Prairie Dogged

Back in their homes in North America, they are widely seen as pests. In Thailand, though, they are pampered pets



Tibor Krausz

The Bangkok Post, July 31, 2016



Copter is the spitting image of a gunslinger straight out of a John Ford western. There he stands in his period cowboy outfit, erect and pensive, peering into the distance while his arms dangle over a pair of colts strapped to his hips. He seems ready for a fast-draw duel, firing off a quick round at an unseen foe any second now.

Zeus, a black-tailed prairie dog, perches on the shoulder of car mechanic Nived Thepwipoom (photos: Tibor Krausz)

He doesn't wear any boots, though. Nor does he have a horse waiting nearby so he could ride off on it into the sunset.

That's because Copter is a black-tailed prairie dog. He has been dressed up in the miniature costume, complete with a cowboy hat and tiny plastic pistols, by her owner Natdraw Chomsri, a Bangkok travel agent who has brought Copter to a botanical garden behind the Chatuchak Weekend Market.

Each Sunday, local Thai enthusiasts of the North American rodents gather on a stretch of lawn in the park with their pets for an afternoon of socializing. On a recent Sunday some two dozen pet owners have come with scores of prairie dogs. The animals, most of which are tethered with long leashes, do what prairie dogs normally do: they scamper around inquisitively, sprawl indolently, chew blades of grass, or stand erect on their hind legs, the better to keep an eye out for signs of trouble.

Many of them are clad in small, handmade clothes: frilly skirts, plaid vests, tartan kilts, emblazoned T-shirts. "Sometimes I dress him up as Captain America, sometimes I dress him up as a playboy, sometimes I dress him up as a rock star with a little guitar," Natdraw says. "I've just ordered a Batman and a Superman costume for him."

Travel agent Natdraw Chomsri with Copter, whom she loves to dress in lifelike miniature costumes

Two-piece bikinis, traditional Chinese costumes, superhero outfits, evening dresses, hip-hop getups with bling – they, too, are popular with prairie dog owners. So are private school, 7-Eleven and nurse uniforms. "The more flashy or lifelike an outfit is, the more people like it for their prairie dogs," notes Suthasinee Kunpai, an accountant who creates fancy handmade clothes and accessories (horn-rimmed glasses, flowered sunhats, bonnets with frou-frous) and sells them for a few hundred baht apiece.

Suthasinee's business, which she largely conducts online, is booming. She doesn't have her own prairie dog, though. "I'm afraid it would bite me," she notes.

Some of the animals, which boast formidable incisors, do bite, it turns out. Honey, a female prairie dog, burrows deep into a visiting journalist's bag and proceeds to bite him when he makes a half-hearted attempt to fish her out. "She is in a bad mood," explains Honey's owner, Chayada Boonlue, a college student and aspiring actress. "She's a drama queen," Chayada adds while Honey, lifted up by the nape to stop her burrowing and biting, squirms and chirps indignantly.

All the other animals, though, seem safely tame. They clamber onto people's shoulders to watch the world from a higher vantage point, and they allow people to hold, pet and baby them lovingly. In their brightly coloured little dresses the prairie dogs appear like stuffed toys that have somehow come alive.

Event organizer Seree Jangjamnan with Godji, his much-pampered prairie dog

"They are cute and smart," says Nived Thepwipoon, a car mechanic who owns 20 prairie dogs and helps run a fan club for local enthusiasts of the rodents. "They listen to their names and you can train them," he adds. Two of his prairie dogs, Zeus and Shadow, wear identical miniature Manchester United jerseys in a testament to Nived's other passion.

Across Bangkok, the herbivorous borrowing rodents, which are native to the grasslands of North America, have become much sought-after exotic pets for thousands of people. Many of them congregate regularly in parks so their animals can spend some time with their kind. The get-togethers also serve as opportunities for owners to show off their prairie dogs' latest costumes. Occasionally the animals' enthusiasts stage fancy-dress competitions for their prairie dogs at shopping malls.

Seree Jangjamnan, an event organiser, has come with Godji, a two-year-old prairie dog. The animal, dressed in a brown shirt emblazoned with a sequined human skull, perches on Seree's shoulder. "He's a bit aloof and likes to be by himself," Seri says. "I bring him here so he can fool around with other prairie dogs."

Momentarily, Seree's fiancé, Porntip Homrod, produces a frilly pink skirt and puts it on Godji, who is named after the gas company PTT's chubby blue cartoon dinosaur mascot. "He's a boy, but I like to dress him in girly clothes," Porntip, who works as an account, says with a giggle. "He doesn't mind." Godji tries to wriggle out of the skirt: perhaps he does mind getting cross-dressed, after all.

A pair of prairie dogs, dressed in matching costumes, cavorts on the lawn of a Bangkok city park

Prairie dogs are ground squirrels and have earned their name from the barking sounds they make to warn the members of their large colonies about approaching snakes, eagles or coyotes. Back in their homelands, in the United States, Canada and Mexico, they are often seen as pests, poisoned by cattle ranchers and hunted for sport.

Not so in Thailand. Here they are pampered pets, each of which costs upwards of 4,500 baht. Rare white varieties, whose colour is the result of albinism, can fetch around 60,000 baht if they have the usual black eyes – or a whopping 120,000 baht if they have red eyes.

"They're a popular pet," says Ismaan Yenjai, who owns Tarzan Siam, a pet shop at the exotic animal section of Chatuchak Market, and specializes in prairie dogs. Currently he has around a hundred of them for sale, including two white ones, which serve as a big draw for prairie dog lovers who can't afford to buy them but come to admire them.

As prairie dogs don't breed well in Thailand, Ismaan says, the animals need to be imported from the US, which makes them more expensive. But they're worth it, he adds. By nature the animals are sociable and gregarious, which makes them good pets if you're willing to spend a couple of hours each day training them and attending to their various needs.

"They're like actual dogs. Sort of like Chihuahuas," Ismaan says. "They bond with you and they also bond with other animals you have at home, like cats and dogs," he explains. "You can carry them around on a leash when you go out."

You can also watch TV with them. That's what Natdraw likes to do with Copter. "I love watching animated movies with (the cartoon characters) Alvin and the Chipmunks," she says. "Copter likes the chipmunks, too. He's naughty and funny just like them."

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