Meerkats You See In Zoos Are At Great Risk Of Stress

In the last decade, meerkats have seen a public relations revival, appearing in adverts, films and not to mention a starring role in David Attenborough’s BBC nature documentaries. 

As a result they are ever more popular residents in zoos and safari parks across the UK. But the tiny relative of the mongoose might not actually be as happy living in captivity as they seem, according to a new study.

That is after a study from University of Exeter revealed that those meerkats living in cages, rather than in the wild, experience much higher levels of chronic stress.

Dr Emma Vitikainen, of the Centre for Ecology and Conservation, said: “Animals in zoos may be stressed despite not showing obvious behavioural problems.”

The researchers attribute this stress, which they calculated by looking at hormone levels in their droppings, to their group sizes in captivity.

In the wild, meerkats live in groups of approximately twenty to thirty individuals, required for protecting themselves from large predators.

But in zoos, they are kept in numbers that are more comparable to small, unstable groups in the wild – obviously they are not at risk from predators when behind a fence but their evolutionary instincts have not adapted to consider this.

Instead, they constantly worry that they would be safer if they were in larger teams. 

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Vitikainen said: “Our results are consistent with the theory that there is an optimum group size which minimises physiological stress in meerkats, and that zoo meerkats at most risk are those kept in small groups and small enclosures, and those which are exposed to consistently high numbers of visitors.”

Not only that, but living in small enclosures with constant exposure to high numbers of visitors compounds this anxiety long term.

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