Devey and the Meerkats
||02 December 2012 07:00
|Show: ||Carte Blanche|
Devey Glinister (Meerkat conservationist): "They have seven burrows in this territory of about 50 hectares
They're known as the "shy five" and all sleep in burrows: the aardvark, the aardwolf, the bat-eared fox, the prickly porcupine, but none outshine the meerkat.
Devey: "Where the sun catches them where they are foraging, they find the closest burrow and go down."
Devey Glinister, game capturer turned Meerkat conservationist, is Oudtshoorn's very own cowboy. He's unmistakable in his Chevy C20 and pumba hat. For the past five years he's become part of this meerkat gang's social diary. Every sunrise he introduces them to a growing number of fans and they don't seem to mind.
Devey: "You will notice that they are all facing you - that's not because you have a camera and they are posing for their pictures; they are posing for the sun."
Here in the land of the spekboom, their diet is power packed with protein.
Devey: "Insects, worms, termites, grasshoppers, crickets, moths, butterflies, millipedes, centipedes, scorpions, spiders... And that is not a lot of fatty food, so God has given them a little built-in solar panel so that they can just stand and face it to any heat source."
So to kick start the day it's bellies to the sun.
Devey: "There are a lot of veins over [the] tummy area and they can absorb the heat."
To prove his point, Devey cast a shadow on the "solar pane"' of the meerkat on the right [on screen]."
Devey: "And he's going to move [to] get a better place in the sun. He pushes the mom away so he can get into the sun."
Devey has a strict 'no feeding' policy, so it took him six months before they let him into their private space.
Neo Motaung (Carte Blanche presenter): "You spend all your time with these guys?"
Devey: "Not all the time because then I will interfere with their lives; I give them space during the day. I then come back in the afternoon to find them and see where they sleep, tell them a bedtime story, tuck them in... so the next morning I can take my guests out and know exactly where they are."
Now everyone gets a front row seat to witness their daily antics - reality style... like grooming, housework and just having fun before they head out into the Little Karoo.
Woman 1 (Tourists): "They are cute, yes, definitely cute... especially when they are standing there soaking up the sun."
Man 1 (Tourist): "I don't know if there is a cute five, but I think they should definitely be in there."
Neo: "The meerkats have left to forage for the day. One stayed behind to watch for babies in the burrow. The babysitter can be male or female - there's no discrimination in the meerkat world."
Devey: "Boys and girls do the same job - clean house, look after babies."
The only thing that separates the boys from the girls is when the dominant female has babies - then even females who've never given birth will produce milk to help feed the pups, hence the scientific name "suricate". Today it's Moaner and Sandy's turn to call for cover.
Neo: "Is that the reason that they always go on their hind legs and have to look up so high? Is it about being alert to danger?"
Devey: "There's always one standing up on his hind legs being on the lookout. The rest will always rely on that one... a confirmation call he gives - he gives a little mm-mm sound every five seconds."
Meerkats use different sounds to chirp to one another when they're happy, angry or alarmed. The dark bands around their eyes reduce glare so they can see a raptor when looking straight into the sun.
Neo: "So, I'm hanging out with this meerkat out in the wild, basking in the sun. At least while he's here I'm not in danger at all because he's on the lookout for any threats or snakes or anything lurking around."
But this mob has a storyline that rivals any soapie.
Devey: "The one on the left there [on screen] is Uno. He's always sitting down because he has damage on his tail."
His name is Uno because he's the sole survivor of a cobra attack.
Devey: "And there was a big skirmish down there. You could hear babies crying down there - actually as the snake was biting them."
But Uno's parents, Liefie and Moaner, managed to pull him out of the burrow - minus the tip of his tail. It's left him a bit off -balance.
Devey: "He'll stand up but then he sits down again."
Neo: "Is there much of a chance of survival for babies?"
Devey: "If a snake bites the meerkat and he walks off he will be all right, but the baby can't walk off, so the snake swallows him and he dies."
Meerkats are big breeders - up to three times a year, depending on food supply. Uno has 11 siblings and just three weeks ago new pups were born. We're hoping to catch a glimpse.
Devey: "That is the dominant female... you can see her tummy. The hair around the nipples [are] very flattened, so it shows healthy babies."
Normally they have up to five babies per batch and after a few days of filming the gang got used to all the attention. While we were setting up, we were rewarded by two little pups making an appearance, almost a week earlier than expected.
Devey: "But with meerkats I've learned that they're very unpredictable, so I never say to people it's going to happen this way because they will prove me wrong."
There's no typecasting meerkats as guards, burrow excavators or baby-sitters. Recent studies show that hormonal changes influence their behaviour.
Devey: "In my original research I wrote down everything they did according to weather patterns, according to nature's changes and I couldn't find any similarities... I just threw the book away. I just started going from day to day - whatever they dish out I take."
Meerkats are cousins of the mongoose and live in most of southern Africa's arid regions. They don't make good pets because they scratch and bite and it's impossible to get a permit to keep them captive.
Devey: "(Talking to meerkat) It's alright. Hello my kat... hello my meerkat. Waar is my meerkat?"
Meerkats can survive the threats of the wild like its natural enemy the cobra, but their biggest threat currently is being thrown out when they can't be tamed as pets.
Devey: "They turn against their owners because you are not responding in their territory and they will retaliate; they will attack you, they will bite you. And then people don't want them and they become other people's problem."
Nicci Wright (Free Me, Rescue & Rehabilitation Centre): "It started about nine... ten years ago. We had our first meerkat brought in. It was a little baby that was found in a parrot cage eating boerewors. We thought, 'Oh well it's a one off.' And then the next one came in and the next one."
Nicci Wright from Free Me, a wildlife Rehabilitation Centre in Johannesburg soon realised that they had an enormous problem and now gets more than 45 rejected meerkats yearly."
Nicci: "They will be fine and then one day something will just turn and they will start biting."
... And scent marking everything in sight.
Nicci: "They wipe furniture, they wipe you, they wipe your shoes, they will do the dog, they will do everything... every single thing will smell of meerkat."
This is natural behaviour for keeping hierarchy, as well as marking their territory in the wild. The biggest problem is that the pets brought in aren't socialised with other meerkats and it's difficult to introduce them into an existing gang.
Nicci: "If they think they're alpha or if they are very submissive and I slot them into a group... I introduce them into neutral territory and then we monitor them extremely carefully. We don't leave them alone until we are 100% reassured that they they're slotted in and that they've accepted each other."
Devey: "If they find another meerkat in this territory they go into a killing mode. When a young male wants to come and court a girl, it's more dangerous for me than to go and date a girl with a father who has a shot gun."
Neo: "More dangerous than that?"
Devey: "More dangerous than that!"
Neo: "Devey's efforts of rehabilitating meerkats that haven't survived the illegal practice of domestication started here at his home. He hopes to have a sanctuary for them one day."
Devey: "This... what I want to do for the meerkats is take the ones that are in captivity, rehabilitate them if I can get it right. In theory it's there - I just have to practically prove it."
Popularised by movies like "The Lion King", meerkats have become a 'must have' pet, selling for up to £1 500 at pet shops in the UK, say these British tourists."
Woman 1: "In England especially they've become really popular... there are some adverts..'
Neo: "You guys are aware of the adverts?"
Woman 1: "Yeah. It's a funny advert, but I think it was very interesting to hear him say that they are quite vicious and they're dangerous wild animals."
Common in the wild and now treated as common pets, in South Africa they are readily available for about R2 000 each and have become a money spinner because of their quick reproduction cycle.
Nicci: "There seems to be no scruples attached to this at all. They grow up with nutritional deficiencies; they grow up with metabolic bone disease because of incorrect diet, so they grow up with bones that are fracturing repeatedly. They grow up with psychosis because they are alone."
In the wild the complexity of the social structure is evident in everything they do. Nicci's team of volunteers have been successful in the rehabilitation of meerkats back into the wild, but, with so few options out there, many have to be euthanized.
Devey: "An animal that lives for about 12 years in nature lives for about one year in captivity because the moment someone gets fed up with him he gets euthanized."
After a few days of filming with Devey and the bandits, we were privileged to be the first on the scene for the revealing of eight little pups - more than usual and not widely documented. These two babysitters had their hands full. It didn't take long before the alarm was sounded and they were gone. Three days later they were all out and about."
Devey: "The babies at about five weeks of age take a mentor - one of the older meerkats - and they will follow that meerkat until they are five months old. That meerkat will teach them what to eat, where to find it."
Mentors teach little ones all the ins and outs, but for now these pups seem instinctively content to hang out with mum and the gang in the wild... and, of course, Devey and his guests.
IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER:While every attempt has been made to ensure this transcript or summary is accurate, Carte Blanche or its agents cannot be held liable for any claims arising out of inaccuracies caused by human error or electronic fault. This transcript was typed from a transcription recording unit and not from an original script, so due to the possibility of mishearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, errors cannot be ruled out.