Wednesday, March 14, 2007

more on meerkats

Hmmm....let's start off with saying I'm not any kind of expert. Most of what I know of meerkats is based on watching the past three years worth, as they have come into the rehab centre, have died or been killed, have become part of a tribe, socialised, hacked out and have been released.

In the past few years, and I blame 'The Lion King' for a lot of it, people have become fascinated with meerkats. It's led to some really good ongoing studies at a few locations in SA, some in-depth TV programs that don't, unfortunately, put enough emphasis on leaving them in the wild - and a plethora of pet meerkats, mostly called Timone. There are two routes into homes - the first, where meerkats are illegally bred and the pups are sold under-the-counter. (There is legislation against this, but the traders are currently using a couple of loopholes. NatureCon know who they are, but can't stop them). The second, even worse, is where tribes are burned out and burrows dug up in order to get to the babies. Generally the adults are killed. Very often, the babies are injured and killed accidentally. The survivors are then sold on the side of the road. Same with tortoises. It's a tough choice - do people ignore the current victims, in order to discourage the trade? Or by rescuing (buying) the babies, do you then encourage further attacks? In any country with attractive wildlife and disadvantaged people, it's a double edged sword. now have a pet meerkat. Apart from it being illegal to keep it without a permit (and while NatureCon have problems tackling the trade, they will have no difficulty at all in getting a conviction against individual owners as and when they find them), you now start learning about your new baby and his habits. Meerkats are tribe animals. In the wild, their lives depend on being part of a tribe, and on having a recognised position in that tribe. They are never alone. Ever. As pups, they will have up to 5 siblings (it appears that litters in captivity are often bigger than in the wild, where 2 or 3 pups are more common - a response to reliable food sources??), they will be with mom, and they also have a number of babysitters.

Meerkat tribes are hierarchical. The alpha male and alpha female will generally be the only breeding pair, and have been known to kill pups born to other females. The non-dominant meerkats fill a number of positions. The females are generally baby-sitters, although this role is sometimes filled by submissive males. Older males often take positions as watchmen, and there will always be at least one on duty. The roles are rotated, to allow everyone time to forage, including mom. As the babies mature, each pup will generally follow a particular adult, who then teaches them about meerkat life. It's really endearing, to see the pups in the few weeks where they are being weaned and taught to forage - they will literally be allowed to take food out of their 'teacher's mouth. Limited period only, though!

Your little pet needs the same kind of attention. 24/7. A meerkat is never alone. There are people who manage this, and arrange their lives around never leaving the meerkat. Most don't, and after the first few times where little Timone trashes the house because he is stressed and panicking, he starts getting put in a cage outside for a lot of his time. Even when you are with him, the house takes a lot of strain. Meerkats dig. Uncontrollably. Their instinct is to look under/behind/between everything, in case there's a nice juicy grub or scorpion. Even the most well-adapted pets do this. So say goodbye to skirting boards, tile grout, (tiles as well, if they are light enough to be lifted), fridge door seals, cupboard frames....and don't forget the keys on your PC keyboard. An efficient meerkat can get every one off and destroyed in less than 6 minutes. You won't have house plants. And the couch? Who knows what can be found in that!

OK, living in a destruction zone might be manageable. But then sexual maturity arrives, and as an adult, your meerie has to defend his tribe. That's you, and maybe your family. So it starts with biting your dog. Then it's your visitors. Often, it's the children, and in some cases your spouse as well. He's defending you, it's part of his job in life.

And the cute little pet you bought arrives at our rehab centre. His whole reason for being is shattered - he loses his tribe, and his place in it. When a pet meerkat comes in, we often keep them in the clinic, just so that they at least have company. We try not to cuddle them too much, but at the same time, they really need the attention. Depending on the time of year, we almost always have a 'tribe-in-construction'. If a new arrival is healthy, and is not totally dependent on canned food or people food or popcorn (yeah....), we will try to place him in a tribe immediately. Ideally, each tribe should have a very clearly dominant male and female, and a number of both sex who are submissive, both older and younger. Each placement of a new meerkat is thus an individual decision, mostly made by our centre manager, depending on the age, sex and personality-type of the new arrival. It's not infallible. There are always fights - we are still learning new ways to get a newbie into a group without too much blood. Lavender oil works well - when everybody smells like a bordello, it can reduce picking on the stranger. Somebody has to submit - if that's not a clearcut decision, there will be ongoing warfare. To the death. We have had meerkats killed by the tribe, more often than we would like. We have ended up with 6 separate cages, each with too few to make a viable tribe, but none that we could merge due to the dynamics. We have ended up with serious injuries, so that we have to pull a particular animal from his group. Some of this is due to the captivity - in the wild, the loser would be able to stay on the outskirts of the tribe until he was accepted in his new lower-status position. In an enclosure, there is nowhere for him to go to. I've spent an afternoon trying to introduce two meerkats, with two of us in the enclosure, where we watch the fight (ongoing, under things, over things, through our legs....), and break it up when it gets too vicious. Sometimes the only way to get them off each other is to take a tail each, and pour water over the biting bits until they eventually let go. Check the injuries, and let them at it again. Someone has to submit. Mostly, it happens.

This year, we ended up with the 'Nuns'. The group started with one male - older, neutered, canines extracted. We were dubious about his release, but as long as he had a position, it was worth trying. The next few arrivals were all females, all young, all aggressive. No clear alpha female emerged, but the nucleus was holding reasonably. We still needed a breeding male, though, before it could be considered a viable tribe. Somehow, the male broke his leg, probably in a tunnelling accident (the leading cause of meerkat death in the wild, apart from predators), and he had to be pulled out for medical care. So far so good, but then the females wouldn't have him back, and attacked him so viciously that we had to remove him permanently. He lucked out in finding a new tribe though. A very young male came in. Often youngsters will have an easier time being absorbed into a tribe - not this time. It appeared as if they would take him, but 6 hours later they ganged up and attacked him so badly that he had to have most of his tail amputated. Another male. Another rejection. And that was the start of the Nuns...a very cohesive, close-knit group of 5 females. They were released last month, piggybacked onto a larger tribe, with the hope that in the wild they would gradually be absorbed - we'll find out in the future whether this has happened.

Generally a tribe should be at least six or seven strong, with a good mix of sexes, ages and characters. If they breed while with us, this is normally a great way to further cement the tribe, as they all pull together in raising the young. Once there is a clearly cohesive group, we won't often add newcomers, unless they are still very young. Mostly by this time, your pet wouldn't even acknowledge you if you went in - he has a real family. Actually, mostly what happens then is that almost everyone who goes in will be bitten. Humans have become a threat, and while no-one enjoys the bites - which can be really nasty, as meerkats hang on and tear at the flesh - it's also a good sign for release.

This year we had 3 groups (and the nuns), one of which has gone into a filmed release program. They are still being hacked out, at a private nature reserve. The others were released at reserve based around a large dam, about 6 hours from JHB. Each group had an assigned escort, who released them from their new, enclosed burrows at daybreak, took them foraging, monitored their skills and responses etc. A tribe that doesn't realise that raptors are a threat, that doesn't post sentries, that doesn't forage effectively is not releasable. By midday, it was so hot that everyone including the monitors looked for a shady hideaway. More foraging in the late afternoon, and then back to the safe burrow, where, to start off with, they received additional food. As their skills increased, the amount of food given was reduced, until they are self-supporting. After three or four weeks, both tribes were independent. Previously released groups have all survived, albeit with the loss of some members. Although they aren't continually monitored, they have been seen regularly.

Meerkats have a huge territory, which, while not entirely exclusive, they will defend. They have a number of burrow systems, and migrate from one to the next, as they deplete the food sources in an area. There are often 'border skirmishes' between tribes, and these can result in tribes being absorbed by another, or in outcasts being thrown out to survive as a reduced tribe. I don't know of any indepth studies on the viability of a pet-based tribe when it comes in contact with a wild-born group, but I'd guess that our tribes can hold their own. In our first release program, which was a 3 month hacking out period on the edge of the desert, the alpha female had to be euthanased halfway through the project. Some of the casualties before release are as a result of a captivity induced psychoses, where the animal literally becomes completely unhinged. In this case, although we knew that Twiggy was a danger to any human she met, and we were concerned about how she would act in the wild, we were still optimistic about releasing her. Sadly, she become so violent, and so detached from reality, that her behaviour actually became a danger to the group, because she prevented them from foraging. Another one of the older males disappeared along with the juvenile he was teaching. Although they aren't identifiable by name anymore and there have been losses and additions, the tribe is still in existence. They are close to a research project, and have been seen by the students involved there.

So....more meerkat info than most people want! It's hard to convince people that meerkats aren't good pets, especially as there are always a handful who are very happy, well loved and cared for, and who never do anything untoward. I have been told by someone who brought a bird to the centre, of her gran on a farm in the Free State, who rescued a meerkat baby from a veld fire. She raised it in the farmhouse, where there were always dogs, cats, kids and a variety of baby livestock that was being hand-reared for one reason or another. No cages, no closed doors, ever. At maturity, she disappeared for a while, and they thought they had seen her with the wild group on the farm. A few months later, she reappeared with a litter of pups, moved into the house with them, took advantage of free and easy food to get them to juvenile status and then took them back out to live in the wild. She came back every year after that with her offspring, and after few weeks of comfort, went back to the wild group. An unconfirmed tale, but one which does support the theory that sometimes the interaction between man and meerkat can be good for both.

1 comment:

Guinness_Girl said...

This was really interesting, JCat! Thanks for sharing it.