A Pint-Sized Ambassador: Ernie the Prairie Dog
by Doris Hamilton
It was Christmas 2010 when my husband Agustín and I visited Naples, Florida for the first time. A dozen of our family members met there for a family reunion, and we were thrilled when my sister (a Naples resident) suggested that we do a field trip to the Shy Wolf Sanctuary. Wolves in tropical Naples??? It sounded strange back then, but since that first year, the sanctuary has become one of our favorite places on earth, and isn’t at all strange. Wolves in Naples are quite an asset to the city! Since we live in Chile, we can’t get there very often, but we keep in touch in any way we can.
But let’s go back to the family visit five years ago. On a Saturday morning late in December we all packed into a rental van and sleepily headed for SWS. The first call to full consciousness that early morning was when we entered the sanctuary enclosure to the tune of the wolves´ howls. The wonderful songs continued during presentations by the SWS personnel before we began the tour. Each new howl made us more eager to go to see who the melody –makers were. And then, all of a sudden, we were on our feet, and off we went to meet… a prairie dog!
Oops! What happened here? Weren’t we coming to see the wolves??? Yes, of course, but before we got to those mysterious, fascinating animals, I had already fallen in love. With a prairie dog named Ernie! SWS may specialize in wolves, but they also take into their hearts and home all sorts of other creatures, great and small, who need their help and care. And Ernie was our first stop on the tour.
There we were, in the Small Animals Section, facing a straw-filled cage, and our guide was telling us about prairie dogs and how some of them ended up living in the sanctuary. Most of us were new to prairie dogs so she explained that these highly social members of the squirrel, chipmunk, and marmot family were sometimes called “barking squirrels” and could be as long as 16 inches and weigh up to three pounds. Their lives were mostly lived under the ground, since they are burrowing animals and sometimes their burrows were 16 feet deep! While she was speaking, I didn’t see anything at all. No squirrel-like being, no highly social creature. Only lots of straw.
But, wait a minute! Did that straw just move a little? Over on the left? Now on the right? Directly in front of us? Yes! And then, rustle, rustle, rustle, and up popped Ernie! Just like a sleek little jack-in-the box! And with a smile on his face! My first glimpse of a prairie dog!! And was he ever cute, with his big front teeth and bright black eyes! And guess what all we big humans were doing? Delightedly laughing and smiling and pointing at 12-inch-long Ernie, as if this was the discovery of a new planet, a new species, or maybe, more to the point, a new stand-up comedian! It was obvious that Ernie was a PR man in miniature and we were ready to buy anything he had to sell!
Pretty soon our guide made this moment even more engaging by opening the cage door, scooping up Ernie in her hands, and holding him up for all of us to see. Ernie was no shy prairie dog, no siree! He lay back and relaxed and then chortled and giggled and wriggled and we all laughed harder! I was starting to feel like this could be the whole tour and it would be just fine; Ernie was a winner! And, small as he was, this charming rodent served as a wonderful ambassador for SWS, welcoming its guests and putting them at ease.
Someone asked how this little guy had gotten to the sanctuary in the first place. First of all, prairie dogs are not native to Florida, so his life began in another East Coast state, where one day someone took him into a pet shop, dropped him on the counter, and left. This particular shop did not sell prairie dogs and Ernie was transferred to a wildlife rehab center that then contacted SWS. And now here he was, right before our very eyes. Eventually we moved on to see the other residents of the small animals section, and when we finished, it was time to go to meet the wolves. But first I snuck back over to the prairie dog cage and snapped a photo of our little host. I swear he winked at me! Or did I just dream that up because my husband had already given Ernie a nickname in Chilean Spanish – “el chinchoso” – “the flirt”!!!
In 2011 I returned to see the lovely folks and furry creatures at SWS, and in 2012, my husband and I went back to Naples for a month. Both of us wanted to volunteer one day a week and the SWS folks kindly let us do that during the time we were in Florida. They assigned us for most of the time we were there to the small animals section! Could I be happier? I don’t think so! We were both glad to be helping out, cleaning cages and following along after Nancy Smith, the person who years ago had transformed her back yard into this very special sanctuary. When we got to the prairie dog cage, there was my dear little Ernie, chomping away on a tasty treat. Nancy opened the cage and took him out while we put some new food supplies inside, and then, she really surprised me – and put Ernie in MY hands!. “El chinchoso” chortled and wriggled and giggled and I loved having that little body bouncing around in the palms of my hands. What a special moment! And once again, we were all laughing, even Nancy, who sees Ernie every day. But why not? Ernie has that special charm that loosens us all up.
My last visit to SWS so far was in 2014 and of course, I wanted to see my little friend again. We approached Ernie´s little home and as usual, only saw straw. No Ernie. I knew he was down in the depths, so I started calling his name.
“Errrrrrrrrrrrrrnie! Errrrrrrrrrnie! I came all the way from South America to see you, Ernie!!!!!!!”
Rustle, rustle, rustle. My hopes were high. I knew he was there! He could hear me! I felt so important, so loved, so… dumped! It turned out that we had come to visit right after Ernie´s lunch break and he was priming himself for a nice relaxing prairie dog siesta. Those rustles were just his initial tosses and turns as he settled down for a good nap. I never even saw the tips of his ears. But that didn’t stop me from still loving Ernie the Entertainer, who was probably all tuckered out from smiling with those two big teeth and being in the spotlight for so many years. I was just glad he was still there.
Ernie is just a little guy, but he sends a BIG message about the folks at SWS. They are the ones who one day long ago scooped up this little fellow and took him to live in a special place. They´re the ones who first saw the beauty and the humor in a little abandoned prairie dog who has endeared himself to so many people. I´m lucky I met him and I´ll never forget this little fellow who deals out laughter and good feelings and teaches all us big folks how easy it really is to have a good day. Hey, Ernie, I hope to see you again real soon!