If you were lucky enough to be at the zoo on this blissfully uncrowded morning, you may have seen one of the very cutest sights in the animal kingdom. Our new baby meerkats made their debut on exhibit this morning!
People immediately began asking questions; “How old are they?” ”Which one is the Mom?” “Is that one OK that just rolled down the hill??” These were the easy questions to answer; four weeks old, Mom is the lightest colored one, and yes, they roll around a lot and the adults keep a close eye that they make it back to the nest.
One of the trickier questions to answer was “How come we didn’t know you had babies until now?” The answer to that essentially lies in the complicated social structure of meerkats, how we have to try to decipher their behavior and how we use that knowledge when making management decisions in captivity.
In the wild, only the alpha pair is allowed to breed. Unfortunately our alpha male died about three years ago, and since then, alpha female, Chafu, has not had any babies. We recently noticed that one of our other females, Kala, was pregnant. Because Kala is a subordinate animal, we were worried that Chafu’s natural instinct would kick in and she might try to harm the babies. We decided to try to help Kala protect her kits.
The keepers weigh all of the meerkats regularly and keep meticulous records. Because of this we were able to determine when Kala’s weight was at a point at which meerkats generally give birth. We kept Kala inside to give birth instead of allowing her access to the outside tunnels where we would not be able to help her if anything went wrong. We also rotated three or four mob members in with her each day, all except Chafu. We timed it perfectly and the second night that Kala was inside she gave birth. She had a cozy den that she kept the kits in and we continued to rotate other individuals in with her. They were all very protective of the kits and helped Kala by “babysitting” when she would leave the den to eat. It took a few days but eventually the adults were comfortable enough to let the keepers get a peek and count six babies!
Check out this picture. Cute!
The babies are now four weeks old, very mobile and beginning to eat solid food. It was time for their first foray into the yard. In preparation, we brought Chafu and three buddies inside and let the rest of the mob out. Within moments the babies were peeking out and beginning to explore. Here they are during their first minutes in the big wide world. Could you wish for anything cuter?
After the kits have a few days to explore, we will start to introduce Chafu back into the group. She has seen, smelled and touched the babies through a mesh barrier, and has exhibited no aggression towards them. This is very encouraging. We will have plenty of staff on hand ready to assist in case things don’t go according to plan, but we have high hopes that because the rest of the mob has accepted the babies, Chafu will too.
Stop by the Natural Encounters building when you visit the zoo and watch the kits as they explore and tumble in their yard. Of course we’ll be blogging as they grow so check back often and let us know in the comments what you think of our super cute kits!
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