91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“VARMINTS: A Gripping Prairie Dog Documentary”
The Coloradoan, October 23, 1998
by Kevin Cook

Blackness fills the screen. An erratic metallic clicking and clanking, muted at first then more distinct, drifts from the speakers. The blackness and the sound continue.

Just as I begin to wonder if my television or my VCR might be malfunctioning, a closeup scene of a rifle breech being loaded appears on the screen. It disappears just as quickly.

The blackness resumes. The sound continues. Then the first title line appears on the screen: “The Ecology Center presents…”

Doug Hawes-Davis, producer and director of the video, called me last year after I gave a few presentations about prairie dogs. We talked prairie dogs for awhile, he told me about the video and a year later, a preview copy arrived in the mail. I watched it and I am stunned.

Titled Varmints, the video centers on the prairie dog. It opens, unfolds, progress and closes as a montage of people responding to questions, people espousing opinions, wildlife and historical film clips.

The video immediately breaks all manner of rules. Bare-bones credits up front. No narrator. No tag lines for the talking heads. Live-action footage of prairie dog bodies exploding when struck by high-velocity bullets.

In a low-budget format, Varmints is the Schindler’s List of wildlife documentaries. You simply cannot watch and remain unmoved. It demands intellectual attention. Early in the video, an elderly lady says about prairie dogs: “I don’t think anything good about them. They are just simply terrible. I think we should have help getting rid of them.”

The emotion, the passion and the opinions cascade from there.

A woman affiliated with a varmint shooting organization states, “Guns are like pieces of jewelry.”

A man associated with pest control for agricultural interests asserts, “You can’t believe the research.”

The varmint shooters excoriate themselves with such gems as:

“They’re going to die sooner or later anyway.”

“We’re as big an animal lover as anybody else.”

“Shooting prairie dogs is just nice and relaxing. You can appreciate God’s handiwork out here.”

“This is a good prairie dog. If he’s dead, he’s good.”

Old government newsreels claim prairie dogs were eradicated from millions of acres of land. Wildlife researchers repeatedly map prairie dog colonies and can show staggering declines. Yet the scoffers discount any loss of prairie dogs.

The montage format works well for the video. The unnarrated format quickly becomes an asset. Not identifying speakers strips them to common ground where only their ideas count.

If you are looking for a basis to direct your philosophical position in the Great American Prairie Dog Debate, Varmints will certainly give you reason to pursue your beliefs.