It makes me wonder who#8217;s in charge

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Have you ever had dealings with a group or organization, or simply read something about them that made you wonder who in the world was overseeing that operation?

That’s the way I feel these days after following the saga of the 13 prairie dogs at the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk.

If you haven’t been following the story, the zoo apparently obtained the little brown critters about 15 months ago and opened an exhibit.


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Right around Christmas a story appeared in the Virginian-Pilot stating the tunnel system, or at least part of it, had collapsed and officials at the zoo feared the worst for the dogs. They had not been seen in days, or even perhaps weeks, and it was thought they had perished in the collapse.

So, zoo officials did what any normal person would do, they began methodically digging up the exhibit to located the bodies n or at least they assumed they would be finding bodies.

Fast forward a few days and word hit the streets that five of the dogs had been found alive.

And then just Wednesday, two more were found alive. Two others, reported the newspaper, had perished.

Zoo officials are not sure how many are currently in the exhibit, and on Thursday reported they don’t expect to find anymore. I don’t know about you, but if I started with 13 of anything, and somebody removed nine of those things, I believe I would have four remaining n or in this case, unaccounted for. So what happened to the remaining prairie dogs?

Now that you have been brought up to date, let me tell you what I think of this situation and why I wonder to this day “Who is in charge at the zoo?”

First let’s deal with the tunnel system.

Prairie dogs, in case you don’t know it, spend the majority of their lives underground.

The eat, sleep, breed, give birth and raise their young beneath the earth’s surface.

And they are very prolific.

If you have ever been out west, say in the Boulder, Colo., area, you’ll see the little guys everywhere. The landscape is pot marked by their tell-tale burrows and very few people who live in that area don’t have at least a prairie dog or two or the remnants of a former colony in their yard.

But prairie dogs are not indigenous to this area so zoo officials sought some outside expertise when they chose to build the exhibit.

Apparently some architect came in and told them what they needed to do and they did it. Then it rained, and it rained and it rained and the tunnels gave way.

My question is, what does an architect know about prairie dog habitat? Why didn’t they bring the animals in and let them build their own tunnel system, or call somebody out west for advice?

The construction abilities of the dogs seem to have served them well for a long time, and left to their own devices, would probably have built a very comfy and safe underground home..

I hope for safety’s sake that whoever designed that maze of tunnels isn’t out there at this very moment designing buildings in which humans will eventually live or work.

Then, when they n the zoo officials n realized the tunnels had collapsed, nobody seemed to know what to do. Heck, they didn’t even know that prairie dogs will hibernate and were more than likely asleep and oblivious to the disaster that had occurred. I found that out by simply going to the Internet and typing in prairie dogs on Google. I learned more about the dogs in five minutes than I had ever known before.

Where was their prairie dog expert? If they didn’t have somebody trained to oversee this project, why did they develop it in the first place?

And finally, if this happened to the prairie dogs, I wonder what other deficiencies or problems might exist with additional exhibits at the zoo?

Could the birds escape from the aviary? How about a lion or tiger pushing a cage door open and taking a walk through the zoo n perhaps looking for some two-legged lunch?

I hope this incident has been a wakeup call for those who run the zoo. Hopefully they will spend a little more time in the future contemplating their plans, making sure they talk to the experts and working all the bugs out before it is too late.

Douglas Grant is the managing editor of the Suffolk News-Herald. Contact him at