91 minutes, 1998, Hi8

“Dog Gone”
Westword, October 22-28, 1998
by C.J. Janovy

Even folks who know all about the prairie dog controversy gnawing at the western plains will probably be enlightened by VARMINTS. Produced by High Plains Films, the ninety-minute documentary has its world premier at the Boulder Theater on October 28, and from all appearances, the issue is far more complex than environmentalists vs property owners, preservationists vs developers or rednecks vs vegetarians and animal rights activists. There’s also that whole American romance with guns.

The film explores all sides of the controversy, interviewing ranchers and farmers, eco-activists, park superintendents, biologists, land-management bureaucrats, American Indians, and others. But its sympathies are ultimately with the plains ecosystem, of which prairie dogs - or prairie rodents, depending on which side of the rhetorical line you’re on - are considered a “keystone species,” critical to the survival of surrounding plants and animals.

Those sympathies aren’t just revealed in the words of environmentalists; they’re courted through sometimes-interminable footage of recreational prairie-dog shooters. These are folks who come from all over the country to sit on folding chairs, steady their elbows on tables and, with high precision rifles, literally explode the animals from a few hundred yards away. The shooters can hardly be called sportsmen, and their glee at seeing bloody animal parts flying across the prairie is disturbing, to say the least. One tells his buddies he’s going to “flip” a prairie dog with the next shot and is disappointed when he merely kills it. “Hey Jim!” yells another. “Jim! Just to the left of that old building. There’s a family of em over there. A cute little son and a daughter, and the mother’s watching them play.” Blam! And at one point, Mark Mason, a member of Denver’s Varmint Militia, retrieves a particularly intact corpse. Stepping on the dead animal’s head and holding it by the tail, he yanks twice and hangs the newly headless carcass from a rough-hewn fence.

Equally telling is a scene in which a retired husband and wife sit in front of their RV discussing why they love to shoot prairie dogs. “You can tell by the way they did they have lice and stuff like that,” she says; meanwhile, her husband is slapping an insect off his shoulder and taking off his seed cap to scratch a bug. She scratches her neck; he gets up, turns around and picks at the back of his pants. Later, the woman says, “You can appreciate God’s handiwork out here.”

You sure can.

“We think the film speaks for itself,” says High Plains Films associate producer Jennifer Ferenstein. This is the seventh, and at feature-length, most ambitious film for the four-person independent film company out of Missoula, Montana. Other films have addressed topics such as lead mining in the Ozarks, chip mills in the Southeast and clearcutting in the Northwest. The company hopes to distribute the film to educational institutions, public and cable-TV stations and outlets abroad. “A lot of people in other countries are intrigued by the American West,,” Ferenstein says, “and this is an opportunity to make them aware of threats to one of our most unique and endangered ecosystems.”

And to make viewers everywhere ponder who, in the grand scheme of things, the true varmints are.