The most common complaint I hear from people driving across the country is, "Kansas is so looooooong. It's endless!" The weary whiner usually delivers this opinion with a slouched posture and drooping eyelids, as if the mere recollection of infinite amber waves of grain is enough to induce a coma. Well, as a service to the state of Kansas, I'm going to mention two things. First, Kansas isn't even in the top 10 states in terms of land area; it's number 13. Plus, there really are things to do in Kansas. You can visit Prairie Dog Town. If that's not enough for you, then you should probably drive through Nebraska instead.

The concept behind Prairie Dog Town is simple enough. Larry Farmer, the proprietor, once told the Wall Street Journal, "I believe the success of the business has been that most visitors have shared many good times with the animals at a reasonable price." Sounds like a solid credo to live by, but I prefer the ecstatic slogan on the brochure- "See Western Kansas Animals at Their Best!" The thought of prairie critters all spiffed up and well-behaved for my benefit had an irresistable allure. The other selling point, the 8,000 lb Prairie Dog, also piqued my interest. Of course, I was bound to be disappointed.

Prairie Dog Town began as a hobby for Larry Farmer and his family. Against everybody else's better judgement, they obtained a "pet" coyote, a "pet" badger (named "Baddge"), and a "pet" bobcat . People who would stop to buy gas from the Farmer family would ask to gawk at the miserable animal prisoners, and suddenly, the Farmers had their own impromptu zoo. But the Farmers refused to lollygag on their laurels; remaining on the cutting edge of roadside petting zoo technology takes work. Their inventory keeps expanding, with the addition of bison one year, quail the next, and finally, the newest addition- a 6 legged steer! I thought this sounded pretty unique, but from the Prairie Dog Town brochure I get the feeling that bovines come with a variety of leg numbers. On the inventory, they list a 5 Legged Live Cow.

The animal citizens of Prairie Dog Town live on a dusty lot on the outskirts of Oakley, KS. Most are in cages. Exceptions to the rule are a burgeoning population of goats, and the prairie dogs. Go ahead, pet the goats. It'll give them an opportunity to eat your wallet. Unless you want to contract a mean case of bubonic plague, however, you should avoid the prairie dogs. They're bite-a-riffic! The brochure says, "Most of our animals can be petted by your children and be fed by hand at no extra charge." Okay, that would be fine except that the illustrating photos include a toothy bobcat, a morose badger, and some scheming foxes. The Farmers must've learned their lesson, because no carnivores were available for petting when I visited. Instead, the petting went to the goats and Roscoe the miniature donkey.

At the rear of the compound, the 8000 lb prairie dog is available for photo opportunities. I think it will be a relief to everyone to know that this is just a sort of cement blob painted brown, and not some glandularly challenged rodent. The 5 and 6-legged bovines are the other animal freaks. They don't seem to lose any sleep over having extra legs flopping around, though.

I didn't have a problem with the pigs in their pen, the sleepy cattle with extra legs, or the population explosion of greedy, cat-eyed goats. I rather enjoyed feeding Roscoe, an affable chap who likes to have the top of his head scratched. It was the caged presence of those western Kansas animals that convinced me that the slogan was a lie. If the hissing badgers and skittish coyotes were at their best, they'd be hunting through the shortgrass. I mean, a box of angry rattlesnakes, heaped one upon the other in a vibrating tangle? Prairie dogs for sale as pets? I wondered how the proprietors could get away with this.

The admission was plenty steep for such a depressing, dusty experience. If you like goats, you're guaranteed to pet 5 bucks worth of goats, though. The gift store offers the largest selection of cow manure-based gifts east of the Rockies and boasts a fine collection of hillbilly joke books, if you're into that sort of thing. The ice cream stand in the parking lot is closed, unfortunately. There's nothing that goes with goats as well as ice cream.

Prairie Dog Town
4 Miles north of Oakley, Kansas
Junction of Hwy 83 and I-70
913 672 3100
adult admission: $4.95 (food for the critters not included)

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