- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 27, 2005

NORFOLK (AP) — Crews have resumed digging out the Virginia Zoo’s prairie dog exhibit to determine whether more of the animals remain alive after a tunnel collapse.

Five sleeping prairie dogs were discovered in a near-hibernation state Saturday, two days after zoo officials announced that the entire colony of about 10 apparently died.

“It was really nice to be wrong and find them alive,” the zoo’s director, Lewis Greene, told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “We’re reasonably sure the others are still in there and they’re doing just fine.”

No more animals were uncovered when the digging resumed Monday. Excavation will continue through the week, Mr. Greene said.

The rescued animals are indoors in cages with cardboard and straw to simulate their burrows, Mr. Greene said.

A Maryland prairie dog researcher said the move might harm the animals.

“Now they’re totally disrupted,” said John Hoogland of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Environmental Laboratory in Frostburg. “They brought them in a laboratory with harsh lights and heat.”

Mr. Hoogland, contacted by the newspaper, said the zoo should have left the habitat alone despite the cave-in because it is unlikely a tunnel collapse could have killed the animals.

He said the prairie dogs probably were deep inside a burrow in a state of low activity that is not quite hibernation.

Even after crews began shoveling and found a thriving nest of prairie dogs, Mr. Hoogland said, the diggers should have stopped. “Let them do what they do naturally,” he said.

Mr. Hoogland is not familiar with the Virginia Zoo’s exhibit but has advised other zoos on establishing prairie dog colonies.

Mr. Greene, who had consulted with directors from other zoos, said he felt he had to dig because the fate of the animals was not clear and animal lovers were upset. Mr. Greene said he was swamped with irate phone calls and e-mails from citizens outraged over the zoo’s initial inaction.

“We’re going to get criticized no matter what we do,” he said.

Since the digging began, Mr. Greene said, he has learned that the collapse was superficial and did not destroy the burrow system. Once the exhibit was altered, he said, he feared it was unsafe for the prairie dogs.

He said he also learned that the soil, which was recommended by a zoo architect, holds too much water, making the tunnels vulnerable to collapse. He said the soil will be replaced with a better mixture and the exhibit will reopen in the spring.

What if another tunnel collapse occurs in the prairie dogs’ home?

“We’ll be smart enough to leave them alone,” Mr. Greene said.

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