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Batman suits and cowboy outfits: a prairie dog’s life in Thailand

Cartoon is a black-tailed prairie dog who does indeed look cartoonish. Dressed in a miniature handmade costume of a rodeo rider, the rodent resembles a raffish character from a Disney animal adventure. He sports a faux-leather vest with embroidered chaps, and perched jauntily on his head is a little brown Stetson with a chin strap, hat band and tiny silver sheriff’s star.

Until a minute ago the prairie dog also had a pair of goggles on, but he’s lost them in the grass while foraging, nuzzling up to other prairie dogs and taking a keen interest in random objects.

Occasionally Cartoon rises up on his hind legs to take a good look around. When he does that, you half expect him to whistle for his bronco and set out on some caper.

Instead, owner Raweepach Promboot, a Bangkok shop assistant, scoops Cartoon up in her arms and pets him lovingly. “He’s cute and smart,” she says . “He doesn’t bite or misbehave or complain when I pick him up.”

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Raweepach, who is in her mid-20s, has four other prairie dogs. She has brought two of them, Cartoon and Tonkhao (“Rice Plant”), to a picturesque botanical garden on the outskirts of Bangkok, where local Thai prairie dog enthusiasts gather each weekend with their pets for a spot of socialising.

Most of the animals brought here on a recent Sunday, some three dozen in all, are attired in colourful costumes that would put to shame even the most pampered Hong Kong poodle or chihuahua.

One prairie dog is dressed as Batman and cavorts around at the end of a long leash tethered to a stick in the ground. Another one is dressed as a fairy-tale princess and tries to scale the sides of a spacious enclosure like some damsel in distress making a break for it. Yet another prairie dog is clothed as an intrepid traveller – with a white “I Heart Phuket” T-shirt, straw hat and little blue backpack – and lolls on the ground, face down, as if footsore from too much sightseeing.

Prairie dogs are burrowing squirrel-like rodents native to North America, where they live in large colonies on grasslands and owe their name to the barking sounds they make to warn one another of predators. Throughout their habitat in Mexico, the US and Canada, the animals are often regarded as pests, hunted for sport or poisoned by ranchers.

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In Thailand, though, they are seen as “cute” and are endlessly pampered as prized pets. As the animals don’t breed well in captivity, they need to be imported and can cost anywhere from 4,500 baht (HK$1,000) to 120,000 baht, depending on their size, age and colour. They can live for about 12 years in captivity. Thai pet shops specialising in the rodents also sell sacks of dry grass shipped in from North America so the animals can enjoy a taste of home.

“Prairie dogs are good companion animals,” says Krisnaporn Chanyim, 30, a lieutenant in the Royal Thai Navy who owns two prairie dogs. Sometimes, if his captain allows, Krisnaporn takes them aboard his ship to keep him company. “Prairie dogs are a combination of cats, dogs and squirrels,” he explains. “They’re loyal like dogs, playful like cats, and cute like squirrels. You can house-train them like cats and they listen to their names like dogs.”

“Prairie dogs are popular exotic pets in Thailand,” says Wittaya Thornmat, who owns 15 of the animals and runs the Thai Prairie Dog Owners’ Association, a hobbyists’ club that has several thousand members. “They’re easy to look after and you can dress them in funny clothes.”

The more realistic the clothes are, the better. Preferably, they should also be flamboyant and fashionable.

“People ask me to put lots of frills, colours and details on the dresses so their prairie dogs will look more adorable,” explains Suthasinee Kunpai, an accountant who designs costumes and accessories for prairie dogs, and runs an online business selling them for about 100 to 150 baht.

Suthisanee has produced entire lines of made-to-order superhero costumes (Superman, Batman, Spider-Man), various uniforms (private school students, nurses, soldiers), and trendy get-ups such as gangsta rap outfits complete with bling, and chic designer outfits).

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You can also mix and match a seemingly endless variety of ruffled flambé skirts, embossed shirts, sports tops, mini hats (top hats, fedoras, sun hats), frilly bonnets, horn-rimmed glasses, bow ties, backpacks, purses, pouches and satchels. “Their owners love taking photos with their animals and showing them off in their new clothes,” Suthisanee says.

For extra effect, prairie dog owners sometimes dress in identical clothing to their pets’. Some have even had identical college graduation gowns made for their prairie dogs for photos with them at their graduation ceremonies. Others have gone for custom-made replicas of their work uniforms.

“Because I’m in the navy, I like to dress my prairie dogs in matching military uniforms,” Krisnaporn says.

Such outfits can make for winning combinations at cosplay competitions for prairie dogs that aficionados of the animals hold at shopping malls and exotic animal expos. “Unique costumes and colourfully overdressed prairie dogs,” observes Wittaya, who acts as a judge at such events when he is not competing himself, “are always big winners.”

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Prairie dogs are also dressed up for major holidays: in traditional red Chinese costumes during Lunar New Year; in flower-patterned Hawaiian shirts for the Thai water festival of Songkran; in blue shirts emblazoned with “I love Mommy” on Mother’s Day; and in Santa Claus, reindeer or elf outfits at Christmas.

The animals resemble stuffed toys that have come to life. They seem to tolerate being dressed up fairly well, although now and again some of them try to wriggle out of their skirts or swipe hats off their heads.

Many of the animals, though, had better get used to their dresses to stay cute and colourful for their owners. Some prairie dog owners seemingly view their animals as animated toys of sorts and may become bored of them after a while.

“It’s a trend to have prairie dogs,” Wittaya concedes. “Before prairie dogs, it was sugar gliders that were very popular,” he adds, referring to the small flying squirrel-like marsupials from Australia, which are widely on sale in Bangkok as exotic pets. “Before sugar gliders, it was rabbits and squirrels.”

The days of prairie dogs as pampered pets, too, may be numbered. “Many people just follow trends,” Wittaya says. “When they get tired of them, they may dump the prairie dogs, give them away, or bring them to us to look after them.”