When Jane Goodall first saw prairie chickens, she was absolutely enthralled.
The world-renowned anthropologist was out on the sweeping Sandhills plains of the Switzer Ranch in Burwell in 2012 with Norfolkan Alan Bartels and other friends. Bartels had met Goodall, one of his childhood heroes for her work with chimpanzees, in 2005 at the Rowe Sanctuary in Gibbon. They’d developed a friendship as she came back every year to watch the crane migration.
She watched the group of 16 or 17 chickens, graced by morning light, as the males jousted and puffed up their distinctive orange throat sacs.
“They puff up these orange air sacs … and they make these strange calls, it sometimes sounds like meowing or laughing or cooing, and they fight — but it’s mostly ritual, it’s not a lot of combat,” Bartels said. “She just loved watching that. People from around the world go to Switzer Ranch to watch that.”
Later on, as the group was eating breakfast, Bartels’ friend, Susan Elmore, suggested that he write a children’s book about the plight of prairie dog towns. She even pitched a name: “What’s Going Down in Prairie Dog Town?”
While the name hasn’t changed, the book — illustrated by Hannah Segura and published in 2018 by Mascot Books — has developed since its inception, and its proceeds support one of Goodall’s causes — the Roots & Shoots Program. It has also garnered some national recognition, including becoming a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
It took Bartels two nights to write the story, which centers on a boy named Tyler and what happens when he finds a prairie dog on a sidewalk by his house. Tyler soon learns about the prairie dog’s life in the prairie dog town and how important it is to the local ecosystem.
But it would take six years — too long, Bartels said — to publish the book. The illustration process took two years, and he also made minor adjustments based on Goodall’s suggestions about the animals featured in the story.
Given that all the proceeds from book sales are donated, he also launched a Gofundme page to help get it published. About 100 donors from around the world contributed $12,500 to print over 2,000 copies, he said.
One thing that kept Bartels motivated through the process was the prairie dog towns near Switzer Ranch. A few years ago, he noticed a town at a neighbor’s property disappeared.
“A few months (after writing the book) Susan and I went back out to the ranch to discuss how the book should be; we decided to take a break and drove down the road to a prairie dog town to watch prairie dogs and chickens and badgers, burrowing owls,” he said, “And when we got over there, something was wrong: the grass was really long, there were no prairie dogs. They’d been poisoned.
“So that just strengthened my resolve that this book needs to be done; it’s important for kids to learn. To coexist with our wildlife.”
One of Bartels' main reasons for writing the book is to bring awareness to the fact that prairie dog populations are decreasing. Their towns, which are crucial to the survival of numerous prairie species, have shrunk to less than 5% of their original breadth, according to worldwildlife.org. Bartels says this amount is closer to 1-2%.
“We’ve altered the land so much through our farms and our towns and our livelihood and our industry, and whatever other reasons,” he said. “So it is now our responsibility to manage so that these animals exist. … We need to act now.”
Bartels hopes through the book, he can inspire children to save prairie dogs and other endangered species. He’s toured about two dozen places since its publication last September, most recently at Verdigre Public Library, Kooser Elementary in Lincoln, St. Paul Library and the Buffalo Commons Storytelling & Music Festival in McCook.
But he also hopes the story and charming illustrations appeal to adults, too. He recognizes that some can perceive the book’s message as critical towards farmers and ranchers, which isn’t his intention.
“There’s no evil farmers or ranchers or prairie dog shooters in the book… It’s not about us versus them or anything like that, it’s about caring for this planet because it’s the only one we have,” he said.
The book has opened up some lines of dialogue with people who have felt threatened, allowing for mutual understanding, he said.
“I don’t want to take away anybody’s rights or their land or anything like that,” he said. “ … When we’re trying to solve problems, whether it’s politics, religion, or nature, if we’re level-headed and open we can solve any problem and strengthen our relationships.”
The heart of the book is promoting an awareness and appreciation for the ways prairie dog towns contribute to rich ecosystems in Nebraska and across North America. In the foreword, Goodall shares her love for prairie dogs and implores readers to allow their towns to thrive.
“Prairie dogs were here long before us — part of a wonderful prairie world. Don’t you think we should try really hard to protect these adorable little creatures?” Goodall wrote. “... I am so glad my friend Alan decided to write this book. He cares passionately about saving the prairie world.”
Bartels, who describes Goodall as his “conservationist mentor” in the book, said they’ve developed a friendship over yearly crane and prairie chicken watching. The fact that Nebraska wildlife draws the primatologist and anthropologist every year is a testament to the state’s beauty, he said.
“She loves to come to Nebraska,” he said. “ … When she comes to see the cranes, she usually spends seven to nine days in Nebraska.
“The other states don’t get that attention from her. It really proves that Nebraska is a special place.”