Bill Rigler surveyed the bleak landscape of gaping holes and tunnels stretching out before him and posed a question.
"If you replaced the 'dog' in prairie dog with 'rat,' would they elicit the same emotion?" he asked, as one of the fuzzy rodents sat sphinx-like a few feet away. "I wonder."
It's the sort of searching question one might expect from the spokesman for Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired college stressing mindfulness and contemplative learning, but it's actually born more out of frustration.
For years, Naropa has battled some 150 persistent prairie dogs over 2.5 acres of prime real estate on its Nalanda campus. One side wants to build more classrooms, the other more tunnels.
The struggle is especially poignant in this famously liberal college town, where Buddhists and prairie dogs occupy exalted positions within the local ecosystem.
Naropa complains that incessant burrowing has turned a verdant lawn — where Buddhist nuns once batted volleyballs — into a burgeoning moonscape.
"We bought this land in 2004 to expand on and the first prairie dogs showed up two years later," Rigler said.
Killing them seemed out of character for a university dedicated to Buddhist precepts of compassion and a motto of "First do no harm." So they did nothing.
The industrious rodents swiftly built a prairie dog town of some 200 burrows extending from the campus parking lot to busy Arapahoe Avenue to almost the front door. Plans to expand classroom space stalled, and in 2011, Naropa began searching for ways to relocate the animals.
Four years and $100,000 later, little has changed. Trapping and moving the rodents is easy enough; finding someone who wants them is not. The university once spent six months negotiating with a landowner to take the animals before the deal collapsed.
So earlier this month, Naropa applied for a "lethal control permit."
Prairie dog defenders immediately sounded the alarm and protesters converged on the campus.
"They claim to be Buddhist-inspired and yet they were willing to kill the prairie dogs," said Deanna Meyer, director of the local chapter of Idaho-based Wildlands Defense, which organized the demonstration. "And they were doing it for profit, to expand their number of students."
An online petition bearing the photo of a winsome prairie dog saying, "Mommy, I heard that Naropa University is going to have all of us killed" got over 182,000 signatures from around the world.
Activists also contacted the Dalai Lama, who had scheduled and later canceled a visit to Boulder this month, and said they received a response from "His holiness' secretary saying they will look into this matter."
Stung by the outcry, Naropa's vice president for business affairs, Todd Kilburn, wrote an editorial in the Boulder Daily Camera urging everyone to "take a deep breath," and saying "no landowner in Colorado has worked harder or more comprehensively to relocate prairie dogs" than Naropa.
Ultimately, the university withdrew its lethal permit request.
"All of sudden it was, 'The Buddhists want to kill the prairie dogs,' but we had no intention of killing them," said Rigler, who isn't a Buddhist. "The very act of applying for a permit triggers an open comment period, which gives everyone the opportunity to say, 'I have a site for relocation,' or put forward other ideas."
Meyer is skeptical.
"I think they would have quietly gone out and exterminated the prairie dogs if we hadn't heard about it," she said.
Prairie dogs are an integral part of the Colorado environment, triggering strong emotions on both sides. Some see them as destructive pests who harbor plague-carrying fleas and denude the landscape, while others defend them as a complex, critical species being squeezed out by increasing development.
"Black-tailed prairie dogs — the kind we are talking about here — have declined by 98%," said Lindsey Sterling Krank, an environmental scientist and director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, part of the Humane Society of the U.S. "They are considered a keystone species because their colonies create islands of habitats that benefit approximately 150 other species."
Those include coyotes, badgers, eagles, burrowing owls and the endangered black-footed ferret.
Krank is working with Naropa to find relocation sites for the prairie dogs.
"I don't think Naropa was ever going to kill them," she said. "I take them at their word."
The private university was founded in 1974 by Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa, whose followers flooded into Boulder and influence it to this day. The school has about 1,100 students on two local campuses and is home to the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, co-founded by the late beat poet and Buddhist Allen Ginsberg.
"People have an impression of Naropa from 1974 of barefoot hippies, but we have grown into a major university," Rigler said. "There is a genuine desire to do what's right, but we have a responsibility to provide our students with a good learning environment."
He hopes new relocation sites will open next year.
Many students, like Abby Hansen and Kim Davis, enjoy watching the highly social prairie dogs cavort out front.
"I'd hate to see them go," Hansen said.
Davis recalled one of her professors asking, "I wonder what we'd do if we ever got termites?"
The question hung in the air as a prairie dog crept close, gazed at the young women and ate a leaf.
Kelly is a special correspondent.