91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“Another dog done gone”
High Country News, January 18, 1999, Vol. 31, No. 1
by Woody Beardsley

BOULDER, Colo. - Maybe it was the buzz about the arsonist fires on the Vail ski hill; for whatever reason, the scene at the Boulder Theater in Boulder, Colo. seemed dramatic.

More than 250 people gathered for the premiere of Varmints, the latest of Doug Hawes-Davis’ films sponsored by the Missoula, Mont., based Ecology Center. The fifth in a series of environmental documentaries, Varmints is about the black-tailed prairie dog, considered by some the perfect animal for target practice. Others say its decline on the short-grass prairie is a blow to a valuable ecosystem (HCN, 9/1/97).

Like some character out of the television cartoon “King of the Hill”, Mark Mason, a member of the Varmint Militia—a prairie dog shooting club—and a prominent character in the film, was in attendance with his wife and two kids. To add to the mix, about a half-dozen members of a group called Rocky Mountain Animal Defense picketed the screening.

Varmints is Hawes-Davis’ first feature-length project, and every bit of the 90-minute film was a relief from the pabulum one sees on National Geographic programs and the Discovery Channel. Hawes-Davis has a unique ability to capture the ironies surrounding controversial issues—as well as the anger, the ignorance, the passion and the duplicity.

His technique is to go out and talk to people involved in the issue and get them to tell their version of the story to the camera. In the process he uncovers some truths a viewer might prefer to be fiction.

Punctuated by footage of prairie dogs exploding from Varmint Militia high-velocity bullets, a rockin’ soundtrack by Ned Mudd, the Incontinentals, and Aaron Parrett, plus black-and-white newsreel footage of early government-sponsored poisoning campaigns, the documentary is not your typical talking-head video. There is information about the biology and ecology of prairie dogs and the prairie habitat of which they are a crucial part. More might have been shown of the impact suburban sprawl has had on the prairie dog. But overall, Varmints is a top-rate production.

Animal-rights protesters, worried the film promoted prairie dog shooting, handed out a pamphlet they called the “official viewer’s guide” to the film. Hawes-Davis had never authorized an “official” guide, and the pamphlet simply repeated much of the information about prairie dogs that was covered in the film. When the activists were asked why they were protesting a pro-prairie dog premiere, they could only shyly admit they had not yet seen it.

A question-and-answer period following the show started in orderly fashion, then quickly erupted into cat-calls and angry epithets thrown at Mark Mason. Give a chance to respond, Mason replied, “Well, it will at least make people think.” And then he calmly gathered his family and walked out of the theater.

Out on the street, sidestepping the angry young women who were all but spitting anger at Mason, I tried to keep up with him on the way to his car. Would the film change his view of prairie dogs or his behavior toward them? He laughed. “Sure, ” he said. “I’ll probably load a heavier-grained bullet.”