I am the rodent

The Gopher Hole Museum’s sprawling Kneehill facility.

In Kneehill County, east of Olds, Alberta is the village of Torrington. A fairly typical Prairie town, Torrington has a population of 180 souls. It’s roughly one square kilometre in size and has a hockey arena, a pizza joint, a few service organizations and, naturally, a curling rink. And it is here where the typical bit stops. Torrington also has a world-famous cultural attraction. The Gopher Hole Museum.

Though packed with carefully prepared specimens, this is not a natural history museum. No, this is a social history museum housing 47 dioramas featuring 77 stuffed gophers. Those 77 gophers are dressed in tiny costumes, posed in stationary pantomimes of life in Torrington’s recent and ancient history (yes, there’s a caveman gopher).

It’s not an unknown practice. A Victorian taxidermist named Walter Potter (no relation to Beatrix and her rabbits) had a museum overflowing with beautifully executed dioramas of a large variety of animals playing human roles: rabbits in a classroom, guinea pigs playing cricket, boxing squirrels, leap-frogging frogs.… Still, such a museum using solely gopher corpses certainly takes the prize for being unique in this country. It’s deeply and wonderfully…weird.

The Richardson’s ground squirrel (urocitellus richardsonii) in its natural surroundings where it never wears clothes. (photo: Wikimedia Commons: Szmurlo)

For those readers not from the Prairies, I should explain what gophers are. For a start, they’re not technically gophers. They are, in fact, Richardson’s ground squirrels. Since everybody from Flin Flon to Dead Man’s Flats calls them gophers, I shall use that name. Gophers eat cereal grains, undermine fields, create leg-breaking tripping hazards for livestock and have always been considered by farmers as Grade A pests, to be eradicated by any means necessary. The gopher is simply a hapless player in the greater struggle of trying to make a success of farming in such a harsh environment as Canada’s west. The farmer’s relationship with the gopher certainly has a very dark side, but paradoxically, Prairie popular culture loves the little rodent. When the Saskatchewan Roughriders decided they needed a mascot, they created Gainer the Gopher. Every time the Riders scored a touchdown at Taylor Field in Regina, a brightly painted Toyota Corona with what appeared to be dirt on the roof would drive up the sideline with a seven-foot tall gopher standing up out of the “hole” waving his paws. Among the pests of Prairie agriculture, a gopher is not a bad choice for a mascot—they’re just so much cuter than locusts.

And then there’s the Gopher Hole Museum: a tiny clapboard house with a small dark room stacked with glass‑fronted cases. In each case is a scene featuring a number of carefully posed, well‑dressed gophers. They are in little stage sets of homes, schools, fire stations, businesses, farms, campgrounds—complete with gopher-sized props and gopher‑sized furniture. They reflect the lifestyle, activities and history of the region. Some dioramas are also sponsored and feature scenes reflecting the sponsors’ business—perhaps the most bizarre advertising medium ever put into practice.

No, certainly not a natural history museum.

Luckily for the gopher diorama builder, gophers appear to be the correct scale for many doll house props. Good thing it’s not a marmot or badger museum.

Not to worry, there seem to be advocates for these poor little rodents.

The little scenes are at once funny, cute and disturbing; as head‑shakingly fascinating for adults as for kids. The folks at the museum are very proud of it all and will point out the rare and unusual variations of the featured species. However, how all the gophers end up there is not a question you want to ask. That’s something that always comes to mind when looking at any taxidermy display, and it does make one wonder. According to a Huffington Post article, when PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) protested to the Torrington Gopher Hole Museum, they received a postcard in return with two words written on it: “Get Stuffed”.

Why is that gopher wearing fur?

The museum’s rare black ground squirrel. I don’t think they’re any better at digging holes than the regular variety.

To be serious, this frankly hilarious museum experience is not to be missed. It’s a little out of the way if you are heading to Drumheller (as we were) but an easy round trip from Calgary or Red Deer. And do browse the gift shop’s local crafts for some very fine knitting.

It’s worth the drive to Torrington.