As readers of Mysterious Universe may recall, over the years I have written articles on a variety of large animals seen across the UK. They are animals which are clearly not indigenous to the UK, but which are encountered in the wild on a fairly regular basis. We’re talking, primarily, about the likes of wallabies and so-called “Alien Big Cats.” But, it’s not just significantly-sized out of place animals that are roaming the UK. Sometimes, those animals are small in size. In terms of their presence in the UK, however, they’re no less interesting.
On August 31, 1970, the UK’s Daily Express newspaper ran a small article in its pages titled “Strange Animal.” It began with a letter sent to the newspaper by one J. Nicklin of Codsall Wood, in the English county of Staffordshire. Nicklin wrote: “Dogs on a farm near here recently killed a strange animal. No-one here – not even the gamekeepers – knew what it was. The Ministry of Agriculture identified it for us as an American prairie dog. How could it get here? Why is it called a dog?”
The Daily Express called upon a naturalist, E.A. Ellis, for the answers: “[He] describes prairie dogs as resembling big squirrels, but without their tufted ears. Whipsnade and other zoos have colonies of them, but they burrow so deeply that it is difficult to keep them inside any fencing. Their name is probably from their dog-like little countenance, but their cry is a slight whistle.”
President Theodore Roosevelt once said: “Prairie-dogs are abundant…they are in shape like little woodchucks, and are the most noisy and inquisitive animals imaginable. They are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants; and these towns are found in all kinds of places where the country is flat and treeless.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notes: “Prairie dogs occur only in North America. They are rodents within the squirrel family and include five species–the Utah prairie dog, the white-tailed prairie dog, the black-tailed prairie dog, the Gunnison prairie dog, and the Mexican prairie dog. The Utah prairie dog is currently listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened. The total length of an adult Utah prairie dog is approximately 12-14 inches, the weight of an individual ranges from 1 to 3 pounds.
“Utah prairie dogs range in color from cinnamon to clay, with dark markings above the eyes and white on the tip of the tail. Utah prairie dogs are diurnal, burrowing animals. Breeding usually takes place in March and young are born in April after a 30 day gestation period. Emergence of the pups usually occurs from mid to late May. The Utah prairie dog’s diet is composed of flowers, seeds, grasses, leaves, and even insects.”
All of which brings us to the matter of that distinctly out of place prairie dog in Staffordshire, England, back in 1970. Where did it come from? As the Daily Express noted correctly, a number of UK-based zoos were home to prairie dogs. They still are. The Daily Express was correct, too, when it said of prairie dogs that “they burrow so deeply that it is difficult to keep them inside any fencing.” In other words, the animal had almost certainly escaped from a zoo. It was not a solitary event, however.
On June 24, 2009, the BBC ran a small article at its website titled “Prairie dog is seen on moorland.” It read as follows: “A couple from Cornwall have photographed a prairie dog while they were on a moor in Cornwall. Linda and Godfrey Stevens were on the Goss Moor trail when they spotted a small furry creature that they could not recognize. Godfrey Stevens said: ‘We didn’t expect to see anything like that.’ Newquay Zoo confirmed the picture was that of a prairie dog. They are mammals from the squirrel family and are from the grasslands of North America. Mr Stevens said: ‘We expected to see wild flowers. It was a real surprise for us.’ John Meeks from Newquay Zoo said it was a black-tailed prairie dog ‘without a doubt.'”
Coincidentally, the location of the sighting was only a handful of miles from the hunting grounds of the notorious “Beast of Bodmin,” believed by many within the field of cryptozoology to be an unidentified, large cat. Or, more likely, a number of them, given that sightings extend back for decades. In addition, yet another wild prairie dog was found in the UK in 2009. This time, the location was a field in Lincolnshire, in the north of England. The prairie dog was captured and handed over to the RSPCA, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, who then gave it to an animal-lover, Julie Stoodley.
I have a number of additional reports in my files, including several from Scotland. It would be cool to think that there are numerous, large colonies of prairie dogs hiding out in the UK. But, that scenario seems unlikely. Recall the words of President Theodore Roosevelt: “[Prairie dogs] are never found singly, but always in towns of several hundred inhabitants.” Indeed, that is true. The fact is, however, that the prairie dogs seen roaming around the UK are usually alone. This strongly suggests they have escaped from zoos and private enclosures of a kind that most of their buddies are happy and content to hang out in.
Okay, out of place prairie dogs are nowhere near as exciting as the prospect of large cats roaming the UK, or even wallabies. But, the presence of prairie dogs in the UK – extending from Scotland, to the Midlands, and down to the southwest – demonstrates just how wild the UK landscape really is!