December 13, 2016

Photo Essay: A Manner of Meerkats

[Last updated 10/22/18 9:02 PM PT — photos added]

I haven't had a TV since August 2010.

But even when I did have a TV, I never watched the show Meerkat Manor on Animal Planet.

Somehow, though, I knew I wanted to go visit the meerkats at Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Center in Morongo Valley, just 17 miles east of Joshua Tree.

It's not the type of wildlife sanctuary that you can just drop by—though plenty of fans of the TV show from around the world have tried over the years, especially when the episodes of its three four seasons were in their first run.

That created some pretty serious security concerns—and since Fellow Earthlings never intended on being a tourist attraction (or a paparazzi draw), they've had to maintain some pretty tight access restrictions.

To get an invitation to visit these furry little cuties, which are native to South Africa (hence the flag), you've got to become an "adoptive parent" for a fee of $100. And then you've got to make an appointment—and, possibly, wait months for the date to come.

But pays off when you get to bring three of your friends for a private visit—and, together, you get to spend some time alone surrounded by cabins...


...and a water wheel that's turned by the water from the well (that feeds into the pond).

Our host was Center Director (and Founder) Pam Bennett-Wallberg, who, earlier in her career, acted as a consultant for Disney in the development of the "Timon" character in The Lion King.

She's led much of the meerkat rescue efforts—from both seizure (as contraband) and the exotic pet trade.

Sometimes, local zoos will relocate their meerkats to Fellow Earthlings if they're non-contagiously sick (with pain, mobility issues, etc.) or, sadly, too old to attract visitors (who like babies, just like how kittens and puppies are much more easily adopted from shelters).

For meerkats—as well as many other non-domesticated animals—it sucks to live in captivity. But at least at Fellow Earthlings, the meerkats get to dig around in the dirt, like they would at home in South Africa. That isn't true when they're kept in a cage at somebody's house or, say, in an arcade to attract customers.

At Fellow Earthlings, there are two enclosures with three meerkats each—each forming their own little "family" with the same kind of complex social structures that made the reality TV show so popular.

We were there to be one of the first members of the public to interact with Hakuna (as in, "Hakuna Matata"), the young meerkat recently rescued from the streets of Kuwait City. Fellow Earthlings had to move some mountains to import him from a foreign territory—and once he got here, he had to be hand-fed and acclimated to human handlers.

Meerkats aren't so friendly to humans in the wild. They're not used to them. And for good reason—we're a danger to them.

But in captivity, if they want to eat—or if they want to get well if they get injured or sick—they've got to learn how to be around humans.

And they have to learn how to do it while still maintaining their independence. After all, they're not pets, despite how cute they may be.

Hakuna copes with the newness of it all by sticking his head into his favorite toy and rooting around in the dark.

His new "family" consists of a pair of brothers who are a bit older and a bit braver.

They know the feeding routine...

...and they know how to ask for food.

You can pet those two, but only with two fingers.

And you've still got to wear gloves with them, because even though they're small, furry, and cuddly...

...their non-retractable claws can be pretty sharp...

...and they might get a little nippy with their teeth if they become stressed.

So, you've got to wait for them to come to you...

...which they will do, if they catch wind of the fact that you've got a fistful of live mealworms for them.

They'll crawl all over you for a bite of those wriggling mealworms.

They'll burrow under your seat cushion and between your legs, just to find a mealworm.

And when they finally come up to stand on your legs, making your lap their temporary home, it's both heartwarming and heartbreaking...

...especially if it's the shy one.

It breaks my heart to think these gentle little creatures are so far from home—and have to be so far from home. They're not bred, and they're not allowed to breed. They're not sold, nor are they traded. The high desert—not the Kalahari Desert—is now, by necessity, their forever home.

But they are so, so far away from their actual home. Whatever family structures they find here are surrogate ones.

circa 2018

And they must be closely guarded so they don't get out—and so nothing (coyotes, mountain lions, bobcats, what have you) gets in.

circa 2018

According to Pam, the meerkats actually like it when humans come to visit. We're like giant toys for them—and since they need constant stimulation (and their toys need to be consistently switched up), that's invaluable for their enrichment.

circa 2018

And, of course, it's a win-win situation, since humans like me need regular contact with animals to buffer the more stressful interactions with their fellow humans.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Playing With Wolves
To Look an Owl in the Eyes
Photo Essay: An Orphanage for Contraband Pets

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