91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“A Truncated Review of VARMINTS”
December 13, 1999
by Ken Muir, PhD, Assistant Professor of Sociology, Appalachian State University

It is the very nature of documentaries to cast objectivity aside and show the audience what the filmmaker wants it to see. Therefore, it is, arguably, the ultimate goal of a documentary filmmaker is to persuade an audience, and to perhaps show it one or two sides of an issue.

In the documentary Varmints the viewer is presented with those who favor the elimination of the black-tailed prairie dog (the shooters), and those who see the prairie dog as a keystone species in the prairie ecosystem (the environmentalists). Doug Hawes-Davis, however, presents a third perspective, that of the black-tailed prairie dog (the varmint).

Often darkly humorous, at times enraging, Hawes-Davis leaves the viewer with little doubt as to his stand on the issue of prairie dog as “pest” or an integral part of the ecosystem of western prairies. The most powerful condemnation of the wholesale slaughter of thousands of prairie dogs each year by “sport shooters” is by the shooters themselves. Hawes-Davis presents the viewer with footage of prairie dogs being torn apart by high powered rifles expertly interspliced with the shooters’ explaining their “sport” and environmental experts detailing the contradictions in the shooters’ logic.

Viewers should be aware that to show the lunacy of the “sport” of shooting prairie dogs Hawes-Davis has to rely on footage of shooter after shooter blasting away at the dogs from hundreds of yards away. It is not a pretty sight, but the images of a prairie dog lazing away a sunny afternoon seconds before being cut in half by a high powered rifle is graphically designed to show the real pests in this documentary are not the prairie dogs, but rather the humans.

Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, those people living in the western prairie region of the United States continue to believe the black tailed prairie dog is responsible for the deaths of cattle and horses. Residents believe prairie dogs cannot co-exist with livestock, are responsible for countless broken legs of horses and cattle, and ultimately, the depletion of forage for ranchers’ cattle. Using documented evidence and historical footage, Hawes-Davis deftly dissects those arguments until the only thing left standing is the blood lust of the shooters.

Ironically, it is the ever-expanding needs of humans with our homes, highways, and shopping plazas that is pushing the depletion of forage areas, not the prairie dog. As an indicator species, the prairie dog is crucial to the survival of the black-footed ferret, the hawks, badgers, and fox. As we push our way further and further into the land and burrows of prairie wildlife something has to give. Unfortunately, it appears that something will be the prairie dog, like the bison before it and other species to come.

Doug Hawes-Davis’ documentary VARMINTS is a wake-up call for environmentalists and shooters alike. Humorously told without losing sight of its ultimate goal, VARMINTS points out the folly of when humans presume to believe we can control nature without fully exploring the historical consequences of our behavior.