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Tue, July 23

Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary: New ambassadors will roll around at free event

Tater Tot the baby javelina gives a kiss to Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary zookeeper Jenni Harkrader. Below, Cashew and Poppy the prairie dogs check out a visitor to their play area.
Joanna Dodder/The Daily Courier

Tater Tot the baby javelina gives a kiss to Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary zookeeper Jenni Harkrader. Below, Cashew and Poppy the prairie dogs check out a visitor to their play area.

PRESCOTT - The Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary in Prescott has two cute new ambassadors named Cashew and Poppy.

They'll be rolling around in large plastic balls today during the zoo's annual free Community Appreciation Day. The zoo won't be charging any entrance fees. The event runs from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and features games, a bounce house and interactive animal encounters.

Cashew and Poppy are prairie dogs, and they're among the latest wild rescue animals to call the sanctuary their home. "They're quite humorous to watch," Zoo Executive Director Pam McLaren said.

Tater Tot the baby javelina is another new rescue, although the Arizona Game and Fish Department hasn't decided whether he'll stay here or not.

Zoo staff picked their names: Poppy because the prairie dogs pop up out of the ground, and Cashew because "that's similar to a noise they make when they're excited," said Heather Brown, the zoo's events and marketing coordinator. They picked Tater Tot because it sounds so cute, and the javelina kind of looks like one.

The two female prairie dogs were being kept as pets in someone's home. That is illegal in Arizona so when the owners were caught, the prairie dogs ended up at the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Adobe Mountain Wildlife Center before coming to Prescott to stay.

"The first four letters in wildlife spell 'wild' for a reason," said Zen Mocarski, information and education officer for the Arizona Game and Fish Department's Region 3. "These animals are not pets."

Not only do they bite, but they also can carry the plague, Mocarski added.Someone found the baby javelina under a vehicle in Cottonwood, and it ended up at the zoo because it was too young to be released. Staff initially had to bottle-feed it around the clock.

Now that it's imprinted on humans, which basically was impossible to avoid because of the need to bottle feed it, it can't ever be released into the wild.

Anyone who finds a baby wild animal should call the zoo or Game and Fish before touching it unless it's in imminent danger, officials said. That's because it's more than likely that the parents are hiding nearby, Mocarski said."Generally speaking, humans scare away Mom and Dad," he explained. "Wildlife is rarely abandoned."

Tater Tot will grow up to be a somewhat smelly 40-pound to 60-pound male with large tusks, so it's obvious to most people that he wouldn't make a good pet.

If Game and Fish decides Tater Tot will stay at the Prescott zoo, he'll move in with two young males named Taz and Dude in a public enclosure next to one containing Sparky, an older female.

Cashew and Poppy are the sanctuary's first prairie dogs, so they will be great tools for teaching people about this native Arizona species, McLaren said.

"They're much more intelligent than we give them credit for," McLaren said, noting how they talk back to zoo keepers.

Northern Arizona University biology professor Con Slobodchikoff has written about the sophisticated ways in which prairie dogs communicate. They even kiss to greet each other.

The prairie dogs will visit schools, churches, scout meetings, assisted living centers and other places. They've already visited the Sundogs hockey games.

"There's a lot of misinformation out there about prairie dogs," McLaren said. "They actually enhance nature's ability to restore habitat. And they're critical for the ferrets."

Prairie dogs are a keystone species of the grasslands ecosystem, but their numbers have dropped by 98 percent.

"Loss of prairie dogs in the 1800s and 1900s through poisoning efforts, loss of habitat and fragmentation played big roles," Mocarski said.

The decline of prairie dogs in turn brought black-tailed ferrets to the very edge of extinction, because prairie dogs make up about 90 percent of their diet.

Game and Fish has reintroduced the ferrets to a site near Seligman where prairie dogs live, and they ask the public to help count them twice a year.

To learn more about these wild animals and others, go online to and


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