91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

MC Journal: the Journal of Academic Media Librarianship, 1999
by Pamela M. Rose, Health Sciences Library, SUNY at Buffalo

     “It’s nice and relaxing, and you can appreciate God’s handiwork out here.”
     —The Indiana Shooters

An incredible gulf exists between those who believe prairie dogs are useful only for target practice and those who are struggling to save them. It all depends on your definition. Indiana Shooters Dictionary entry: “Prairie dogs. n. 1. Small mammal good for nothing. 2. Pest. 3. Target.” Endangered Species Biologist Dictionary entry: “Prairie dogs. n. 1. Small mammal indigenous to the west. 2. Keystone species of the grasslands ecosystem, encouraging plant growth thus attracting Bison and large mammals. 3. Prey for fox and black-footed ferret.”

Varmints is not for the squeamish. The film opens with sobering footage of two men shooting prairie dogs with a high-powered rifle and scope. Later in the film graphic, close-up images of prairie dogs literally exploding from bullets and footage of the callous attitude of the recreational shooters (“we love to see ‘em blow up”) will drive home the point of this powerful expose.

The producer draws from expertise and opinion of the USDA Forest Service, The Varmint Hunters Association of South Dakota, Wyoming Department of Agriculture, Weed and Pest Control agencies, Bureau of Land Management, an endangered species biologist, the Inter-tribal Bison Cooperative, Biodiversity Legal Foundation, Game and Fish Departments, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a grasslands ecologist, gun manufacturers, ranchers and farmers. The opposing viewpoints are skillfully interwoven with footage that often contradicts the dialogue. For example, as a USDA agent states that other animals are not attracted to the poisoned grain scattered about prairie dog burrows, we watch birds pecking at the food; and as a Weed and Pest Control official talks about how “varmint hunting” doesn’t affect other species, we see a low-flying bird plummet to the ground from a bullet intended for a prairie dog. Claims that these are “humane” kills are directly refuted by images of a prairie dog struggling as it dies from a fatal wound.

Varmint hunters, who shoot for pleasure to eliminate what is viewed as a pest, are big business in South Dakota, which sees $1.2 million in annual revenues from the sport. Cattle are also big business in a consumer-driven economy that operates according to supply and demand. Despite evidence to the contrary, ranchers believe that prairie dogs deprive cattle of their forage and dig holes that cause horses to stumble and break their legs. As long as ranchers believe cattle forage is threatened by prairie dogs, they will try to exterminate them. Estimates predict that the black-tailed prairie dog (Cynomys ludovicianus) will be biologically threatened in the next 3 to 4 years through extermination and concomitant changes in population dynamics, loss of grassland habitat through cattle grazing and subdivision housing, and disease. A domino effect will extend to other ecosystem species including the black-footed ferret, swift fox, burrowing owls, and hawks.

Andrea Lococo, of the Fund for Animals in Jackson, Wyoming, gets to the heart of the issue, identifying the problem as a deeply rooted, institutionalized prejudice that animals are valuable only if they benefit us in some way.

All in all, this is an incredibly disturbing film, but well worth watching. It presents all viewpoints graphically without any soft sell, but manages to editorialize the message through the masterful order in which images, facts, and testimony are shown. Even the credits, which give equal billing to the animals seen in the film, drive home the message that animals have the right to co-exist in their own niche along with humans.

Highly recommended for all college and university library collections. Recommended for high school collections with appropriate preparation, supervision and discussion.