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Prairie dogs are small, squirrel-like residents of the vast prairies of western North America. Burrowing rodents, they get their name from their warning bark. They live in tightly-knit subterranean colonies which punctuate prime prairie land with dangerous holes and cone-shaped mounds of soil. Farmers hate them.

Others, however, are growing to love them. After the ferret and the short- tailed possum, prairie dogs are the latest fad for followers of exotic pet fashion, in the US and, increasingly, Japan. Red Rivers Exotics, a pet specialist in Texas, sold 800 prairie dogs in its first six weeks of business last year, and is now struggling to meet demand. Cathy Keys from the company explains the rodents' appeal: "You can train them, walk them on a leash, cuddle them, and - if you get them young - they'll relate to you like you were a daddy prairie dog."

This transformation from pest to pet has been aided by the invention of one Gay Balfour, who co-owns a pest control company, Dog Gone, in Colorado. Balfour devised a vacuum engine for sucking the animals up from their burrows. He has embraced the new interest from fashionable homes with entrepreneurial zeal: first he captures the dogs (a dozen at a time), then he de-fleas them and sells them to pet retailers, who can sell them on at $130. It's a nice little earner and, according to Balfour, "environmentally sound" to boot.

Prairie dogs are still classified as pests. The cattle farmers of the North American prairies have two major gripes against them: firstly, their burrows cause cows and horses to trip up and break their legs; and secondly, they feed on prime prairie land and destroy crops. Consequently, they are seen as fair game for farmers to shoot, poison or trap. As far as animal rights are concerned, Balfour's method of reduction at least has the virtue of keeping the animal alive.

But wildlife experts remain concerned about the removal of prairie dogs from their natural habitat, for whatever reason. John Hoogland, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Maryland and author of The Black- Tailed Prairie Dog, has spent the last 25 years researching the topic and believes the prairie dog to be a misunderstood animal. According to Hoogland, not only is it "very, very rare" for livestock to stumble into burrows, but "a lot of evidence indicates that prairie dogs only move to areas which are already overgrazed, so that they are an effect rather than a cause of crop damage". If anything, Hoogland claims, prairie dogs are a positive boon to farmers, since their droppings fertilise the ground, their burrow holes aerate the soil, and their grass consumption increases its nutrient content.

Susan Hagood, of the Humane Society of the United States (the country's major animal protection organisation), shares this opinion. Hagood is strongly opposed to the recent trade in prairie dogs as pets. "Ecologically, it's a bad idea. An entire ecosystem depends on these prairie dogs. Ethically, it's an even worse idea, as prairie dogs need a lot of dirt and shouldn't be kept in isolation," she says.

But then prairie dogs have been having a rough ride for a long time. Before the white settlers colonised the prairies, over 150 years ago, the combined area of the prairie dogs' colonies would have filled a territory the size of Bavaria, with an estimated head count of 100 million animals. As late as 1918, there existed single colonies of as many as 25,000. But the combined effects of soil erosion and the conversion of prairie land into cattle farms and golf courses have drastically reduced the area of suitable habitat available to them.

Their survival is partly the result of their socialibility. Prairie dogs guard their colonies from bobcats, coyotes and birds of prey by posting sentinels, which bark when they see danger. So far, though, they haven't devised an anti-suction strategy.