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L.A.'s real-life 'Meerkat Manor'

Is Chico lonely or just alone? Some zoo visitors worry, but his keepers say he's fine.

August 28, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Chico, the meerkat in residence at the Los Angeles Zoo, is alone.

Whether that is a tolerable state of affairs is being debated by zoo officials and animal activists whose support and affection for the small mammal has been fueled by cable television's popular "Meerkat Manor."

As on the Animal Planet series, the meerkat is a highly social creature. The furry mammals forage together, serve as guards and baby sitters for each other, and even strategize about war tactics. And meerkats who violate clan rules suffer a most dire fate -- banishment.

Just as his TV brethren, Chico needs company, contend local activists.

"Kids ask, 'Where are his friends? He needs to have friends.' It's very sad," said Janelle Fisher of Sierra Madre, leader of the Chico Project, which has focused on the lone meerkat since his burrow mate died in January.

A website petition with about 900 signatures is hoping to persuade zoo officials either to get a few roommates for Chico or transfer him to another zoo, where he can make new friends. (It's at www.the petitionsite.com/1/Help-Chico -live-like-a-meerkat-should.)

"They need companionship," said Fisher, who visits Chico every two weeks and likens the 9-year-old mammal's solitary condition to a virtual death sentence.

But zoo officials disagree. Meerkats can be managed as solitary animals with appropriate care, said Jason Jacobs, an L.A. Zoo spokesman. Other institutions, including the Denver Zoo, also tend to lone meerkats.

Jacobs said the zoo had talked with several institutions about relocating Chico, or obtaining other animals to join him, but he declined to name the institutions.

Thanks to "Meerkat Manor," the creatures are wildly popular and are part of at least 70 zoos across the country. Since its 2006 debut, the show, filmed in the Kalahari Desert and edited to magnify the animals' strong personalities, has become one of the network's most popular franchises and airs in about 160 countries.

Animal Planet officials said the series was the network's bestselling DVD in mass retail and confirmed a second movie-length film is being developed by the Weinstein Co.

Other zoos face similar challenges with their meerkats. In Denver, zookeepers were recently contacted by the East Coast Meerkat Society, whose members were concerned about a 12-year-old meerkat, Ed, who has been by himself since his mate died several months ago. Ana Bowie, zoo spokeswoman, said that because Ed was sickly and unusually old, zoo officials decided it was in his best interests to let him live out his "twilight years" at the zoo.

"He's certainly not by himself," she said. Ed has imprinted on his human caretakers, she said, and expects to see them daily.

"You have to look at an individual meerkat to determine what is best for it," she said. "As well-intended as groups may be, they can sometimes make assumptions that individuals who care for them aren't putting their best interests at heart. It's not correct," she said.

However, at the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, two dozen meerkats live in family groups, according to a zoo spokesman. The only incidents of lone meerkats involved rejected babies who were sick or whose mothers had died, said zoo officials.

Relocating a meerkat is not an easy task. Government regulations include a time-consuming federal wildlife transfer permit, and successful pairing of meerkats can come down to luck, said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, which accredits the zoos. The animals have to get along, and sometimes they simply don't.

A year ago, Chico was transferred from the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky to the L.A. Zoo to befriend another single meerkat, Spanky. But Spanky died in January.

Meanwhile, Chico has age-related arthritis and teeth problems, which might make self-defense problematic, said Jennie McNary, curator of mammals at the Los Angeles Zoo.

While meerkats are social by nature, they're also territorial and aggressive, she said.

"He could be picked on if we introduced him into an established group," Jacobs said. "He could be kicked out by other members of their mob."

The zoo is still undecided on how best to proceed with Chico -- find a roommate or transfer him out.

"In the meantime, he's comfortable," said Jacobs. "He's not depressed. He's a healthy animal."

McNary said a nutritionist oversees his diet, which consists of crickets, chopped mice, grubs and, occasionally, a grape as a treat. "He's posted sentry and loves to dig holes. He's curious about the public," she said.

The L.A. Zoo has received about 20 e-mails about Chico and is aware of the petition.

"We would ask for their patience," said Jacobs.

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lynn.smith@latimes.com

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