You’ll learn more about human nature than you will about prairie dogs at the premiere of “Varmints” Wednesday night at the Boulder Theater. Although the film is superficially about these illustrious rodents, it is more about how we humans perceive them.
Filmmaker Doug Hawes-Davis talks to a dozen or more ranchers, shooters, ecologists, and biologists about prairie dogs. Each of them has a unique perspective, and most of them have an agenda.
Did You Notice?
On the one hand, there are people like Mark Mason of the Varmint Militia, who shoots prairie dogs for the sheer fun of it. Militia members use tripods on tables to steady their aim, which allows them to “explode them dogs” from as far away as 600 yards. Sometimes Mason will call his shot, specifying whether the ‘dog will flip or fly.
On the other hand, there are people like Mary Jennings of the Fish & Wildlife Service in Cheyenne. Jennings appears on camera with a tame prairie dog. She attributes human emotions and neuroses to prairie dog survivors. She is exactly the type of person Mason is trying to get a rise from with his in-your-face, anti-prairie dog stance.
In fact, few of the people interviewed come across as very level-headed. Most seem so emotionally involved in the subject that they haven’t evaluated their own arguments. Arguments in favor of prairie dogs range from the hard-line (prairie dogs are a keystone ecological species) to the rancher-appeasing (they don’t do any significant harm to cattle).
Arguments against prairie dogs range from the hard-line (they’re a nuisance that ought to be eradicated) to the conscience-appeasing (sooner or later they’re going to die anyway).
The documentary is at times frustrating because there is no single authoritative voice. With so many emotional arguments being traded, I wanted someone to step in and say who was right and who was wrong, which assertions are fair and which are exaggerated
The interviewees who come across as the least emotional and the most informed almost all said “I don’t know.” There is not yet enough information to say whether prairie dogs are a keystone species. Nor is there enough to confirm that ranchers suffer financially because of prairie dogs. The great prairie dog debate is still too new. There are no clear-cut answers.
This speaks well to the apparent balance of the documentary. Both sides have about equal time on-screen. There is no narrator, which helps maintain a balance because each side is allowed to speak for itself.
Hawes-Davis did subtly slant “Varmints” in favor of prairie dogs. A spokesperson for the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association talks about a rancher’s love for animals when Hawes-Davis cuts away to a shot of a calf being branded. After someone comments on cattle breaking their legs in prairie dog holes, he cuts to someone saying they’ve never heard of that actually happening.
Nevertheless, “Varmints” is an engaging, thought provoking 90 minutes. Wherever you come down on the prairie dog issue, you will find your ideas supported and challenged in this movie.
This documentary is not rated. However, there are many scenes of prairie dogs being shot.