Prairie dog hunter

Vaccine for plague is vision of Cortez’s Balfour

A prairie dog in the cage at the Balfour ranch. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

A prairie dog in the cage at the Balfour ranch.

Gay Balfour has been catching prairie dogs since 1991. Now he wants to use them to develop a vaccine for bubonic plague.

Balfour, 71, started trapping prairie dogs with a sewer vacuum system that he said was foretold to him in a dream. Now he has a vision to help create a vaccine for the plague, which has been known to infect rodents like the prairie dog as well as humans.

Balfour started catching plague-infected prairie dogs in 2005 after a Japanese company called him and wanted to film a quiz show. Balfour spent three days catching prairie dogs in Cortez, but they soon started dying.

“I sent samples to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control) in Fort Collins,” he said. When the CDC verified the prairie dogs died from the plague, he sent them four live prairie dogs from the same batch. The CDC said these four didn’t test positive for the Yersinia pestis bacteria, Balfour said. Originally, the CDC thought those four prairie dogs hadn’t been exposed to the disease, but after Balfour confirmed that they had, the CDC concluded those prairie dogs had a genetic immunity to the disease.

Balfour, who said he is considered “the guru of taking care of prairie dogs,” is looking for help in obtaining what’s called a “letter of request” that states what one wants to do with Balfour’s genetic prairie dog material. He only has two of the original 17 plague-infected prairie dogs left.

Although the plague isn’t common in the U.S. today, one could die from it if one becomes infected. The infection usually starts with a flea bite. “It’s really serious if undetected,” Balfour said, noting one could get flu-like symptoms that get worse and worse.

According to emedtv.com, if the plague is detected early, the recovery rate is 85 percent, if not the recovery rate drops to between 10 and 50 percent. It can be treated with a variety of antibiotics such as gentamycin, streptomycin, tetracyclines and chloramphenicol.

Judy Balfour, Gay’s wife, believes he has developed immunity to the plague. “He’s been bit so many times” by plague-infected prairie dogs, she said.

IT STARTED WITH A DREAM

Balfour and his family had it rough in 1991 when he had a dream one night. “We were in dire financial trouble,” he said, noting they had built a marina at McPhee Reservoir that wasn’t making a profit. (The marina was later repossessed by the bank and end up being sold twice before it burned down in 2002.) “In my nightly prayers, I asked the Lord to help me,” Balfour said.

It was April 1991 when he had a dream about catching prairie dogs with a giant vacuum.

The next morning he went to do some welding work on a center pivot irrigation system at the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch and noticed they were having problems with prairie dogs eating seeds from a recently planted field of 16 varieties of corn.

“They had Indians with a .22, bow and arrow, gasoline and motorcycles to run over them,” he said. “I said I was working on an idea to catch them with air conveyance.” Ron Lanier, who was the farm’s operations supervisor, asked him about providing a test of the device, Balfour recalled.

Later that day Balfour approached G.W. McCutcheon, the Cortez sewer superintendent. As Balfour approached McCutcheon, the man said, “I want you to buy the vac truck,” Balfour remembered. He didn’t have the money to purchase the truck, but three friends quickly provided half to put down on the sale. “They knew I was in debt over my ears at the marina,” Balfour said. “Within three hours, they wrote out three checks.”

The following Monday, McCutcheon sent the sewer vacuum truck to the Ute Mountain Farm and Ranch, and the rest, as they say, is history.

“We caught around 750” prairie dogs that week, Balfour said.

NATIONAL NEWS

Soon thereafter, he was asked to catch prairie dogs on soccer fields in Durango. A TV station from Farmington showed up. “Then we made national (TV) news,” Balfour said. “The Associated Press got a hold of it. Then we started to get (business) calls from all over.”

Balfour was interviewed twice over the phone by conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh and did an in-person interview at his home in Cortez with John Stossel. “Rush Limbaugh called me early on when I first developed it. He thought it was good old American ingenuity,” Balfour said.

In 2005, Balfour’s business, Dog Gone, stopped using the vacuum truck. It was too expensive to operate because of the increased price of fuel combined with high maintenance costs of the mechanical vacuum parts.

By that time he had developed a method using high-density organic foam that brought the prairie dogs out of their dens. Since then he has sometimes used a rifle to shoot the prairie dogs, usually from 100 to 300 feet but at times up to 750 feet, depending on the situation.

At one time, Balfour and Dog Gone had up to 20 employees. He also purchased another vacuum truck along with several trailers they used as the Balfours traveled across the country for jobs.

Today, in addition to his prairie dog control business, Balfour works part-time as a welder and also tends to some 20 prairie dogs in the “blue room” on his property on the northern outskirts of Cortez.

Balfour has been through a lot over the years. He was shot in the face by a breach plug from a cannon while working at his welding shop in 1984. “It went through the side of my face,” he said, noting he doesn’t hear out of his right ear now.

The Balfours met when they were in their early teens. They moved to Cortez in December 1971 from Saugus/Newhall, Calif.

“It’s been a ride. That’s for sure,” said Judy, 70.

“Do everything to preserve your life so you can help others.” That’s Gay Balfour’s motto.

Gay Balfour keeps cages of prairie dogs he believes are resistant to the plague virus. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Gay Balfour keeps cages of prairie dogs he believes are resistant to the plague virus.

Gay Balfour started the Dog Gone business. Enlargephoto

Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Gay Balfour started the Dog Gone business.