As a keeper, one of the first things we do when we arrive every morning is count our animals. We check on them to make sure everyone is accounted for and looks healthy. When you are a meerkat keeper, you have to wait for the sun to come up to see everyone. They all huddle down in their burrows when it is cold and do not emerge until there is some sun to warm their bellies.
Usually by 7:30 in the morning they are above ground and come running when called. Last week there seemed to be someone missing. I checked again at 9 a.m. and still saw only seven out of the eight meerkats. I cleaned the exhibit as normal and was starting to get a little worried. No one ever misses out on meatball and mealworm time! Since this exhibit is open-air, there is always a slight possibility that a hawk or owl coming by and snatching one up. But I was doubtful because this group is vigilant in their sentry duty. The other possibility was that one of them was sick and underground. There are so many holes it would be impossible to find.
My first task was to identify who was missing. I knew all of the adults were out and about, so it was a juvenile. All of our animals have a microchip so I was able to determine that it was one of the young females by process of elimination. I asked my fellow keepers to count them all every time they passed the exhibit. No luck. I must have counted 7 meerkats 30 times that day!
Finally, I was sitting in the exhibit at 2 p.m. hoping that mealworms would coax the missing little girl out. I started to hear the meerkats make a high-pitched squeaking sound and out of one of the holes crawled the little female. Her eyes were all crusty, her chin was dirty and scabbed, and she was hunched up like she had a bellyache. All of the adults piled on top of her to greet her and, it seemed, to warm her up. She allowed me to pick her up, which is never an option without thick gloves. I looked her over and felt for any obvious wounds.
Everyone was so excited to see her, and the behavior was very interesting. I brought her in back and placed her under the heat lamp to warm up. She drank some water immediately and had a couple of pieces of food. It was obvious she had been alone and cold all day underground. Since then she has been more isolated from the group and hanging with Seronga, our least dominant adult female, but she is doing well now and her chin is healing.
Laura Weiner is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Meerkat Pups Arrive.
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