San Diego Zoo Gives Enrichment Wreaths to Meerkats

Meerkat WreathA meerkat sits in the middle of a wreath inside its enclosure this morning at the San Diego Zoo. The wreath was one of four made by animal care staff, crafted from lavender star plants grown at the Zoo and accented with a bow created from a part of a palm tree. The other wreaths sported red hibiscus flowers. All were “trimmed” with mealworms, which is part of the meerkats’ usual diet.

The wreath enrichment was created to encourage the six meerkats’ natural behavior to dig, forage and explore. Meerkats live in underground burrows in large groups called a mob. Meerkats have long claws to help them dig their burrows and to uncover food. They have a special membrane that covers the eye to protect it from dirt and rocks while they burrow. They also have ears that can close to keep out soil when digging.

There are wreaths and lights decorating the entire San Diego Zoo during the annual Jungle Bells celebration, presented by California Coast Credit Union. The holiday event runs now through Jan. 4, 2015, with the exception of Dec. 24, and is free with paid admission or membership to the San Diego Zoo. Visit www.sandiegozoo.org/junglebells for a schedule of other activities and more information about Jungle Bells.

Photo taken on Dec.15, 2014, by Ken Bohn, San Diego Zoo.


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.


Meerkats: Heat Seekers

This time of the year is my favorite with the meerkats. Our group is getting along well and all of the kids are growing nicely (see Laura’s previous blog, Meerkats: Scent-Marking). The weather is cold and sometimes wet, which means the meerkats don’t do as much digging. Most of their day is spent basking in the sun and standing on their tippy toes trying to get their bellies warm.

They are always interested in me and what I am doing in the exhibit, be it shoveling dirt, cleaning up, or bringing food. At this time of year they are most interested in my lap. I will sit cross-legged in the cement moat and allow them to climb around on my legs. They recognize my lap as a warm place and soon enough almost all of them will be piled on. Unfortunately, Seronga, our subordinate female, is always left out. She is left to sentry duty while the others snuggle together. Even if she tried to come down, Ngami, our dominant female, would growl and vocalize at her to go away.

The group gets so comfortable on my lap that most of them will fall asleep. The guests enjoy watching the ball of meerkats, and it makes for a good photo. Some of the younger ones also enjoy biting at my fleece jacket and digging on my socks and pants. They are so curious that they are always investigating something.

So if you stop by Elephant Mesa at around noon on a cool day, take a look in the moat. You might see a mob of meerkats asleep in my lap!

I know some of you have been wondering about Kasane and her little friend, Leo. Kasane was our adult female who was always trying to be the dominant one. Since Ngami would not allow it, she would pick on Seronga. We moved her out of the exhibit earlier this year and placed her into a holding area. A couple of weeks ago she was moved next to our other meerkat group near the Kopje exhibit. There is a glass wall separating her and Leo from a group of eight meerkats. As you know, meerkats do not take well to anyone not in their mob. When the new group saw her, they came running toward the glass. Kasane was so scared she tried to climb the walls. I guess she isn’t so tough when eight meerkats are coming after her!

Once she figured out they could not get to her, she became brave again. She now spends a lot of time scratching at the glass to get them. But of course it is all just a show. It is great to see her in a dirt exhibit where she can dig, be in the sun, and hang around some other meerkats.

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