The Case of the Missing Meerkat

Posted at 11:18 am December 26, 2007 by Laura Weiner

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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20 Responses to “The Case of the Missing Meerkat”

  1. Carole says:

    What a beautiful account of meerkat behavior — so happy you found her. I love the reaction of the others to her appearance. I fell in love with these fascinating animals after viewing Meerkat Manor.

  2. Marie says:

    How did she get hurt? Was she being ” put in her place” by a more dominent female?

  3. Mae in NJ says:

    Thank you for being so vigilant and attentive to the status of this female meerkat. Although you say it is part of your job, I think you display a concern and caring that transcends your efforts beyond ” just doing your job.”

    I suspect that this little meerkat might not have survived in a similar situation in the wild. Thank goodness you were able to watch out for her and probably save her life.

    Since she is hanging out with the least dominant female in the group, do you think her injuries were caused by the dominant female who attempted to subordinate her? Keep up the good work.

  4. Debi in MA says:

    Poor little thing! I am so glad you were able to coax her out and take good care of her. I just love hearing the stories from San Diego Zoo. Animals get into things, have fights, get ill, so quickly (having indoor cats in the past and now being an avid backyard birder has taught me this easily enough) it is hard to keep up with them. But your Zoo always seems to have the best reputation…I remember Joan being on Good Morning America, back in the 80’s, and what excellent care these animals get. Thank you for taking care of the little one. Maybe it is time to name the Meekrats!

  5. Margaret says:

    Thanks for your vigilence and sharing this with us, Laura. Hopefully the lovely young lady is being helped by Seronga, and is healing well. With some extra warmth from a friend, she should be back to normal soon. Were all 8 out the next morning?

  6. Laura says:

    To answer some of your questions:

    Yes all 8 were out the next morning. The little female was still a bit hunched up but she gradually started to move around normally. As for who injured her, I am not sure. Her mom is the dominant female and she is still pretty gentle with her kids.

  7. Candy Coleman says:

    I’m wondering if an exam was done on this little girl to make sure she wasn’t injured internally? Does she appear to be well now? I have been worrying.

  8. Carole says:

    Please give us an update on African elephant Lungile’s month old calf.

  9. susan says:

    Laura, thanks so much for giving us this update. This really goes to show how dedicated you and your fellow keepers are in keeping these precious animals safe and healthy. You really make a difference and we are grateful

  10. Allison says:

    Laura, Do you give your Meercats names like you do your Panda’s and Elephants? It would be so nice and interesting to have pictures and names to see on your site.

    I love the Meercats. I have never been to the San Diego Zoo and would love to,maybe one of these days. I have been to the Washington D.C. Zoo(National Zoo) and when I went to the Meercat exhibit where they live I could have stayed there all day and watched them. They are so cute and it amazes me of how they are like a family,with the head of the house and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins! I do not live to far from the Metro Richmond Zoo in Virginia and we go there a lot.I wish they would get the Meercats.

  11. Robin says:

    YEA!!!

    I am SO PLEASED to hear that the little girl has been found. It was a sad thought to think that she had come into some harm. Keep up the GREAT WORK Laura and your TEAM!

  12. Kris says:

    Off topic but… When will the female elephant calf born in November get a name..?

    Moderator’s note: Thank you for your interest in the animals at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. Our animal care staff have not yet selected a name for the calf, but we will be sure to post it on Elephant Cam when it is selected.

  13. Laura says:

    As for the Meerkats and their names…All four of the adults have names. I introduced them in my first blog about the Meerkats. Ngami the dominant female, Ghanzi the male, and the two subordinate females Kasane and Seronga. The four juveniles do not have names yet. I like to name my animals once they become easily discernible. So far they all look the same!

    As for the little female she has been fine and did not need an exam. A Vet did come down to look at her but she did not need a trip to the hospital. Thank you for your concern.

  14. Susan Kazula says:

    I had the pleasure last year to have a day with a keeper, learning about the animals and getting up close to them. Although Meerkats were’nt officially on the tour, when the keeper found out how much I adored them (as well as everything else!) he asked his bosses if I could feed them. I was allowed to go into their enclosure and feed them mealworms. What a wonderful experience this was, as indeed the whole day was too. Myself, my husband, daughter and a friend spent a fantastic day feeding so many different animals and getting really close to dangerous, but beautiful animals such as snow leopards.

    But those Meerkats – so very cute.

    Laura – I do hope the little one is doing OK. Any chance of an update?

  15. Susan Kazula says:

    Sorry Laura, for some reason (age I think!) I totally ignored your info about the meerkats which is right above mine. Do you ever get the feeling you’ve gone totally loopy?!

    I’m so glad everything is now OK again.

  16. Angie says:

    Laura how I envy your working with the Meerkats. I absolutely adore them and I can fully undertand your worry at the thought that one was missing. Thank goodness she reappeared and was taken under the wing of an older female. With time she’ll be making a full recovery I’m sure, too bad you never found out what caused her injuries.

    One question that I do have is most zoos have multiple meerkats and knowing that they are such a social animal is it harmful to them if there is only 1 meerkat at a zoo? I always thought that for the best interest of the Meerkat that there would be at the least 3-4 living together. My local zoo has 7 or 8 they are always running around so I haven’t been able to get an accurate count but I sure love watching them.

    If you can give any insight to this question I’d truly appreciate it.

  17. Angie says:

    Laura,

    I didn’t see an answer to my question so I’ll ask again.

    Since meerkats are such social animals, is it harmful to the kat if there is only 1 being kept at a zoo, and what steps are normally taken to try and find a friend for a lone meerkat?

    Allow me to say thank you for your time in answering my question.

    Moderator’s note: Laura promises some answers and a new blog some time next week. Please remember: our keepers are busy folk!

  18. Laura says:

    Hi Angie,

    Meerkats are a highly social animal so usually they are kept in groups. A solo Meerkat could survive, just like a solo primate but the animal would probably be bored and understimulated. Introducing Meerkats is always a difficult task because they have such strong group bonds. A lone Meerkat would have to be introduced slowly to each member of the group and not to all at once. They would surely kill the lone Meerkat if he/she was just thrown into an established group. That is why moving Meerkats between zoos is only done in groups. Even if it is just a group of two.

    I hope that answered your question. I believe Ngami is pregnant again so I’ll be writing soon about her progress. I am going to weigh everyone today also. That is always a circus!

  19. Angie says:

    Thank you so much Laura for answering my question, your information has been very helpful.

    A huge congratulations to Ngami and the zoo on her pregnancy, little pups always bring such joy.

  20. Angie says:

    Laura, one thing I am curious about is when there are only 2 kats and 1 dies would they try and replace that 1 or would they try to bring in a group and introduce that surviving 1 slowly one on one to each new group member? I know there are some zoos out there that have only 1 Meerkat and I’m just very confused as to why they’d have a lone Meerkat when they are such social animals. Not that I expect you to answer for another zoo, I just don’t understand the logic for the welfare and best interest of the Meerkat. Maybe you can shed some light that would help me to understand.

    Thank you in advance for taking time out of your busy day to answer our questions.