Nature & you: Oklahoma’s 'barking squirrel' was President Thomas Jefferson’s treasured pet
Love ′em … or … hate ′em.
Such is the relationship Oklahomans have with our state’s prairie dogs.
Some people regard them as despicable vermin; while still others look upon them as lovable creatures of the natural world.
What I find especially interesting is the attitude that was demonstrated by the U.S. president in the year 1805. In this regard, I am making reference to our nation’s chief executive officer in that year, i.e., President Thomas Jefferson. His time in the White House preceded our state’s birth by a good hundred years, but the “back story” on our continent’s prairie dog population is still worthy of note.
Jefferson sent two intrepid explorers west. Lewis and Clark were issued a presidential mandate to be on the lookout for giant ground sloths and mastodons (i.e., ancient elephant-like creatures). President Jefferson’s theory was that animals such as these were not extinct but, instead, were hidden away in secretive and as-yet-unexplored alcoves out west.
Needless to say, Lewis and Clark failed in their attempt to find living sloths and living mastodons. What they did find, however, were prairie dogs.
Oh, but that I could take a ride in a time machine and transport myself back to that long-ago era when Lewis and Clark and their crew laboriously hauled countless buckets of water from the distant riverbank to the underground warren of prairie dog burrows. Lewis and Clark did eventually manage to capture one prairie dog alive. They lovingly ensconced it inside a cage and sent it downriver. The caged animal made it all the way back to Jefferson. He treasured this special gift. He kept it inside the White House so he might more thoroughly observe its amusing behavior.
This is a little-known aspect of our nation’s history.
It’s the kind of stuff you most probably did not encounter in your high school history classes.
Neil Garrison was the longtime naturalist at a central Oklahoma nature center. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.