91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“True/False West: Extended Coverage
More movies from the first True/False West Film Festival”, May 2, 2006
by Alex

One of the great aspects of independent documentary filmmaking is its ability to cast awareness on and build a rich portrait of the things that fall through the cracks of our attention and never quite get the scrutiny they deserve. Such is the plight of the American prairie dog whose once ubiquitous presence across America’s heartland has since been demolished to 1 to 2 percent of their original population. Varmints looks at the importance of the prairie dog to the prairie ecosystem and the concerted effort of the government to eradicate the prairie dog population and then the culture that has been built around the sport of prairie dog hunting.

The prairie dog has been painted by the government and cattle ranchers as not just a pest, but a bandit, a thief who stalks the American plains–destroying cattle’s grazing grounds and even killing horses who fall into their dense networks of underground burrows. A policy of prairie dog eradication has since been employed to poison the prairie dog out of existence. The most unbelievable aspect of this story is that the prairie dog is neither a pest nor a bandit, but an essential part of the prairie ecosystem. An interview with an ecologist reveals that bison and cattle - cattle being man made introduction to the prairie actually prefer the grass where prairie dog thrive and the notion that prairie dog burrows have mangled horses and cattle that run into them is a complete falsehood.

The latter part of the film focuses more on the community of people who hunt the prairie dog who are still under the spell of American government propaganda refer to themselves as the “Varmint Militia.” Their violent and bizarre outlook puzzles the viewer to wonder how these people can enjoy the all-out slaughter of a species whose adorableness elicited numerous “awws” and “oohs” from the audience whenever they popped their heads out of their burrows. Indeed, a culture has been built around the murder of the prairie dog with t-shirts, hats and rifles decorated with dead and exploding prairie dogs (many of the hunters/militia men use ballistic point bullets which explode when they hit the animal, likewise causing the prairie dog to blow up when they’re hit). VARMINTS is a powerful testament to destruction of the American prairie dog and a disturbing look at how an out of control myth can inspire such vitriol against America’s most misunderstood critter.