Meerkat Moving Day

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Our meerkat group on Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo has seen a lot over its three years. It has grown to 16 members, with many births and non-stop digging. Last week was one of the biggest days of all: moving day. I knew it was coming for months and had been thinking about it constantly. How do I move 16 meerkats in crates to another exhibit without them hurting each other or themselves?

If you have read any of my blogs, you know that meerkats are quite aggressive with each other and there is almost always one with an injury (read Laura’s previous blog, Meerkats: A Hospital Trip). I wanted to move them quickly enough so they wouldn’t forget their mob mates. They seem to have a very short memory!

The move morning arrived and it was raining. Not usually a good sign. Meerkats mostly stay underground when it rains, so I wasn’t expecting much success. All of them are trained to come into the back area for meatballs, so I figured I should just give it a try. Amazingly, 14 came in! I did not want to move less than 16 that day, so I was determined to get the last 2. They were outside and it started pouring, which actually helped because they ran inside!

Now the process of nabbing each one and deciding who their travel partners would be. All three babies went together, Ngami and Ghanzi, Seronga had her own crate, Marula and Damara in another. In the end I had 12 crates ready for the short drive to their new, much larger exhibit next to the Zoo’s Kopje habitat. The meerkats that were living there had been moved to the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park.

We decided to release them all at the same time so no one would have any advantage or try to defend their new territory. Immediately all of them raced out of their crates and ran around the exhibit like mad. They were sniffing, scent marking, digging, and exploring every last inch. This exhibit is at least three times the size of their old one and smelled like another mob of meerkats. They had a lot of work to do to make it their own. I thought they would run out of scent marking smells before the day was done.

Then they noticed two meerkats in the small exhibit next door. Kasane, their former mob mate, and Leo. They spent a large portion of the day and night trying to get to Kasane and Leo. And it was not to give a friendly hello, either. Thankfully, Kasane and Leo were transferred to their new home at Elephant Mesa the next day.

Both groups ended the week with a much larger exhibit and plenty of digging to do. I was so happy that everyone not only survived but actually acclimated wonderfully. I will miss caring for this group and all of their tales!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.