A real El Paso mystery has been solved. We now know where the missing colony of prairie dogs ended up. We got this from the El Paso Zoo director Joe Montisano.

El Paso Zoo/El Paso Zoo Society
El Paso Zoo/El Paso Zoo Society

In April of 2023, this story made headlines in El Paso. “A true mystery”, according to news outlets. “14 prairie dogs disappeared from their habitat…without a trace”.

The burrowing critters were last seen in September of 2021. Prairie dogs are “semi-hibernators”. They don’t go into true hibernation like some species do, but they will go into a state called “torpor”…periods of dormancy in the coldest times of the year.

Well, winter came and went. Come springtime of 2022? Still no prairie dogs. Joe Montisano said their food was never touched. That’s when he knew there was a problem. A group of staff and volunteers dug through the exhibit.

“We found no remnants, no bones, no fur, no blood”, Montisano said at the time. The final “best guess” was that a predator was responsible. “The theory that we and the USDA believe is that an outside predator got into the habitat and carried the prairie dogs away,” Joe said, at the time, they believed it was most likely a hawk or feral cat.

Enter your number to get our free mobile app

The zoo procured replacement prairie dogs. The same thing happened again! In the late fall of 2022, the dogs went into torpor. Then, in Spring 2023…again, no prairie dogs.

Buzz mentioned he had a prairie dog poking out earlier. This is not what he meant.
Buzz mentioned he had a prairie dog poking out earlier. This is not what he meant.

Director Montisano told us the mystery has been solved. It wasn’t a predator at all.

Further digging in the habitat DID find the prairie dogs. Well…their skeletons, anyway. The zoo and the USDA (the nearest thing U.S. zoos have to a governing body) now believe the animals contracted some kind of disease. Joe’s not sure WHAT disease it might have been, but fatal. He believes the first colony got the disease in 2021, wiping them all out. Then, in 2022, the REPLACEMENT prairie dogs came across the carcasses of the previous colony…and contracted the disease from the bodies.

Joe says two of the second batch of prairie dogs were found: sick and emaciated but alive.

Joe also told us that after two catastrophic colony collapses, the zoo is replacing the prairie dog exhibit with…something else.

I offered that if anyone in El Paso wanted to see prairie dogs, they should go to Santa Teresa, New Mexico where the golf courses used to be. That place is lousy with prairie dogs.

KEEP READING: Get answers to 51 of the most frequently asked weather questions...


More From KLAQ El Paso