The Henry Doorly Zoo, Where Prairie Dogs Run Wild

Hayley Harding
Hayley Harding / Hayley Harding

Anyone who wants to see some cute prairie dogs up close should head to the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebr., which was recently ranked the top zoo in the world by TravelAdvisor. It features a sizable aquarium, a huge desert dome, and a dozen other exhibits.

One of its quirkier features, though, isn’t a habitat or an enclosure—it’s the prairie dogs running loose in an area aptly named Prairie Dog Hill.

Hayley Harding

According to Dan Cassidy, the Zoo’s General Curator, the original prairie dog population used to have an enclosure as early as the 1960s, but when it was modified a few years later, the prairie dogs got out. “They had a dirt wall in their enclosure, but it eventually eroded and they dug out,” Cassidy says. “Once they got out, they weren’t hurting anything, so we just let them be.”

Hayley Harding

The zoo doesn't officially take care of the prairie dogs anymore, so no one knows for certain how many there are. Cassidy thinks the population is very healthy, and the fact that the new pups have recently started coming out is a great sign. In fact, the Henry Doorly Zoo will occasionally trap some and send them to help grow the populations at other zoos.

The prairie dogs have set up their kingdom near the picnic tables, and even though there are signs asking visitors not to feed or pet the little rodents, they regularly get bits of lunches from zoo patrons.

"The prairie dogs have learned to vary their diet," Cassidy says. "They know that they can eat hotdog buns or popcorn."

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Cassidy says that one of the reasons the prairie dogs thrive in Omaha is because the city falls within their natural range. The federal government doesn't recognize black-tailed prairie dogs as endangered, but Cassidy says that many people view them as pests and have pushed them out of their burrows to protect agriculture.

The ones that live at the zoo are safe, though. While Cassidy notes that occasionally he'll see a hawk or raccoon on that side of the park, the prairie dogs have very few natural predators. Even the major construction happening at the zoo doesn't appear to bother them.

Hayley Harding

If you're interested in seeing the animals up close, be careful; they'll occasionally nip if they think you have food. These prairie dogs are not afraid of humans at all and will even try to climb into the bottoms of strollers if they think there are snacks they might be able to snag. If you want to pet them, the only resistance you'll face is from the mother of the pups, who will angrily chatter at you until you find a different one to interact with.