EricA the prairie dog is trying to make herself at home in the prairie dog colony at Baraboo’s Ochsner Park Zoo.
Sometimes, the others in the colony — at least 11 adults and four babies — show signs they’re willing to welcome EricA, the lone survivor of the prairie dog colony at the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison following a harsh winter.
Other times, like Wednesday, they make life a little rough for the newcomer — prompting zookeepers to move EricA indoors, to allow a peaceful atmosphere to heal the minor cuts and scrapes the other prairie dogs have inflicted on her.
Zoo Manager Tori Spinoso said workers and volunteers are committed to continuing the challenging effort to integrate EricA into the colony. Prairie dogs are social animals, yet very territorial and distrustful of outsiders.
“It’s like putting an outsider male wolf into a wolf pack,” she said. “It might not work, but we have no choice but to try.”
Mike Hardy, Baraboo’s parks, recreation and forestry director, said EricA arrived at Ochsner Park Zoo about six weeks ago.
She’d been part of a colony of about 20, but 19 of them froze to death after a rising water table limited how deeply they could burrow, and last winter’s Polar Vortex caused them to freeze — a situation Madison zoo officials were powerless to predict or prevent, Hardy said.
“Everybody’s trying to make it work with this one survivor,” he said.
Zoo intern Kaycee Daentl, a third-year veterinary medicine student at Kansas State University, said the saga of EricA (named after a Madison zookeeper called Eric, with the capital A added at the end to feminize the name) has captured the attention not only of visitors to the free zoo, but also followers of the zoo’s Facebook page.
On Wednesday afternoon, a gentle but steady rain was falling, driving all of the zoo’s prairie dogs into their underground dens.
The prairie dog exhibit features about 17 holes leading to the animals’ underground community, plus a crate for EricA, so she can be safe while the other animals get used to her presence and her scent.
Hardy said the animals have shown signs of accepting the newcomer, such as chattering, sniffing and rubbing their teeth against hers.
But at least two of the prairie dogs in the colony are nursing mothers, and Spinoso said one of the mothers in particular is extremely protective of her babies, which is why she sees EricA as a threat.
On Thursday, zoo officials plan to put EricA back in her crate and resume the effort to encourage bonding between her and the other prairie dogs.
Spinoso said a prairie dog’s “town” is typically composed of multiple “wards,” with each ward consisting of a male, a female and their offspring. EricA’s best hope for integration, she said, is for one of the male babies in the colony to grow up and mate with her (she’s only about 1 year old), so she can be part of her own ward-family.
The underground dwelling is elaborate, to say the least.
“They have rooms where they sleep, rooms where they toilet, rooms where they bury their dead,” she said. “They are very complex animals.”
Spinoso said she knows of only one previous effort at the Ochsner Park Zoo to integrate outside prairie dogs into the zoo’s colony. It happened in the 1980s, she said, and it ended with just two survivors.
If it becomes clear, after several more weeks, that EricA can’t be accepted into the colony, Hardy said, one possibility is to try to integrate her with a small private prairie dog colony in Dane County.
Having her live out her life without other prairie dogs as a pet, would be an undesired outcome, because of the social nature of her species, Spinoso said.
“We’ll keep hoping for the best,” she said. “She has to go someplace.”