Prairie dogs and progress are skipping along, arm in arm, out in Lubbock, Texas. This prolific relative of the woodchuck, once considered the scourge of the High Plains, is now described by the local chamber of commerce as "the lovable rodent." Against the changing skyline of Lubbock, one of the many fast-growing cities in Texas, frisky prairie dog families carry on in a pampered Prairie Dog Town.
Pete the Prairie Dog festoons city brochures as he invites the world to come and share in the glories of Lubbock. Never before have a city and a member of the animal kingdom linked arms so closely in a march toward bigger and better things. Lubbock proudly announces that more than a million people a year come to see its prairie dogs. Although the city lies off the main migration route of the tourist horde, travelers divert their cars 250 miles or more just to revel in the antics of the romping residents of Prairie Dog Town.
These visitors learn of the esteem in which the citizenry of Lubbock hold their playful rodents upon reading a dignified sign which says: PRAIRIE DOG TOWN. POPULATION? $500 FINE FOR MOLESTING PRAIRIE DOGS.
If the visitors are especially lucky, they get to meet Kennedy N. Clapp, the Mayor of Prairie Dog Town and the man who, with a big assist from the dogs, made this rodent community the drawing force it is today.
Officially, Clapp is the chairman of Lubbock's Park and Recreation Commission but, though I had never met him, I knew as soon as he walked into the hotel that he was the Mayor of Prairie Dog Town. There was an air about him that set him apart from the younger men talking progress in the lobby.
Tall and slightly stooped, his clothes hung on his lean frame with a natural grace. His big hat had a soft, floppy brim, unlike those of the three-gallon hats so popular in modern Texas. His lean face was wrinkled in a cheerful sort of way, and I was soon to learn that his laugh was one of his most notable characteristics. It was a loud laugh, frank, hearty and carefree. When something funny came up he would throw back his head and let his big, round laugh roll out. When he did, those in the vicinity turned and smiled as though they wished that they could laugh like that.
After a get-acquainted cup of coffee we headed for Prairie Dog Town. We didn't have far to go, for the dogs live inside the city limits, almost in the shadow of Lubbock's taller buildings. The dog town is in Mackenzie State Park, 547.63 acres which the city leases from the state and operates as a city park. A mile and a quarter from the dead center of Lubbock, Clapp stopped the car beside a low, concrete block wall, enclosing a six-acre expanse of level, green prairie. Earthen craters up to a foot high dotted the greensward, marking the underground homes of the prairie dogs.
There was plenty going on around town from the moment we got there. Dozens of dogs sat upright on their mounds, on the lookout for danger and ready to sound the alarm. Others fed on the thick Bermuda grass. After pulling a tuft of grass they sat up on their haunches and chewed rapidly, usually clutching the grass in one paw, like a boy chewing on a candy stick.
There were wild chases, which sometimes ended in a fight. These battles were of only a few seconds' duration. A pair of fat males would roll on the ground, scratching and kicking furiously, then separate and walk away as though nothing had happened. Some were digging new holes, while others repaired their mounds. Clapp said the mounds kept water out of the holes and were used as observation posts.
The town was noisy as well as busy. Frequently a prairie dog would rise suddenly from all fours to a standing position on its hind feet, with the front paws held high. While rising to this posture it emitted an ecstatic "Wheeee!," a sort of good-to-be-alive shout. Others barked. The bark of the prairie dog is more of a high-pitched yip, and the dog puts all he's got into it, popping his tail with every yip.