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ANIMAL MAGNETISM : Leave It to Hollywood to Lift the Meerkat From Zoo Obscurity

December 17, 1995|Jonathan Gold

The zoo is a pretty good place to hang out when you're having a slow day. The people there on weekday afternoons tend to have as little to occupy themselves as you do, there's always a baby tapir or something to check out, and if you've anted up the $39 for a membership, it feels a little as if you're on the guest list. If you bring a notebook to the black rhino pen, you can even persuade yourself that you're getting something useful done in a Jane Goodall sort of way, even if your entries begin to read like this: "3:12: Rhino scratches itself against a post. 3:19: Rhino flicks at fly with tail. 3:25: Rhino yawns."

When you spend a certain amount of time at the zoo, you can predict which parents will lie to their children about the difference between a kangaroo and a wallaby, which teen-agers will pelt the sea lion with peanuts, what time a man who seems actually to live on a bench near the chimps will give up and go home. You learn what regulars are proprietary about which animals, and what zookeepers to pester for inside dirt on the polar bears.

During the period I spent a few too many afternoons at the zoo, five or six years ago, I started out trying to develop an interest in the kiwi exhibit--who doesn't love a ratite?--but eventually became obsessed with the newish meerkats instead, prairie-dog-looking creatures that the zoo had imported from southern Africa to fill the space between the flamingo exhibit and Monkey Island.

Meerkats are perfect urban animals, really, social beasts who nonetheless seem as irritated by their proximity to one another as commuters on an MTA bus. Their unending status games seem to involve lots of joyless pseudo-coupling, lots of harsh gestures, constant scurrying from commitment. They spend most of their time skulking in burrows. At least a couple of meerkats at a time stare grimly into the sky, watching for predatory hawks. These are the designated paranoids of the tribe.

If meerkats seem cute, they're cute in the way that freshmen in a college dorm are cute, or people on the wrong side of the rope at Roxbury: At the moment you see them, you're so glad you aren't one of the group that relief can overwhelm you like a sneeze. The pleasure in watching them is not unlike that involved in observing a slightly cuddlier ant farm. I like meerkats just fine--for reasons that elude me now, I even proposed to my wife in front of their enclosure--though the meerkat's edgy charisma, unlike a lion's, may not be something you'd want to share with your kids. For a while, the meerkat exhibit seemed less than overwhelmingly popular. People want to see animals that strut majestically or play with empty beer kegs, not animals who look as if they need a full course of Jungian therapy.

But like tastes in television talk shows or shoes, taste in zoo animals is mutable, and the meerkat has become the greatest mammal of its generation at the zoo, transformed from an intermittently amusing creature occasionally visited on the way to the gorilla cage to an E-ticket beast, maybe as big a draw as the elephants. Here are the giant phalanxes of children, strollers arrayed in great semicircles. Here are the proud fathers, lifting their small sons into the air so that they may be photographed in proximity to the meerkats. Everywhere is the cry, "Timon! Timon!"

Blame Hollywood. Blame specifically, of course, "The Lion King," a movie that has spun 200 times through the VCR of every parent in America, launched 50 million Halloween costumes, and given its snippy meerkat, Timon, the name-recognition of Sharon Stone. Every toy store features meerkats now, and Timon stars in a spinoff cartoon show on TV.

I know they're dumb beasts and all, but zoo animals can't help but notice the activity around their exhibits. Koalas must feel at least slightly superior to the kangaroo rats, zebras to the relatively less popular gnus. The lion is the king of the jungle only when there are no chimps around. Lately, some of the meerkats have been looking a little too pleased with themselves, but a few seem to sense that the public is fickle. Even in Los Angeles, a meerkat can't afford to forget about the hawks.

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