“Hey look over there, it’s a meerkat!” You might hear something like this when you first visit the banded mongoose exhibit within the children’s zoo. Guests from all over come to this exhibit thinking they are observing the meerkats, so why is it that our mongoose family has a mistaken identity? Throughout the zoo we have an array of animals that guests love to see. Between the giraffes, elephants, and gorillas, sometimes the little guy goes by unnoticed. In the spirit of rooting for the underdogs of the zoo let’s take a look at who the mongooses really are and what makes them so special.
From the plains of sub-Sahara Africa, our carnivorous little mongooses are in fact part of the same family as meerkats. This is the simple reason many guests get the two confused due to the similar size and appearance. Ranging from four to four months old, the zoo is home to fifteen mongooses that on a daily basis do absolutely everything together. Banded mongooses in general are colony dwellers; living in big groups, hunting in groups and even raising babies in a group. To keep our mongooses well fed and eating things they would naturally encounter in the wild, the keepers provide a wide variety of meals for them ranging from insects, meat, mice, fruits and vegetables. Courtney Ligon, mongoose keeper, said the mongooses’ favorite thing to eat is the mice whereas the fruits and vegetables are not so popular among them. The keepers typically feed the mongooses before the zoo opens to the public but guests can sometimes see them chowing down on worms or mice during enrichment periods. Although they receive a wide variety of food every day, Courtney said the banded mongooses don’t start eating like that from birth. Banded mongooses don’t open their eyes until about two weeks of age and can’t consume solid food until a month after birth. Then again mongooses grow very fast and a month’s time is nothing compared to the growth rate of humans.
Aside from their mistaken identity, mongooses bare another common misconception in the form of snake fighting. Just about every depiction of a mongoose in popular culture represents a fearsome battle with a cobra, but the truth is not all types of mongooses do that. Banded mongooses are just one of over thirty types of mongooses across fourteen specie classifications and are quite different from their snake fighting counterparts. Indian gray mongooses, who live in solitary, are the ones typically known for their ability to fight snakes due to their thick coats and receptors that render them resistant to snake venom. However, banded mongooses are much smaller in nature and do not possess the qualities to take on a venomous snake. Banded mongooses may not intentionally engage in conflict with snakes but that does not mean they don’t encounter them. The mongoose keepers have been known to lay out snake sheds within the exhibit, being one of the many ways the keepers bring out natural characteristics of the wild and from our mongooses.
Enrichment is very important for all our animals at the zoo and due to the curiosity of the mongooses, the keepers like to keep things unique and playful. Ranging from puzzle feeders to putting worms in containers, the keepers engage the mongooses in enrichment every day while constantly keeping an enrichment chart on hand in order to keep track of what the mongooses get on any given day. The banded mongooses have a different keeper every few days, switching up the routine and keeping things fresh due to the various training styles among the keepers. One of the coolest things our keepers do for the mongooses is give them hard boiled eggs to play with. Now you may be wondering what is so cool about an egg, but in fact this activity brings out one of the most natural sides to our little friends. In the wild, banded mongooses will take hard shell food, such as eggs and snails, and throw them with their legs against a hard surface in order to crack it open. The keepers encourage this by not only giving the mongooses eggs, but also rocks, nuts, and coconuts. Aside from the enrichment activities done by the keepers, our mongooses also receive enrichment from their exhibit. The mongoose exhibit is home to two different types of tunnels, the mongoose tunnels and the guest tunnels, both of which provide an enriching experience. The six mongoose tunnels that run through the exhibit are made of PVC pipe and provide the mongooses a place to hide, sleep, and take food if necessary. The guest tunnels are meant for kids to have a fun and engaging experience but it not only excites the kids but also keeps the mongooses playful and curious as they gather around the tubes just about every time a kid pops their head up in one.
Next time you visit the zoo make sure to check out our playful mongooses as they enjoy their natural exhibit and when someone yells “hey it’s a meerkat!” you can make sure to tell them about all the things you learned here.