The sudden death of five meerkats at the Philadelphia Zoo this month has stunned zoo keepers and officials, and a dye used to mark the animals may be to blame.
The meerkats, two males named Ari and Kgala and three females named Lula, Nkosi and Nya, were siblings and arrived at the zoo in 2013, said Rachel Metz, the zoo’s vice president of animal welfare.
The three female meerkats died on June 1, one of the males died on June 3, and the other male died on June 12. None of the meerkats had ever had any serious health problems before, a zoo spokesman said.
The deaths came as a shock to zoo officials, who said they have never had a problem with the dye in the past.
« This is a dye that we’ve used successfully for 30 years, and obviously something has changed here, » Ms. Metz said. “We are trying to figure it out. We have a pretty robust internal and external fact-finding process that we’re going through.
An internal autopsy, an animal autopsy, showed signs that the deaths could have been linked to an ink used to mark small animals for identification. Zoo staffers sent samples of the animals to the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine for further toxicology reports to confirm the cause of the deaths, but the results could take weeks, Ms. Metz said.
Since the death of the meerkats, the zoo has stopped using the dye on small animals like titi monkeys and lemurs, Ms. Metz said. Staff members have switched to using other methods of identifying animals, such as tags and monitors. It’s also working with the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit and accreditation organization, to inform other zoos about deaths if they use the same dye.
The mysterious nature of the deaths has taken a toll on zoo staffers, Ms. Metz said.
“Our animal care staff often spend more time with the animals at the zoo than they do with their families at home and with their pets,” he said. « There’s a real bond between the staff and the animals, and they’re obviously devastated by that. »
The Philadelphia Zoo houses animal care facilities and participates in several conservation efforts, including one for the golden lion tamarins.
Meerkats, spindly-tailed creatures with pointy faces, are members of the mongoose family and are native to Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. They typically live in large herds called mobs, which can contain dozens of individuals. They exhibit a gregarious and animated demeanor, which was documented on « Meerkat Manor, » a popular Animal Planet television show that ran from 2005 to 2008.
Meerkats are also known for their teamwork when foraging and hunting for predators, as well as sheltering in large underground tunnels.
There are no meerkats left at the zoo, Ms Metz said, but officials plan to work with the Associations of Zoos and Aquariums to bring them back eventually. There is currently no timeline for when this could happen, she said. Meerkats were born recently in zoos in Miami, Tucson, Arizona.AND Chattanooga, Tenn.