[HUMOR] prairie-dog vacuum

Mark Q. Maxham (max@research.apple.com)
Wed, 04 Sep 1996 09:42:07 -0700

Giant vacuum used to collect nuisance prairie dogs

Copyright ) 1996 Nando.net
Copyright ) 1996 The Associated Press

DENVER (Sep 8, 1996 11:47 p.m. EDT) -- Like a doctor feeling for a pulse,
Dave Honaker lays his hands on the wide, plastic hose. It begins to vibrate
as pebbles and dirt rush through. It shudders a bit, then is still.

Honaker smiles. The furry body of a prairie dog, still in its subterranean
hole, is plugging the end of the hose. It's only a matter of time now.

"You can feel when he's fighting back," Honaker yells over the roar of the
powerful suction. "He's got a good hold, and then he loses it."

Just then, the hose jolts, and with a rumbling whoosh, the rodent shoots up
the hose.

"One!" Honaker mouths, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

A moment later, another whoosh. "Two!"

"It's like playing the violin," Honaker says modestly. "After five years,
you get a little better."

Honaker is a master of the latest in rodent-control technology -- the
prairie dog vacuum. Aptly named Dog-Gone, it was invented by Honaker's
partner, Gay Balfour, who literally dreamed up this Rube Goldberg-like

It came to him one night five years ago in his Cortez, Colo., home. Balfour,
a 50-year-old machine shop owner, was down on his luck and nearly bankrupt
after building a marina that was riddled with delays and cost overruns.

"The bank stepped in and took everything -- my machine shop, marina,
everything went down the tubes," Balfour said. "One night, my wife said,
'Why don't you ask the Lord to help us?' The next week, I had this dream to
catch prairie dogs with a huge vacuum."

In his dream, he saw an enormous yellow truck with a green hose sticking out
of it, sucking prairie dogs out of the ground. The dream was so vivid that
he still remembered the size of the hose and where it was attached the next

He shrugged it off and went to work as usual. But over the next few days, a
serendipitous chain of events unfolded that was anything but usual.

The day after his dream, he had a job at the Ute Mountain Indian
reservation, repairing the farm's irrigation system. The land was being
overrun by prairie dogs that were digging up the corn seed. The holes were
like land mines to farm equipment.

The tribe had been pouring poison down the holes to get rid of them, but the
varmints kept coming back.

"I didn't say I had a dream last night," Balfour told the ranch manager,
"but I said I was working on a project. He said, 'When can you put something
together?' "

Balfour first needed a truck. On the way home, he stopped by his local sewer
district office and was astonished to learn a truck used for cleaning out
sewer lines and manholes was for sale. It was yellow.

Next, he went to the industrial supply store and there, hanging on the wall,
were four-inch hoses. They were green.

"I don't know what you believe in," Balfour said, "but I believe it's
supposed to happen that way."

He modified the truck, attached the hose and, within three days, was back at
the Indian reservation sucking up prairie dogs.

At 300 mph, the critters hurtled through a four-inch plastic hose. Like
cannonballs, they shot out the end into a big tank on the back of the truck,
first slamming into a wall of thick foam rubber, then toppling onto a foam
and dirt-covered floor.

It all made for a wild ride for the squirrel-like rodents. And, for the most
part, they fared well -- a little dazed and confused at first, but
scampering around almost immediately.

In the first 45 minutes, Balfour caught 23 prairie dogs. The tribe was so
impressed, it gave him a $6,000 contract. He caught 1,000 prairie dogs.
Balfour was in business.

Since then, he and Honaker have been traveling to prairie dog towns across
the Southwest. Balfour drives the yellow truck, and Honaker tows an old
trailer they live in at job sites.

Depending on the job, they either relocate, exterminate or sell the prairie
dogs for pets or meat.

Earlier this summer, Balfour was hired by an exotic pets dealer to clear a
prairie dog town in Amarillo, Texas, and sell the young ones as pets. They
can sell for as much as $145 a piece in the States -- and $350 in Japan.
Balfour was paid $25 a pup.

He also has sold them as meat to federal breeding programs of endangered
species, such as captive black-footed ferrets that prey on prairie dogs for

Animal rights activists are ambivalent about Dog-Gone. They are pleased
Balfour's method can save prairie dogs rather than kill them, but wish he
never resorted to extermination. Plus, while most of the critters that sail
through his vacuum appear healthy afterward, some have died.

Balfour says they die either of heat stroke after being outside their cool,
subterranean burrows for too long, or they might hit a rock in their tunnels
before they're sucked up.

"We're not archenemies, but we're completely opposed to making them pets,"
said Paula Martin, a member of Prairie Ecosystem Conservation Alliance, a
group of volunteers that rescues prairie dogs and relocates them to a
4,000-acre sanctuary southeast of Denver. "He's in it for the money."

And she's not so sure that sucking up the animals at 300 mph is all that

But Balfour defends his system.

"This little ride up the hose is nothing compared to what they do to some of
them," he said of some landowners who routinely use them as target practice.

At Balfour's job in Denver on this hot summer day, he and Honaker are
vacuuming prairie dogs from an open field next to a Kaiser Permanente
medical center, where the little creatures are eating through the sprinkler

Last year, PECA tried to rid the same field of the critters, coaxing them
out by flushing the holes with soapy water. Dangling their arms down the
holes, the volunteers grabbed the dogs as they scurried up for dry ground.
But they didn't get them all, so this year Kaiser Permanente called Dog-Gone
to suck them out and PECA to relocate them.

At first, the Dog-Gone concept struck Kaiser's Tom Currigan as funny, but he
had a serious problem and hoped the two-man operation could solve it.

"We didn't want to exterminate, we wanted to relocate," said Currigan, in
charge of Kaiser's community affairs. "We wanted to be more humane."

Out in the field, Balfour and Honaker, wearing matching Dog-Gone T-shirts
and yellow ball caps, go about their work.

Peering through the binoculars he keeps on his front seat, next to the bug
spray and a golf ball sucked up on a previous job site, Balfour spots two
prairie dogs. They're standing on their hind legs, watching the big yellow
truck ramble closer.

In an instant, they dart through the buffalo grass and chickweed, then dive
into a cone-shaped mound of earth.

"Let's go doggin'!" Balfour says, accelerating. "Yeehaw!"

Copyright ) 1996 Nando.net