the meerkat
by m bates

Suricata suricatta is a member of the weasel family that finds its home in southern Africa. Also know as the grey meerkat or the suricate, this stunning creature has a haunting appearance and manner. Meerkats are about 20 inches long full-grown, with a foot-long body and eight inch tail, and weigh in at around 2 pounds. Their hair is a silverish-brown, soft, and long, with deep black rings surrounding their prominent eyes, black stripes adorning their backs and flanks. Their paws and undersides are more of a yellowish color, with shorter hair on the underside so these diurnal creatures can sun themselves. Their ears are on the sides of their heads, and their eyes are very sharp in terms of distance and peripheral vision. They can see in color and the rings around their eyes serve to protect their eyes from the sun. One-inch long claws grow from each of their hands, useful along with their powerful forearms for burrowing. Meerkats find their homes in open areas with sandy soil and rocks. An ideal meal for these spunky little carnivores might include bugs, snakes, or birds’ eggs, while birds-of-prey in turn hunt meerkats for food.

Meerkats have no period of heat; mating is continuous year round, and they can produce litters of three pups up to three or four times a year. Gestation lasts eleven weeks, and kits are born blind. Sexual maturity comes at around one year of age. Lifespan is about 12 to fifteen years.

The meerkat is a very social animal. They live in colonies of up to 30 animals and travel in gangs. Meerkats cooperate excellently with each other; whenever they are outside of their warrens, foraging or other purposes, some stay behind to watch the young, and others traveling with the gang act as look-outs. With one shrill cry, the sentry can send his compatriots scurrying away to safety. Meerkats can even live in harmony with other species of meerkat, squirrel, and mongoose within the same warren. However, these animals are territorial and mark territory using scent glands located in the anus.

Meerkats rear to their hind legs in a pose of watchfulness, or for defense. When confronted with a rival gang of suricates, they will utilize these claws to dig into the sand, creating a crowd of dust for defense. They will rear up, make themselves large, and sham attack enemies, but rarely actually attack. Meerkats are highly resistant to snake and scorpion poison.

There is something eerie about watching the meerkat gang in action. There are little distinguishing marks that help humans tell one of these critters from another. On nature programs, one can witness these sleek, swift creatures running across the savanna, then pausing to rear up in the guardian pose almost in unison, like a set of ghostly clones, big black eyes peering in all directions before they continue their action. Awe-inspiring, yet somewhat surreal.

Timon, of Disney’s The Lion King, is the most prominent member of the meerkat community, and coincidentally is gay. No information was available as to the incidence of homosexuality among these wily African mammals, but one must assume that the meerkat community is proud of their favored son and accepting of his alternative lifestyle. Nonetheless, one could also infer that the flamboyant Timon is an exception to the suricate rule, as their surprising level of community orientation indicates that meerkats would not thrive in the spotlight. Timon could not be reached for comment, although his publicist did ask that we recommend his current TV series, aside his warthog friend. Viva the meerkat-- a fascinating and exotic creature, form whom we could all learn a lesson of devotion to our fellow person.