Philip R. Savard is nuts about prairie dogs.

So much so, he leveraged $40,000 on several credit cards to start his business, Prairie Pals LLC, to make and sell plush, life-size likenesses of the burrowing creatures.

"It became an obsession," he said.

Never mind that they're technically rodents, not dogs. They're Savard's best friends because "there's a human element to them," he said. Like humans, they are social creatures who live in communities, have their own "language" and greet one another with kisses, he said.

But Savard's initial business proposal met with the suspicion that he was crazy. The area doesn't even have a population of prairie dogs, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.

"I know how tough it's going to be" to compete with all the other plush manufacturers to get on store shelves, he said. But he's a systematic person who has conquered the odds and became a professional musician, so he is certain he will succeed in this business as well, said Savard, a College Park native.

Prairie Pals, which Savard started in the study of his Laurel home 1 1/2 years ago, has sold more than 300 of the stuffed animals, mostly through gift shops and zoo shops across the country. His distributor base is starting to grow: A recent advertisement in Souvenirs, Gifts & Novelties, a trade magazine, brought in 150 requests for information, he said.

Toy stores across the country carry lions, tigers and bears, but very few have prairie dog plush toys, Savard said. He and his wife--also an avid prairie dog fan--searched toy stores and zoo gift shops across the country and have found only a few unattractive plush versions of the species. That was how Savard identified his niche. Sure enough, Prairie Pals' first few initial wholesale shipments vanished off retailers' shelves in less than a month, he said.

Celeste Corrente, manager of the gift shop at the Museum of the Great Plains in Lawton, Okla., says her store stocks 10 types of stuffed animals, including Savard's Prairie Pals, which she says are especially popular with children. "I just got another shipment in, and we will keep stocking them," she said.

Retail sales in the toy industry are growing every year, according to Diane Cardinale, a spokeswoman for Toy Manufacturers of America, a New York-based trade association. In 1998, traditional plush toys such as teddy bears and the ever-popular Beanie Babies racked up $1.4 billion in sales. The competition for those dollars is high. Each year, about 5,000 toys are introduced, and about an equal number of them go off the market, Cardinale said. There is no known formula for success among finicky toy consumers. A shelf life of three years is the best any toy maker can hope for, Cardinale said.

An optimist, Savard, 27, is sure his "combination of luck and hard work" will pay off in the form of "exponential" sales. He hopes Prairie Pals will ride on the coattails of the Beanie Baby craze and eventually catch the attention of larger distributors such as Kmart or Wal-Mart. He has designed and copyrighted prairie dogs in several different poses, each with their own names--Tumbleweed, Yipyip, Stretch, to name a few--to encourage customers to buy the whole collection, he said. For now, Savard is marketing the product with more retailers through his Web site (www.prairiepals.com) and cold calls to toy stores.

He expects that holiday sales and a concerted marketing push will help him bring in $30,000 or more for the year, at $4 to $7.50 per wholesale prairie dog, he said. Suggested retail sales prices range from $8 to $15, depending on the animal. If sales continue to increase at their current rate, Savard hopes to pay off his credit card debt by early next year. As sales volume increases, revenue will reach about $120,000 next year, he said. To increase the pace of sales, he may hire sales representatives to help him market the toys, Savard said. At the moment, he is Prairie Pals' sole employee.

"Quite honestly, people would say this is very risky; I'm creating a niche where it doesn't exist," he said. But Wacky Wallwalkers and pet rocks made fortunes for the people who sold them in the 1980s, "and that's junk," he said.

Savard has worked hard to make sure his product isn't junk, he said. He found a list of manufacturers based in Hong Kong through the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. After testing samples from five manufacturers, he found one that met his quality and price standards and was endorsed by the council as a factory that treated its workers fairly, he said.

"It took me a while to know how to do anything," he said. He not only learned how to sew and program his own Web site, he also spent 20 hours researching statistics on the plush toy market, marketing tactics and state and federal safety regulations, he said. "When you have a limited budget, you have to do it yourself," said Savard, who is working without a salary.

Savard, who has an MA in music from Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, teaches private trumpet lessons at home and coaches the brass section of the D.C. Youth Orchestra on weekends and evenings to support his day job.

His wife, Diane, has stood by her man on his project. She was nervous about taking loans out on credit cards when they still have student loans to pay, but "I never really thought he couldn't make it," she said. Her assistant manager's salary at BT Office Products International, in Springdale, helped the business get off the ground. He has always had the entrepreneurial spirit and works hard, said Diane Savard, who grew up in New Carrollton.

CAPTION: Prairie Pal, a plush animal, is produced in Asia and sold in the United States.

CAPTION: Entrepreneur Philip R. Savard with a bunch of his plush Prairie Pals, the critters he hopes will fill a niche in the toy animal market.