“But they are so CUTE and they love you, look how they follow you around and try and cuddle whenever they can! They look just like furry people when they stand on their hind legs. I’d love one as a pet!” What a mistake!
A meerkat, or to give it its proper name, suricate (Suricata suricatta) is an obligatory group-living mongoose species and a solitary meerkat is an easy meal for any hawk or cruising eagle. Young meerkats, unless they stick very close to alert adult group members are unlikely to live the day out, so the fact that they dog your heels has nothing to do with love, it’s purely a survival instinct which is in force 24 hours a day for every day of their lives. Since meerkats can live approximately 15 years this puts quite a strain on the human – meerkat bond for both individuals, to say the least!
Unlike domestic dogs and cats, meerkats are wild animals with survival instincts that have not been blurred by thousands of years of selective breeding. They are the ultimate “togetherness” animals, only feeling safe and secure when they are in close contact with other group members, or you, day and night. The pinnacle of cruelty is to shut one away in a cage alone when it is ‘not wanted’, especially after dark. This drives them literally crazy and they end up either hysterical, extremely aggressive or start obsessively grooming themselves, sometimes to the point of self-mutilation. All this is a result of the terror they experienced on being ‘abandoned’ and this trauma remains life-long.
For garden-lovers, a pet meerkat spells the end of horticultural pride. More than 90% of a meerkat’s diet is subterranean: grubs, beetles, scorpions and the like. Baby meerkats start serious digging at approximately 8 weeks old, increasing in strength and practicing their skills until, at about 5 months of age, they are digging deep holes for up to 6 hours a day, and within a few days, any garden looks like a miniature minefield. This digging has little to do with hunger, even a well-fed meerkat needs to dig to satisfy its instincts. A glance at their forepaws with their long, hard nails tells the story, meerkats evolved as diggers and to try and prevent this behaviour is impossible. Indoors, grout is dug from between tiles, carpets are torn to bits, skirting boards and even plaster walls or cement floors excavated, not to mention stuffed furniture and pot-plants. A “house” meerkat is a one-mongoose demolition team!
Since meerkats eat primarily insects, no commercial dog or cat food can cover their dietary needs, especially in the first months of life. Insect exoskeletons contain large amounts of calcium, which is essential for bone and tooth growth, and this must be supplemented with insects or calcium/vitamin powders, otherwise young animals end up crippled by rickets. Dogfoods contain too little protein and too much carbohydrate for a meerkat and animals fed with this soon become grotesquely fat. Catfood is somewhat better but meerkats are adapted to feeding almost continuously on small food items, not to eating one or two large meals a day, like dogs and cats. As a result, and owing to their rapid metabolism, they act as if they are hungry all the time and if fed each time they beg and if they are not able to exercise (a wild meerkat travels about 5km a day), they soon become obese and sickly.
As long as they are still young, meerkats are friendly creatures but once they reach about 6 months of age, they can change completely into the ‘pit-bulls’ of the mongoose world. The ‘pet’ meerkat, now of an age to defend its group and being human imprinted, perceives visitors as intruders. Any stranger is attacked and can be bitten severely, the meerkat latching on, biting to the bone and not letting go. Children are prime targets because they appear weak and for the meerkat’s human family, this can result in major social problems with neighbours and visitors. Its aggressiveness is just its instinctual response to strangers and no amount of punishment can make it stop – it is genetically pre-programmed. With this onset of aggressiveness comes the development of the anal glands with their rather penetrating, musky secretion. Soon almost all smooth surfaces in a house are marked, the smell telling the meerkat it is “at home” and making it feel safe and secure but unpleasant for its human cohabitants.
A veterinarian acquaintance once told me in horror of a meerkat he was asked to put down by its ‘family’ – it was almost too obese to walk, was castrated, de-clawed and had even had its eyeteeth removed. To mutilate a wild animal to this extent to curb its instinctive behaviour and make it ‘fit’ the human lifestyle is nothing but sheer cruelty. Remember, taking on a meerkat as a ‘pet’ entails staying with it 24 hours day and night for the rest of its life, letting it demolish your house and garden, giving it a special diet and putting up with it viciously attacking all your visitors and leaving a musky odour all over the furniture. For your own sake and especially the animal’s, it is best to think again.
Prof. Anne Rasa
Prof. Rasa was the pioneer in the study of social mongoose behaviour and has spent most of her long career observing them. She is the author of numerous scientific papers on the subject as well as the popular book “Mongoosewatch” and has written over twenty articles on mongooses for various magazines. Her work on mongooses has been the subject of many films e.g. “Together They Stand” (Winner of the Golden Panda Award in 1975), “Comrades of the Kalahari” (National Geographic) amongst others. Now retired, she lives on her private Nature Reserve “Kalahari Trails” near the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, where she shows visitors the ‘hidden Kalahari’ that they would not see from a car.