but their tails are shorter and less bushy. At 15-19 inches from nose to tail tip, they are twice the size of grey squirrels. When they are not standing upright on hind legs, barking their adoration to the sun, or acting as sentinels, prairie dogs are diving headlong into their burrows. That first dive is a long one. It may be fourteen feet into the ground, from an entrance that looks like the cone of a volcano. Theirs is the life of the underworld. Horizontal tunnels make up warrens of food storage chambers, nesting and sleeping areas and latrines, with numerous side entrances into which prairie dogs can leap when threatened. These would honeycomb the grassland for miles if left undisturbed. One prairie dog town in Texas is recorded to have covered 25,000 square miles, having as many as 400 million inhabitants. Remaining towns now cover only a square mile or so, with a few hundred inhabitants. Black-tailed prairie dogs are in danger of becoming extinct, along with their primary predator, the black-footed ferret. Poisoning or plowing under a dog town means the destruction of a tiny world. Burrows are shared with snakes, burrowing owls, spiders and salamanders.

Prairie dogs appear slightly overweight, with short arms and legs, and sharp claws for digging. Their reddish-brown coloration is effective camouflage against predators like eagles, hawks, owls, snakes, coyotes, badgers and weasels. Unfortunately, their coloring cannot protect them from a newcomer from Asia. Just as Native Americans had no resistance to smallpox, prairie dogs have no resistance to flea borne sylvatic plague. It can wipe out whole colonies. Prairie dogs and ground squirrels can host fleas that pass plague to humans.

Several wards make up a colony or town. Prairie dogs are generally neighborly if they are part of the same ward or neighborhood. Each ward is divided into territories or coteries. Each coterie usually has one adult male, who defends his harem of females and his progeny. He is not aggressive toward the young males whose sire he is, because they leave to establish their own families before they are ready to mate. Scent is very important to discern who to mate with. Females are non-aggressive toward each other, except for the rare occasion that a non-breeding female kills the offspring of another female or a nursing female kills and cannibalizes another’s pups. However, the next week, they’ll communally nurse, and let each other’s pups play together. There’s still so much to learn about their society. Neither males nor females dominate relationships, and all resources are shared. Females will remain in the colony for life. At two years of age, the former pups are ready to mate. Usually three to five pups are delivered, weighing only as much as a tablespoon of peanut butter. At about six weeks, pups come up to explore their town for the first time. They chase each other and wrestle. Prairie dog teaches us to celebrate the small joys of life, even in tumultuous times.

If you are working with prairie dog, community is integral to your life. Perhaps you have decided to become more active in your community – take a more active role in this auspicious new beginning for America. I love that prairie dogs greet each other with a hug, placing their forepaws around each other. Members of the same coterie touch noses and teeth in a recognition ritual, and rub, lick and groom each other. They sleep communally. Prairie dog totem teaches us to take a look at true intimacy within our close relationships. It’s time to share more of ourselves, more openly. The subject of nurturing came up big time, while working with this totem – for ourselves and others - giving and receiving. Be sensitive to your neighbor’s needs. Care for, and include others.

People with this totem have quick reflexes and a sophisticated vocabulary. Prairie dogs may have the most advanced animal language yet decoded. They have distinct calls for types of predators. Calls distinguish between different sizes of people, and recognizing people they know, even after months apart. Settlers crossing the prairie thought they sounded like dogs barking, hence their name. Quick, chattery tones are social. Warning yips like, "chirk, chirk" say, "This is my territory. Keep out!" A tail wag or flick adds emphasis. Biologists say it is mostly females who sound for danger. Males tend to dive into burrows. There is a maternal side to prairie dog totem that would risk life and limb to protect young. "Wee-o, wee-o," sounds the all-clear after danger passes. Below the mound opening, there is often a ledge where they can listen for predators before venturing outside.

Not sure my connection with prairie dog was complete, I journeyed with a prairie dog matriarch, who, putting her forearms on my shoulders, initiated me into her coterie, with the nose and teeth touching ceremony. When I asked if I had completely expressed all there was to be known about the medicine of her people, she added this: "We, the people of the Plains teach a fine balance between being with others and being by ourselves; using time alone to refresh our connection to ‘All That Is’ and replenishing deeply from Mother Earth."

White-tailed, Utah, Mexican, and Gunnison’s prairie dogs are not as social as black-tails. They live in the mountains in smaller colonies, and hibernate during the long winters. Ground squirrels also hibernate, emerging in spring. They live in burrows or tunnel systems in large colonies. However, ground squirrels have different social systems from prairie dogs. With only swiftness and agility to protect them, ground squirrels forage together. Approaching danger is reported by a whistling call, though that often brings the attention of the predator to the one whistling. I am frequently astounded at how smart and adaptive all rodent species are, but this is really amazing: California ground and rock squirrels living in rattlesnake country chew up rattlesnake skin, and smear it on their fur to mask their scent from snake predators!

Mixed into the sadness after my mother’s death is a bright, sunny memory. My grieving family gathered near the ocean, where mom had lived. I hadn’t seen my four-year old grandson in over a year. My daughter and I decided to spend the afternoon with him at his favorite place, the beach. These Pacific beaches had piles of boulders at the tide line. In niches between the boulders were colonies of rock squirrels. I saw the first one out of the corner of my eye. Knowing curiosity would draw them closer. I signaled my grandson Jordan that something magical was about to occur. Sure enough, another shadow and then a bright-eyed head popped up to see what might be in store. What’s the beach without snacks? We shared ours with our furry friends, leaving crumbs, seeds and fruit on the rocks. They came back for more, finally eating from my hand, then my daughter’s. With trepidation and delight, Jordan extended his hand, then squealed with excitement as they took the food. The entire squirrel family teaches us to work with others for mutual benefit, and have fun while we’re doing it!

Cie Simurro ~ Thunderbird Star-woman has been a healer and writer for 35 years. As an interfaith minister, and advocate for the natural world. Cie lives and works shaman-ically, using Light, Sound, and Stewardship for healing animals and humans. For healing in person or by phone, for you/animal, a reading, spiritual training, to attend Cie’s Arts Salon, or purchase her book, Totems for Stewards of the Earth ($22 to PO 295, Shelburne Falls MA 01370), call 413 625-0385 or email: cie@ciesimurro.com

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