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Don't try to boss around a prairie dog

"Aime, What You Want To Do?"

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Word to the wise: don't tell Ray Durkee what he can or can't do. You might end up harboring an exotic rodent.

The provenance of perky little Aime, pure prairie dog, named after the 1973 Pure Prairie League hit, is rooted in defiance. Here's how it went down. Durkee, a West Ashley hair stylist and animal lover, had been browsing the Craigslist pet section when he happened upon an ad for prairie dogs.

"I'd had exotic pets before, and I remembered seeing prairie dogs in the pet shop near where I grew up in Ohio, back before they spread some sort of plague and got blacklisted. So I researched a bit online and read that prairie dogs actually make great pets," says Durkee, whose former critters include an Argentine black and white Tegu, a parrot, and a Cuban iguana he potty trained. When he found the ad, he told his boyfriend at the time he was going to get one. "He said I wasn't allowed to."

Mistake.

Next thing they knew, Durkee and boyfriend are driving out past Walterboro to wherever Ruffin, South Carolina is, where a woman had a prairie dog passel for sale. Aime was a pup, just a couple months old. "The size of a gerbil," her proud papa says. And even the reluctant boyfriend was smitten by the time they got her home.

Today Aime is a full-grown cutie weighing four pounds, but at four years old, she's an old gal in prairie dog terms (typical lifespan is five years). Adorable and headstrong, she evidently rules the Durkee roost, though now in geriatric splendor spends most of her time snoozing in her two-story cage. As burrowers, prairie dogs like confined spaces. She gets a little skittish when out in public.

In the wild, prairie dogs live in packs or family groups, much like dogs. "So if you get them young, they bond and feel like part of the family, which is why I was interested in having one," says Durkee. And Aime indeed bonded with Durkee and his other pets, including Louie, his 11 year-old Corgi, and his eponymous cat ("he peed a lot inside when we first got him, so I wasn't sure I was going to keep him and never properly named him anything but 'Cat'.")

"She particularly loves Louie. She'll stand up in front of his face and try to lick him," he says. Cat she chases.

"They must groom each other in the wild because Aime's always trying to chew the dog's and cat's toe nails," Durkee says. "They'll run away from her, then they're just doing loops around the house. Aime's not afraid of anything. She runs right at them and they don't know what to do."

JONATHAN BONCEK
  • Jonathan Boncek

She's also done her share of chewing baseboards, and once got out of her cage while Durkee was out and did a major number on about a six-month supply of toilet paper, thanks to a recent trip to Costco. "I came home and it looked like it had snowed. She is a wild animal, after all. She can be a bit destructive," he says.

But on the whole, Aime is a sweetie. Her bark is more like a little chirp. She sings along when Durkee is practicing piano — whenever he coughs or clears his throat, she barks back. Her chirp is also her signal when her headstrong nature is reaching the brink. "She'll give that fair warning and I'll throw a towel over her and pick her up and put her safely in her cage," he says.

"She's pretty great, I'd say," claims Durkee, who has recently added a Chihuahua puppy named Larry to his menagerie. But, he cautions, prairie dogs may not be ideal pets for someone who's OCD. "She can be a bit messy. And they do go to the bathroom a good bit. A clean freak wouldn't like it."

Aime doesn't bite (other than one time early on, "when we were figuring each other out"), and is fairly low maintenance, never requiring vet visits. Durkee's even had success doing some treat training with her. "But you can't really teach them to sit or stay or do what they don't want to do," he adds.

Hmm, as they say, like owner like exotic pet.

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