September 16, 1996 in Nation/World

Prairie Dogs Take 300 Mph Thrill Ride

Julia Prodis Associated Press
 

Like a doctor feeling for a pulse, Dave Honaker lays his hands on the wide, plastic hose. It begins to vibrate as pebbles and dirt rush through. It shudders a bit, then is still.

Honaker smiles. The furry body of a prairie dog, still in its subterranean hole, is plugging the end of the hose. It’s only a matter of time now.

“You can feel when he’s fighting back,” Honaker yells over the roar of the powerful suction. “He’s got a good hold, and then he loses it.”

Just then, the hose jolts, and with a rumbling whoosh, the rodent shoots up the hose.

“One!” Honaker mouths, his eyes gleaming with excitement.

A moment later, another whoosh. “Two!”

“It’s like playing the violin,” Honaker says modestly. “After five years, you get a little better.”

Honaker is a master of the latest in rodent-control technology - the prairie dog vacuum. Aptly named Dog Gone, it was invented by Honaker’s partner, Gay Balfour, who literally dreamed up this Rube Goldberg-like contraption.

It came to him one night five years ago in his Cortez, Colo., home. Balfour, a 50-year-old machine shop owner, was down on his luck and nearly bankrupt after building a marina that was riddled with delays and cost overruns.

“The bank stepped in and took everything - my machine shop, marina, everything went down the tubes,” Balfour said. “One night, my wife said, ‘Why don’t you ask the Lord to help us?’ The next week, I had this dream to catch prairie dogs with a huge vacuum.”

In his dream, he saw an enormous yellow truck with a green hose sticking out of it, sucking prairie dogs out of the ground. The dream was so vivid that he still remembered the size of the hose and where it was attached the next morning.

He shrugged it off and went to work as usual. But over the next few days, a serendipitous chain of events unfolded that was anything but usual.

The day after his dream, he had a job at the Ute Mountain Indian reservation, repairing the farm’s irrigation system. The land was being overrun by prairie dogs that were digging up the corn seed. The holes were like land mines to farm equipment.

The tribe had been pouring poison down the holes to get rid of them, but the varmints kept coming back.

“I didn’t say I had a dream last night,” Balfour told the ranch manager, “but I said I was working on a project. He said, ‘When can you put something together?”’

Balfour first needed a truck. On the way home, he stopped by his local sewer district office and was astonished to learn a truck used for cleaning out sewer lines and manholes was for sale. It was yellow.

Next, he went to the industrial supply store and there, hanging on the wall, were 4-inch hoses. They were green.

“I don’t know what you believe in,” Balfour said, “but I believe it’s supposed to happen that way.”

He modified the truck, attached the hose and, within three days, was back at the Indian reservation sucking up prairie dogs.

At 300 mph, the critters hurtled through a 4-inch plastic hose. Like cannonballs, they shot out the end into a big tank on the back of the truck, first slamming into a wall of thick foam rubber, then toppling onto a foam and dirt-covered floor.

It all made for a wild ride for the squirrel-like rodents. And, for the most part, they fared well - a little dazed and confused at first, but scampering around almost immediately.

In the first 45 minutes, Balfour caught 23 prairie dogs. The tribe was so impressed, it gave him a $6,000 contract. He caught 1,000 prairie dogs. Balfour was in business.

Since then, he and Honaker have been traveling to prairie dog towns across the Southwest. Balfour drives the yellow truck, and Honaker tows an old trailer they live in at job sites.

Depending on the job, they either relocate, exterminate or sell the prairie dogs for pets or meat.

They can sell for as much as $145 a piece in the States - and $350 in Japan.

Graphic: The prairie dog-sucking truck


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