The story sounded just bizarre enough to be true. Last month, a brief news item said a Colorado man had invented a vacuum-powered machine that sucks prairie dogs - those burrowing squirrels of the Great Plains - right out of their holes. And he was selling them as pets, because prairie dogs were going for $450 apiece in New York and $700 in Japan.
Prairie dogs in Tokyo? The concept demanded further research. The transition the rodents were apparently undergoing brimmed with cross-cultural irony: from Texas burrows to cramped Tokyo apartments, which even the Japanese call "rabbit hutches." And not only that: A machine that sucks up prairie dogs? Was this cruelty to animals?
The item seemed like a gift of manna on a slow news day. But after a few very-long-distance conversations with the Colorado man, his wife, and a pet broker, it turned out the prairie-dog vacuum story was true, with a few extra twists and turns that had yet to be reported.
The story begins with a failed business. Gay Balfour and his wife, Judy, of Cortez, Colo., fell on hard times in the early 1990s because Mr. Balfour's business was going bust. A welder and machine-shop owner, Balfour had opened a marina on a Colorado reservoir. But the project sank, according to him, under the weight of government regulations and a bank foreclosure.
In 1991, "I signed everything I owned to the bank," he said in a phone conversation from Cortez. He and his wife recall the time as one of hardship and distress.
That giant sucking sound
Then one night Balfour had a dream in which he caught prairie dogs with a giant vacuum cleaner. The very next day, he says, he received a call from an Indian reservation where people complained of a prairie-dog infestation. Later in the same day, he says, he received an unsolicited offer to buy a used vacuum truck from a municipal sanitation office.
Convinced that he should follow up on this convergence of events, Balfour went to a supply store and found the parts he needed to convert the truck into a prairie dog catcher.
A few days later he went back to the reservation, used his machine to catch 23 prairie dogs in 45 minutes, and signed contracts to continue removing the rodents from the property. Since 1991, he and his partner, Dave Honaker, have used the vacuum truck to catch prairie dogs and groundhogs in Arizona, Colorado, Ohio, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Texas.
"We haven't gotten rich off of it, but it sure has helped us," Balfour says.
At first Gay euthanized the rodents he caught or gave them to a friend in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. But earlier this year a pet broker named Kathy Keys-Candelaria persuaded him to sell his catch to her so she could in turn sell the prairie dogs to pet stores.
"There's a real big market," says Ms. Keys-Candelaria, who is based in Texas and Colorado. They're sold as pets in many parts of the United States, she explains. "I hear prairie dogs have been a pretty hot item in Japan for a couple of years," she adds.
On the other hand, she acknowledges, most people who must live alongside the rodents "want them killed." Since the last century, the prairie dog population in the US has been dramatically depleted through poisoning, other control measures, and the loss of habitat. Prairie dogs compete with livestock for vegetation, dig holes that can cripple larger animals, and cause other problems.
So the Balfour machine may offer a more humane alternative to lethal forms of pest control. Joe Wyatt, a reporter for the Amarillo (Texas) Daily Globe-News, went to see the vacuum-machine in action last month because people called his newsroom worried that someone was gassing the animals. Balfour and Mr. Honaker "weren't trying to do any harm to them," Mr. Wyatt says. "They were just vacuuming them for resale as pets."
The pair had calibrated the machine to suck in only young prairie dogs, since they are more easily tamed. Adults, Keys-Candelaria says, can be "quite vicious."
Balfour acknowledges that the machine can leave a few of the youthful rodents "a little scraped up," but says it is a humane device.
Wyatt's story quoted the inventor on the asking price for a prairie dog in Japan, but Keys-Candelaria doubts that any of Balfour's prairie dogs have actually made it to the East. That is not to say that prairie dogs are not sold as pets in Japan.
"They're strong, bright, and cheerful," says Tokyo pet store salesman Kiyotaka Sugawara, who estimates that the North American rodents have been sold in Japan for perhaps 20 years. Standing in his crowded, malodorous shop in a bustling Tokyo neighborhood, Mr. Sugawara notes that prairie dogs make good "secret" pets - for those whose landlords bar animals.
The Tokyo price? About $330 for a single prairie dog, $690 for a pair. But in this city's up-market Mitsukoshi department store - think Saks Fifth Avenue with a pet section - two prairie dogs and a cage run to more than $1,000.
That's not quite $700 apiece, but a long way from the $17.50 that Keys-Candelaria pays Balfour for each rodent. She in turn sells them for $35 to $55, she says. As Balfour puts it, "Somebody along the line is making some real money on them."