For many years, starting in the 1920s, the San Diego Zoo had its own Prairie Dog Town exhibit. It was a large pit with a concrete bottom and walls, filled with dirt for the “dogs” to create their many burrows. The Town’s population embedded and flowed over the years, often housing 50 or more prairie dogs, although it was hard to count them all! Other burrowing animals became “citizens” from time to time, including an armadillo named Annie.
Today, both the Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park each have a black-tailed prairie dog serving as an animal ambassador. They meet guests up close and visit schools and television studios.
At the turn of the 20th century, an estimated five billion prairie dogs lived on millions of acres of grass prairies across western North America. Since then, the prairie dog population has dropped by 98 percent. The Mexican prairie dog Cynomys mexicanus is endangered. The Utah prairie dog Cynomys parvidens was saved from extinction by the Endangered Species Act but is still considered an endangered species.
Ranchers have long viewed prairie dogs as pests that compete with their livestock for food. Because the little rodents can eat as much as seven percent of a ranch's forage, prairie dog elimination programs started decades ago in the American West. Now, a growing number of experts argue that prairie dogs may, in fact, be helpful to ranchers and others. Prairie dogs are an important part of the prairie ecosystem. Their churning activities aerate the soil to allow for more water penetration. Their nitrogen-rich dung improves the quality of the soil and vegetation. Prairie dogs also support a wide variety of species in another way: many predators rely on them for food.
You can help us bring species back from the brink by supporting the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy. Together we can save and protect wildlife around the globe.