Story and photos by Susan D. Lawson / Staff Writer
Pam Bennett-Wallberg is married to the mob - a mob of meerkats, that is.
Pam cares for meerkats at her rustic Morongo Valley acreage, the Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center, which is the only privately licensed facility that specializes in caring for meerkats.
"All our meerkats are orphaned, sick, old, injured, or they have run out of room in a zoo," said Pam Bennett-Wallberg, who has taken care of meerkats for the past 20 years.
Her first experience with the cheeky creatures was as the Director of Wildlife Programs at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert, California.
"One day they had a litter of meerkats born and one was not thriving," Pam said. "They asked if I would take it home for rehabilitation, so I did."
In less than two weeks the meerkat started to thrive, so Pam named the baby "Kalahari" - after the African desert where the animals originate.
But, when it came time to return "Kalahari" to the Living Desert, the animal wasn't so cooperative.
"It just wasn't successful," Pam said. "She was too used to people. The other meerkats did not accept her."
Pam asked the curator of the Living Desert if she could remain "Kalahari's" keeper. But, because meerkats are one of the most strictly regulated animals in the world, she faced a wall of red tape.
"Everyone was saying 'no', and that I'd never qualify for the proper permits and licenses," Pam said. For two years, she plowed through paperwork, constructed meerkat- approved enclosures, and underwent stringent inspections to make her dream come true.
Finally, receiving the proper accreditation in 1989, Pam now must maintain special permits from California Fish and Game, the U.S.D.A., and Fish and Wildlife Service.
As a 501 (c) 3 non-profit facility, Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center relies on donations to care for the meerkats. As an incentive, they offer a meerkat adoption program.
"That doesn't mean we send meerkats home with you," laughed Pam. "Although meerkats are adorable and captivating, they do not make good pets."
Instead, the $100 adoption donation allows the adoptive parent and their guests to feed and interact with the endearing creatures.
"Unlike a zoo, you can go inside the enclosures," Pam said. "The meerkats love it and the people love it. It's a win-win situation."
Adoptions and donations also defray feeding costs. It takes $100 a week to keep up with the animals' steady diet of a large variety of insects and mice. Until eaten, the bugs take up residence in Tupperware-type food containers in and on top of the refrigerator.
"And we often have barrels of crickets in the Visitors' Cottage," Pam said. "They make quite a noise, but we've gotten use to it and don't even hear them anymore."
Native to dry regions of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa, meerkats (Suricata suricatta), are members of the mongoose family. These small, but voracious creatures dine on insects, reptiles, rodents and small birds. Their long, curved claws are ideal for digging a maze of underground tunnels or looking for food.
Family groups are called mobs and can include 5 - 40 members. In the wild they are fiercely territorial and mobs will rise to fight off intruders.
A meerkat can live 12-14 years in captivity. They spend much of their time foraging for food, grooming, playing, or sunbathing. They often stand on their hind legs to look for danger or soak up the warmth of the sun.
"We call them the 'solar panels' of the animal world," Pam said.
The mannerisms and playfulness of a meerkat are often compared to our own, earning them the German name of erdmannchen, which means "little earth people." The meerkats at Fellow Earthlings' love visitors, not only because they are treated to their favorite foods, but it also keeps their minds stimulated.
"It's an enrichment for them to meet new people," Pam said. "We also change their toys daily - meerkats are so intelligent,"
The Fellow Earthlings' meerkats have also become celebrities. Pam was a consultant to Disney during the animation of "The Lion King" character Timon, who was modeled after "Kalahari".
"Disney wanted to know what the Top 10 personality traits of a meerkat were, or they'd call and ask 'does a meerkat do this?' and I'd tell them 'yes' or 'no'," Pam said.
And how well did Disney do with their animated meerkat?
"I was soooo pleased," Pam said. "The personality was right on - sassy, big attitude."
National Geographic has visited the facility twice - once to film their television documentary Meerkat Madness, and for its September 2002 magazine cover story. Animal Planet also filmed their documentary The Power of Play, at the Center, which compares animal play to human play.
Like caring for children, taking care of meerkats is a 24/7 endeavor, but Pam wouldn't trade places with anyone. "It's not that I have to do this. It's the fact I get to do this. Meerkats have brought so much to my life."