In the Small Mammal House, where the Philadelphia Zoo's meerkats are kept, the ceiling is painted to look like the sky, giving the animals the illusion of more freedom.
Now, its no illusion – the zoo’s six meerkats are free to gaze upward at the sky from a small maze of outdoor tunnels in the latest addition to the zoo’s unique open-air habitats.
Meerkat Maze is the newest addition to the Philadelphia Zoo’s Zoo360, a first-in-the-world system of zoo-wide tunnels that expand animal habitats into pathways that allow creatures the freedom to travel over visitors to the zoo. So far, Big Cat Crossing (for tigers), Gorilla Treeway, Great Ape Trail and the Treetop Trail for lemurs and monkeys have freed those animals to explore their own unique pathways.
As children and visitors watched, a bold meerkat named Ari slowly set his paw into the new pathway and embarked into the maze for the first time Thursday. Within minutes, all of the meerkats were roaming through tunnels, sandy play areas, and ascending towers to look out at their surroundings.
“Meerkats are absolutely so curious,” said Stephanie Oberlin, the meerkats keeper at the zoo, at the opening of the new tunnel system on Thursday. “They want to investigate every new thing. … A box is the most exciting thing they’ve ever seen for all of 15 minutes and then they move on.”
“This is all new to them,” Oberlin said. “They’re going to hear storms or the red-capped managabey make a call and its something they haven’t heard before, they might bark at it. We’ve seen them experience a peacock coming up to the cage. That train that just went by, that’s a new sound for them.”
Meerkats, which are native to South Africa, are omnivores that travel in groups known as “mobs” looking for food, which in the wild can even include scorpions that they hunt down and kill. Their new habitat includes a large play area with some insects in the sand for them to hunt down, in addition to their normal diet of raw meat (but no scorpions).
There’s also a parallel maze for children to explore “side-by-side with a meerkat,” Oberlin said.
“They’re just really fun to watch, their behaviors, their interactions with each other, and how they’re moving with each other through this maze,” she said.
Philadelphia Zoo Chief Operating Officer Andrew Baker said meerkats are a great species for this type of exhibit due to their social behavior.
“They are active, curious, engaging, social. Not that many carnivores are social in the wild, think about a tiger,” Baker said. “Their activity level, their curiosity, their iconic look – they are super engaging. Of course, The 'Lion King' did not hurt their profile.”
Indeed, the most famous meerkat may be Timon from the "Lion King" – who was voiced by Nathan Lane and is the companion of the beloved flatulent warthog Pumbaa.
But meerkats, which belong to the mongoose family of mammals, have also been depicted in Animal Planet’s reality TV series "Meerkat Manor," which brought viewers into the world of meerkats, much as Meerkat Maze does.
“You get to see the meerkats out and roaming, digging, just doing all the natural behaviors they would be doing in the wild,” Oberlin said of the maze. “They’re exploring.”
To assist visitors enjoying Zoo360, the zoo announced Thursday that it has a new app, Zoo360, which allows visitors to log sightings of the animals in the various special habitats on maps to help other animal lovers find them more easily.