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Meerkats: A Hospital Trip

Our three meerkat pups in the exhibit on the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Mesa just had their first vaccines and are doing well. They were not pleased with being held and given shots, and I swear one of them actually was yelling “Ow!” during the procedure. But all three of them passed with flying colors and are enjoying life as a meerkat with their 10 brothers and sisters. (Read Laura’s previous blog, Meerkats: 8th Litter.)

As always there is drama on the Mesa. Seronga, our least-dominant adult female, has always been picked on. This past month it has been worse than normal, and she has needed to have a portion of her tail amputated. When meerkats fight, they will bite the sides of the face, the base of the tail, or the tail tip. Seronga’s tail tip has been looking pretty gnarly as of late and the vet staff decided it was time to intervene. This meant she would have to take a trip to the hospital for the procedure.

Taking a meerkat out of a group and reintroducing it almost always causes problems. Meerkats are so territorial that they will attack this “new” meerkat even though it may have been in the mob for years. Seronga actually had a chance at a good reintroduction since she spends so much time by herself. I was still quite worried, so we took some precautions.

When she went up to the hospital we also brought a bag of dirty hay along. Meerkats are very sensitive to smell, and to return her to the exhibit smelling clean and sanitary like a hospital would not do. The hospital staff rolled her around in the hay to get her smelling nice and stinky, just the way the meerkats like it!

We arrived at back at the exhibit, and she started barking at her family. I had saved the carnivore diet from today’s feeding to have something to distract the masses from attacking her. I released her from the crate and let the rest of the mob into the service area. Immediately I gave everyone a meatball and thankfully they concentrated on fighting over the meat and not Seronga.

She ran out into the exhibit, and no one was really paying attention to her. Marula, the oldest of the offspring and her arch nemesis, targeted in on her and Seronga rolled up into a ball. Once she did this everyone else noticed and came running over. She curled up with her head facing up so she could bark at everyone, almost to say “Hey, leave me alone! I raised all of you ingrates.” Or maybe something like that.

After a few minutes they left her alone, and all was back to normal. I was grateful that she was safely reunited with her mob and only had a short tail to show for it.

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

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Meerkats: 8th Litter

It is good to know there are always constants in life. I just finished reading through all of my meerkat blogs, and I am amazed at what has happened in the three short years we have had this group! (See previous blog, Meerkats: Heat Seekers) Ngami, never one to disappoint, had her eighth litter on Tuesday, February 3. And as part of doing things her own way, she brought the pups out on day one. Of course, this is not normal meerkat behavior, but I have grown used to the way this mob raises its pups. We have all adapted to their methods and have been quite successful.

This week was a tough time to be born and out in the elements so quickly. It rained most of the time and was quite chilly for a small pup with barely any hair. I saw three pups the first day and have seen three every day since then. Ngami has been bringing them out, leaving them in the dirt and then heading off to dig a hole. After eight litters, I am not surprised. But somehow this group makes it work (with a little help from their keepers, of course).

With past litters I have been able to “tell” Ngami, our dam, to put the babies back and she has listened. This week being so cold, I needed to assist a bit more. The meerkats have been using their heated, dry nest box as a den for the pups, which is a great improvement over past choices. But I have still encountered some cold, muddy, and wet pups out of the den. On Friday, February 6, for about 30 minutes, I had put the pups back into the nest box quite a few times only to have them removed and left in the mud somewhere. I had to take all three pups into the back and warm them up under the heat lamp. I also cleaned off the mud and dried their fur. I locked the rest of the group out for about five minutes to give the pups a chance to warm up. Once they had been separated from Ngami for this period of time, she was concerned. I was glad to see that when I gave her access to the pups she took each one and placed it back in the nest box.

Over the last few days they have been keeping the pups warm and dry in the nest box, which makes all of us keepers very happy. I am hopeful that the pups will make it through these very important first three weeks and will start coming out on their own. As always, it is never quiet in the meerkat exhibit, and soon there will be 16 barking, chirping, and growling diggers basking in the sun.

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