Unused to soft nuzzling, combined with the gentle clawing that moved slowly up the inside of my thigh, I sat too shocked to move. Too stunned to react. I remained perfectly still and waited for what was next to come.
The crisis was suddenly averted when the spotter amongst the clan gave a chirp warning the 50-odd meerkats in the enclosure of impending danger. The young female foraging for tucker under my billowing skirt immediately followed the spotter’s call and scuttled off towards the tunnels along with the others in her clan.
Living underground in burrows, which they dig with their long sharp claws, keeps meerkat mob members safe from predators, especially in their natural environment of the deserts and grasslands of Africa.
Meerkats have bushy, brown-striped fur, a small, pointed face and large eyes surrounded by dark patches. They average about 50 centimetres long, including their tail and are extremely social animals from the mongoose family. Except when they get territorial.
Meerkats only go outside during the daylight. Each morning, as the sun comes up, the mob emerges and begins looking for food. They use their keen sense of smell to locate their favourite foods, which include beetles, caterpillars, spiders and scorpions. They’ll also eat small reptiles, birds, eggs, fruit and plants.
Back at the burrow, several babysitters stay behind to watch over newborn pups. This duty rotates to different members of the mob, and a sitter will often go all day without food. The babysitter’s main job is to protect pups from meerkats in rival mobs who, if given the chance, will kill the babies.
The Meerkat Experience at the Hunter Valley Zoo is certainly an ‘up close and personal’ one as I certainly discovered.
The keeper insisted we sit on the dirt floor of the enclosure at all times during the 20-minute interaction with these inquisitive and social little creatures. Doing so reduces any fear factor for the meerkats as we remain close to their eye level, as well as reducing our ability to make any fast movements, which would frighten these flighty animals.
All our questions were answered by the keeper who was able to identify each of the meerkats and call them by their individual names as she patiently explained their behavioural patterns.
I will admit that a quick escape crossed my mind when a female meerkat climbed onto my head. Why would a Meerkat climb onto your head, you ask? Two reasons: searching through ones hair looking for tucker is the obvious one — because who doesn’t have mealy worms in their long golden locks? Also, because it is a high point for that spotter meerkat to keep lookout for enemies.
I had half a dozen of these funny little animals climbing all over you searching for tucker. This is a highly recommended interaction with the animal kingdom and one we will always remember fondly.
The Hunter Valley Zoo is a privately run zoo located at 138 Lomas Lane, Nulkaba, near Cessnock in the heart of the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. They also offer close encounters with lemurs, tamarins and marmosets.
As well as the usual array of exhibits, the zoo has an extensive breeding program for endangered species.
With expansive picnic grounds and free barbeque facilities it is the perfect venue for family outings, with plenty of seating and flat, easy walking paths for seniors. We took bread rolls for lunch and purchased coffees from the kiosk. Prior to coronavirus restrictions there were regular talks from keepers around the different exhibits to ensure that this is not merely a day spent gawking at the animals, but one where people of all ages can learn so much more about them.
I was just a tad disappointed I couldn’t bring a meerkat home with me. My tip for anyone considering such an experience: wear trousers.