Register Saturday | June 23 | 2018

The Prairie Dog Whisperer

"That's funny. I was stopping by to see if I could borrow a vacuum truck. Why would you ask me if I wanted to buy one?"

Eleven years ago, Gay Balfour dreamt that he was standing in a field and holding a green, python-thick hose. One end of the hose was attached to a bright yellow truck; the other end was in the ground, sucking prairie dogs out of their holes at around 15 kilometers per hour. It seemed so real that Gay could feel the prairie dogs pass through his hands as they shot into the truck. Even as weird dreams went, it was out there. But when he told his wife Judy about it the next morning, it wasn't in a bemused, "aren't dreams foolish?" way. Help after all was what Gay, a lifelong Mormon, had been praying for. He wondered if the dream was an answer. At the time, Gay was 50 and had just spent close to a million dollars, against the advice of his banker, building a marina at a nearby reservoir, and now it was sitting there, unused and empty, a kick in the groin to his retirement plans. Not that he couldn't work off the debt, if he lived long enough. He was a skilled welder and owned his own machine shop. Judy, nevertheless, had suggested he "find a new way to make money." So Gay had prayed. And at first nothing happened. Judy then advised him to stop telling God what he needed and just ask for help. While the results could have been worse-at least her husband wasn't sculpting Devils Tower out of his mashed potatoes-she wondered if a rodent vacuum would fare any better than a marina. But whatever doubts Gay had were silenced by a sequence of events that he describes as "hard to comprehend and beyond chance." Later that same morning, Gay drove to a welding job at a ranch near Towaoc, Colorado, a small town on the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation, not far from where the four corners of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. As he worked he noticed the ranch's test corn, which looked as though it had just been planted, was chewed to scraps. The foreman explained that prairie dogs were the culprits and said he'd hired 50 Ute Indians from the reservation to take care of them. Although they had only caught a handful so far, the ranch manager was going to replant the corn in three days. Unlike the day he began construction on the marina, Gay tested the waters carefully. "I didn't tell him I'd had a dream. I told him I was working on an idea that, ah, uses air to suck prairie dogs out of the ground." Instead of showing him the gate, the foreman called the ranch manager. "Next thing you know, the ranch manager wanted to know if I could do a test. I said I'd need some time to develop the idea." Gay headed back to his home in nearby Cortez, Colorado, imagining that he'd return to the ranch in a year. But 12 miles out of town, he remembered the Cortez sanitation department had a truck that used jet runners to draw refuse from manholes. He decided to stop by and visit J. W. McCutcheon, the sanitation superintendent and an old friend from an earlier job fixing pumps and shafts at the volunteer fire department. Perhaps because of the day's significance, he still remembers how McCutcheon greeted him: with a double handshake, the free hand clasping his elbow-politician style. "Hi, Gay. I want you to buy a vacuum truck." "That's funny. I was stopping by to see if I could borrow a vacuum truck. . . . Why would you ask me if I wanted to buy one?" McCutcheon shrugged. "You're always making something out of something." The coincidences came thick and fast. The truck, which Gay borrowed instead of buying, was yellow, and the hose he bought at the industrial supply house: bright green. "That literally made my hair stand on end." He returned to the ranch in Towaoc three days later, with additional equipment made by employees of his machine shop according to his specifications. In 45 minutes he captured 23 prairie dogs. The ranch manager immediately offered him a contract to clean the entire 55-acre field. On the strength of the contract, Gay secured further financing (from the same banker who told him to stay out of the marina business), borrowed money from three friends, made more adjustments to the truck, returned to the ranch, and caught 750 prairie dogs. Gay figured vacuuming dogs would be a lucrative sideline, but his next job, at a soccer field in Durango, attracted local television and radio stations. "It took off like wildfire from there," he says. Calls from the Denver Water Department, farmers and landowners in Kansas, Nebraska, and even Alberta followed. He called his new business Dog-Gone. Exactly how the vacuum truck works, Gay politely refuses to say, ostensibly to protect what has turned out to be big business-and, since his entire crew is composed of immediate family, to protect his personal interests. He and the Dog-Gone team (two daughters, one son-in-law, 10 of 13 grandkids, and the periodically available cousin) charge $6,300 per day, including capture, operations, and transport. Considering that they routinely snare 150 prairie dogs in a day-and the occasional rattler or bull snake-this seems a fair price. Traditional trapping methods can take up to three years to catch that many. While some may see his success as an oddity in the tradition of snake men or bearded ladies, Gay interprets it as a testament to faith-and stresses that his invention isn't cruel to the animals. Whereas the foreman in Towaoc hired Ute Indians to "trap, poison, shoot, and chase" them, Gay's truck is lined with low-density foam, and the trailers in which the caged prairie dogs await transport are air-conditioned. Animal rights groups, whom he knows have "a real high level of sensitivity," have either been silent or have offered grudging approval-partly because of the surprising gentleness of the ride, and because the captured prairie dogs are sent to endangered black-footed ferret refuges (where, of course, they are eaten). From his current cleanup job on an Air Force Base in Colorado, Gay professes that his deepest hope is "eventually to get the prairie dogs released back into the wild with the ferrets and to return things back to how nature intended them." A rich sentiment, perhaps, from someone in Gay's line of work, but his affection for prairie dogs appears genuine. "When I was younger, I would shoot them for sport, but I'd be hard put to do that now." When he goes into the air-conditioned trailers, he's found that he can get them to settle down and make a chortling sound by talking to them softly. "They're great animals. Super intelligent."