SIOUX CITY | When the first of four hand-painted fiberglass prairie dogs was unveiled in May 2002, Marcia Poole, who served as a member of the Prairie Dog Committee, said many Siouxlanders weren't quite sure what a prairie dog was.

The burrowing rodents native to the North American plains became the focus of Sioux City's Prairie Dog Quest (PDQ), a public art project that marked the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial, which began in 2003.

When they traveled through Siouxland in August and September 1804, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery were fascinated by the "barking squirrel" that proved difficult to capture. The 5-foot-tall themed prairie dog sculptures were just as beloved by Siouxlanders of all ages, who pounded the pavement with maps in search of the critters. When they found the prairie dogs, they embraced them and snapped photos.

"They're just kind of a quirky little animal. I think it was a lot of fun for the artists and the kids," said Poole, director of the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. "It had whimsy to it. It appealed to all ages; and it really invited a range of artists to interpret the fun of the prairie dog."

More than 40 sculptures decorated by students and local artists were put on display at select locations throughout Siouxland. The prairie dogs, which also traveled to the Iowa State Fair and the State Capitol before being auctioned off in October 2003, raised nearly $100,000 for the Sioux City Art Center Association. The project received the 2002 Tourism and Arts Award at the annual Iowa Tourism Conference.

Fifteen years after Sioux City Art Center staff decided to organize the public project showcasing artistic interpretations in animal form, the Journal managed to locate 10 of the prairie dogs. Some of them haven't strayed too far from their original locations, but are tucked away indoors.

The Elvis-themed "I Ain't Nothin' but a Prairie Hound Dog" lives at WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan, Iowa, while "Family," a prairie dog holding a pup clutching a green rattle, greets children on their way to the classroom at the Boys & Girls Home and Family Services.

"Prairie Dog Tales," one the most highly photographed prairie dogs, pays homage to Siouxland's Lewis and Clark heritage. The 5-foot-tall figure stood beside the Sergeant Floyd Welcome Center more than a decade ago. The Journal found it not far away in an adjacent public restroom.

The PDQ prairie dogs seem somewhat elusive, much like the real, live version.

Todd Behrens, Sioux City Art Center curator, said the project spurred subsequent public arts projects in the years to come, including the Discovery Dog project, the sculpture Twigamore and Sculpt Siouxland.

"Looking back at a project that began 15 years ago -- a time when there was a relatively small amount of public art in Sioux City -- we can see what a difference Prairie Dog Quest made," he said.

"Prairiewether Lewis & William-Dog Clark" initially rowed their small canoe ashore at the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. The two fiberglass figures were given to North Middle School, where they are permanently displayed in the library.

West High School's library also houses "Peace Dog," which is adorned with images of some of the world's greatest peacemakers, including the Rev. Martin Luther King, President John F. Kennedy, Anne Frank and Mahatma Gandhi.

"Corn Dog," a prairie dog designed as an ear of corn with a bumpy textile finish, is "proudly displayed" by its sponsor Wilson Trailer Company in its lobby, according to advertising manager Keith Jackson.

Artist Brenda Schoenherr-Thelen recalls spending many hours painting "Corn Dog" and "Husker Dog," a prairie dog inspired by Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch. The latter prairie dog was purchased by a Walthill, Nebraska, woman.

"I grew up on a farm, so I thought the idea of the 'Corn Dog' would be cool just to make the actual figure of an ear of corn," Schoenherr-Thelen recalled.

Schoenherr-Thelen said "Husker Dog" was swiped by an off-duty police officer while it was stationed in South Sioux City. She said the officer put it in another police officer's yard. When she got the prairie dog back, she said she had to touch up scratched paint. The incident marred an otherwise enjoyable project for Schoenherr-Thelen.

"People took photos with them. Kids loved them. It was really a lot of fun," she said.

A colorful, vibrant composition of prairie dogs playing musical instruments wrapped around "Prairie Dog Blues." The 150-pound prairie dog, which sat outside LeGrand & Co. at Sixth and Pierce streets, was also stolen, only to turn up a few days later at the War Eagle Monument gouged and scratched.

Ritch LeGrand, who sponsored the prairie dog, said he thought about buying it himself.

"It was really popular and one of the reasons was the story behind it of being stolen and then found," he said.

Although the prairie dog was popular, it doesn't seem to have had the staying power of its antecessor, the Discovery Dog, which remains much more visible in the community today. The replicas of the black Newfoundland named Seaman, who accompanied Lewis and Clark on their journey, were introduced in 2004.

Poole said Seaman's sweet disposition and the story of his bravery won over hearts. She said people also relate to him because they have dogs of their own.

"We have the story of how he barked and drove the charging buffalo away from the camp. There are lots of stories associated with that dog," she said. "Most of us have never even seen a prairie dog."


Health and Lifestyles reporter

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