When you consider that a prairie dog is only about the size of a rabbit, the controversy these rodents provoke is truly out of proportion. Ranchers try to eradicate them because, among other reasons, they can compete with livestock for food. By contrast, Maureen Lawry, an educator with the Boulder County Audubon Society, embraces prairie dogs to teach grade-school students about the prairie grass ecosystem, in an award-winning puppet show she created starring Petey the Prairie Dog.
“He’s the keystone species,” she says. “He’s directly responsible for nine other animals,” including the endangered black-footed ferret, the ferruginous hawk, and the mountain plover. On top of that, Petey and his kin aerate the soil, trim the grass, and create shelter for reptiles, bugs, and small mammals during the summer heat—all crucial to keeping the grasslands alive and well.
Lawry tells the prairie dog’s tale with puppets that include a burrowing owl and a coyote. The first year, she performed for 100 people; half a decade later, almost 1,600 have learned from Petey and his pals. Puppets seem to reach Lawry’s young audience in a way a written story can’t. “There’s this emotional connection,” she says. “You can see that these animals have a need. Puppets are like little ambassadors to the children’s world.”
This story originally ran in the July-August 2013 issue as "Puppet Master.”