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 contraption.
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 morning.
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 4-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 4-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 United 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 food.
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 humane.
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 system.
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, 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!”