Con Slobodchikoff and I approached the mountain meadow slowly, obliquely, softening our footfalls and conversing in whispers. It didn’t make much difference. Once we were within 50 feet of the clearing’s edge, the alarm sounded: short, shrill notes in rapid sequence, like rounds of sonic bullets.
We had just trespassed on a prairie-dog colony. A North American analogue to Africa’s meerkat, the prairie dog is trepidation incarnate. It lives in subterranean societies of neighboring burrows, surfacing to forage during the day and rarely venturing more than a few hundred feet from the center of town. The moment it detects a hawk, coyote, human or any other threat, it cries out to alert the cohort and takes appropriate evasive action. A prairie dog’s voice has about as much acoustic appeal as a chew toy. French explorers called the rodents petits chiens because they thought they sounded like incessantly yippy versions of their pets back home.
On this searing summer morning, Slobodchikoff had taken us to a tract of well-trodden wilderness on the grounds of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff. Distressed squeaks flew from the grass, but the vegetation itself remained still; most of the prairie dogs had retreated underground. We continued along a dirt path bisecting the meadow, startling a prairie dog that was peering out of a burrow to our immediate right. It chirped at us a few times, then stared silently.
“Hello,” Slobodchikoff said, stooping a bit. A stout bald man with a scraggly white beard and wine-dark lips, Slobodchikoff speaks with a gentler and more lilting voice than you might expect. “Hi, guy. What do you think? Are we worth calling about? Hmm?”
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