Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Prairie dogs immediately escape from $500k escape-proof habitat

Jacques Kelly
The Baltimore Sun
Mon, 15 Jun 2009 23:14 UTC

It took just 10 minutes for a dozen prairie dogs to outwit the creators of the Maryland Zoo's new $500,000 habitat.

Aircraft wire, poured concrete and slick plastic walls proved no match for the fast-footed rodents, the stars of a new exhibit that opens today.

As officials were promoting the return of the zoo's 28 prairie dogs - their former digs had been out of sight in a closed section of the animal preserve for more than four years - some of the critters found ways to jump, climb and get over the walls of their prairie paradise, a centerpiece exhibit just inside the zoo's main entrance.

None got away, but for a few anxious minutes, they found every weakness in the enclosure built to hold them. Zookeepers had to bring out nets to catch escapees.

When the animals were let out of their crates into their new habitat Wednesday, not all sought to escape. More than a few seemed happy to take a noontime siesta. Others were more interested in a lunch of biscuits, kale, apples, carrots, alfalfa hay and mulberry leaves.

But a few intrepid prairie dogs tried to find their way out, sending keepers scrambling to plug escape routes.

An hour later, just as zookeepers thought everything was under control, one rodent made it to the top of the wall. A dozen workers closed in. The prairie dog seemed to think better of it and jumped back into the enclosure.

"They find all the weak spots and exploit them," said Karl Kranz, the zoo's vice president for animal programs and chief operating officer. "But they are so fun to watch as they play, squabble, groom and bark with others in their colony."

The new Prairie Dog Town took several months to build on the site of what had been the Kodiak bear exhibit. With its waist-high glass walls, the habitat permits children and prairie dog to get to know each other face to face. Zoo officials said prairie dogs have been one of their most popular and requested attractions.

Keepers released the animals Wednesday so they could begin digging their burrows in the 80 truckloads of sand and clay soil. Within hours, the prairie dogs had made at least one sleeping burrow under a tree limb.

"It's like they were dropped off cold in the middle of the desert," Kranz said, adding that after 24 hours they "had gotten very serious about digging their burrows."

Zoo staff members say the animals cannot burrow their way out because the former Kodiak bear environment is essentially a large concrete swimming bowl. The soil depth at Prairie Dog Town ranges from 6 feet to 8 feet.

"The dirt must be deeper than 36 inches in order for the prairie dogs to make their burrows under the frost line," Kranz said. "We took soil samples from the old exhibit so the soils could be matched exactly to what they were used to having."

After foiling the escape attempt, zoo workers adjusted wire fencing and installed more slippery plastic on the walls.

"It worked perfectly," said staff member Rebecca Gullott.

Prairie dogs are Midwestern natives that live in colonies and speak to one another in little barks that warn of approaching predators.

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is offering $5 off the first 3,500 admissions at the main gate to celebrate the opening of Prairie Dog Town.

The habitat was paid for through a Baltimore bond issue and state funds, as well as grants from the Bank of America, the Venable law firm and private donors Andrew and Joyce Walter.

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