Paula Rebsom


While on residency at
the Ucross Foundation
in Wyoming, situated on
a 22,000 acre ranch, I constructed 85 house facades and installed
them in an active portion of a prairie dog town.
Both photo and video documentation was taken
of the prairie dogs interactions with this
new “development”.

Full Artist Statement


I could hear the prairie dogs barking miles before I arrived in their desolate town 5 miles down a dirt road from Ucross, Wyoming, population 25. As I got out of my vehicle to survey the location for a new suburban development, a family of pronghorn circled me curiously and marked their territory along the way. The road I walked along was littered with bullet casings. The prairie dogs continued to bark as they scattered to their burrows for safety. As they disappeared into their extensive network of underground tunnels a ghostly stillness settled over the town. All that remained were a few bleached prairie dog skulls and scat that I found lying next to their burrows.

All this was very familiar to me having grown up in Western, North Dakota. As a young girl I thought prairie dogs were cute animals you fed crackers too, as a teenager I shot them for sport (an act I am not proud of), and as a young adult I educated people on the importance of prairie dogs in the ecosystem as a ranger for Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Although prairie dogs are small and seemingly harmless animals they are quite controversial. Farmers and ranchers see them as competition for acreage and their burrows as a danger to livestock. Ecologists consider them a keystone species playing a central role in the survival of many endangered species that prey on them or use their burrows for nesting.

This new suburban development I scouted on the 22,000-acre ranch that houses the Ucross Foundation was not for humans, but rather for the prairie dogs themselves. I constructed 85 small house facades, each with its own set of pleated curtains, to be placed in a very active portion of a prairie dog town. Over the course of three days, I staked one house behind each existing burrow, creating a visual map of the prairie dog town. For the remainder of my stay I spent the mornings and early afternoons (when prairie dogs are most active) observing their interactions with this new development. Instead of embracing this new suburban utopia, the prairie dogs abandoned the heart of the town. Only the young, naive ones remained in the homes on the outskirts.

The installation in the prairie dog town on the Ucross ranch combined elements of urban sprawl, homesteads, and ghost towns. My role fluctuates between that of a rancher, a deputy, and a park ranger, leaving room for an ambiguous narrative to form within the sequence of images. In the Outskirts project I explored my own personal relationship with these animals and also created a domestic paradox of human and animal relationships that balances on the edge of absurdity. The images act as historical documents, offering a different perspective in the complex relationships that we have developed with animals and nature.