Sam circa 1993 was a Girl Scout and in my troop we each had animal names. I don’t remember why or what the purpose was, but these names followed us for a few years. My best friend was otter and I was meerkat. My mom tried to convince me to be muskrat for the 1976 song Muskrat Love (muskrat Sam…get it?). But for some reason I had an infatuation with these cheeky little meerkats instead and thus my girl scout animal name was born. Since then, though they aren’t my favorite animal (red pandas anyone?!), I’ve always harbored a soft spot for them.
Fast forward about 25 years or so to this Christmas. Santa brought me one of the most unique gifts I’ve ever received. It was a gift certificate to “The Animal Experience” near Ely and meet the meerkats. If you all know me, you know I absolutely love animals and any hands on experience is my cup of tea, so I was super excited about this. Plus, the opportunity to meet my little girl scout spirit animals in real life was remarkable.
Planning the meet up
When we returned from traipsing around Europe for the new year, Tim called to set up our meerkat meeting. We had to book out a couple weeks to find an open time that would work for both them and us, so if you have busy schedules like Tim and I, make sure you call far enough in advance of when you want to go.
“The Animal Experience” is open by appointment only, so when we returned from traipsing around Europe for the new year, Tim called to set up our meerkat meeting. We had to book out a couple weeks to find an open time that would work for both them and us, so if you have busy schedules like Tim and I, make sure you call far enough in advance of when you want to go.
On our scheduled day, we left early and drove over to “The Animal Experience.” We arrived a few minutes before our scheduled time so we were greeted by staff and after check in, allowed to take a gander at the reptile hall. The room was filled with snakes and lizards and all sorts of scaly animals that made me do a little shiver. But it wasn’t long before I found a little day gecko that was the cutest lizard I had ever seen. He was so brightly colored he could be a cartoon! And my feelings would change again later that afternoon when our guide let us hold a snake. But more on that later.
The furry encounter
When our furry friends were ready for us, our guide, Harley (a super intelligent and nice student studying to work in zoos), came and got us from the reptile enclosure and took us to a neighboring building that houses the meerkats. Before entering the enclosure, he gave us a safety run down and let us know that they don’t ever use the bathroom in the middle of their enclosure so we should feel comfortable to sit down on the ground with them. This pleased me immensely because “the closer to the ground you are, the more likely it is that they will crawl on you.” He warned us though that there were some cheeky baby meerkats that are super curious and like to find and steal anything in your pockets. Luckily he said this because otherwise the baby meerkats may have found themselves a new MAC lipstick and I’m unsure if purple is their shade.
After the rundown and emptying of pockets, we entered the enclosure. Harley stayed with us, perched on a stool in the corner so as to not steal away any of the precious meerkat attention. I immediately plopped down in the center of the room and of the 10 in the room, about half of them found their way to my lap. The babies immediately checked my pockets and found a receipt I left in there. It cracked me up that they were so excited by it. Tim was able to pry it away from little paws though before it went too far. One of the other babies immediately climbed inside my jacket and found the tag. He thought this was AMAZING and wanted to take it away too but it. would. not. budge. No matter how he shook his little head. It was like a teeny tiny puppy playing tug. So cute.
Harley introduced us to each of them. They all had names… Pumba (the mom), Salt and Pepper, and a ton of other names I can’t recall. I was astounded that not only could he remember all the names, but Harley could tell them apart too! Very talented!
Not long into our 30 minute experience, nine of the ten meerkats were piled in my lap sleeping. The tenth one was Pepper and she had found herself onto my shoulder. Pepper is the lookout of the group and my shoulder was the perfect place to tell all her siblings about any potential dangers. Luckily, living at the zoo, there aren’t any predators they have to worry about, but she still loves to gossip. She chattered in my ear the whole time.
While I sat there, reveling in complete and utter fuzzy meerkat overload, Harley let me know that he’d never seen so many meerkats on one visitor in the time that he’d been working there. He called me the meerkat whisperer and you know what? That’s a title I’ll wear proudly. During their nap, we asked questions about the lives of the meerkats, what they eat, how long they live, etc. Harley was extremely knowledgeable and often gave us facts before we could even think of the question. Which is good for me, since inside my head I was screaming “OMG THEY’RE SO FLUFFY!!!!” and that’s about it.
After about ten minutes of a nap, I think Harley was concerned that that was going to go on for our entire encounter and probably felt bad for Tim who was just sitting there sans meerkats. He let us know that meerkats need to eat like eight times a day because of how quickly they metabolize food. Because of this, the middle of our visit was a perfect time to give them a snack. Like any dog that hears the treat or food bag crinkle, the meerkat pile exploded from my lap as soon as Harley shook the dried meal worms into the little cups. He handed one cup each to Tim and I so we could feed them. The little guys went nuts for the food and it was hard to see that they all got some. I’m a softy though and I worry about all their feelings. Especially the babies who are much smaller than the bigger ones. Tim dealt with the dad meerkat who was the biggest and most brutish of them all. He wanted all the food to himself and sat on Tim’s arm greedily chomping up the worms. I was a little sad he was so mean to the others, but maybe you’d be hungry all the time too if you had that many kids…
After the feeding we had a few more minutes to take photos and watch them run around the enclosure. But, before we knew it, our 30 minutes was up and it was time to go. I was sad to leave my fuzzy little friends, however, I was quickly distracted by the other fluffy animals and pretty birds Harley took us around to see.
In addition to the aforementioned reptiles and meerkats, “The Animal Experience” is also home to several birds of prey and two seriously adorable Coatis that were rescued from a less than ideal home (That will definitely be my next encounter!). Since we weren’t there on any other experiences, we didn’t get to handle and play with the birds. But we did get to walk around and see them. They have a giant snowy owl that is absolutely gorgeous (and looks just like Hedwig). I want to return to experience the owls too because I mean… who’s life isn’t made when they’re holding an owl?
From furry to scaly
At the end of our journey Harley had us wash our hands and then asked us if we’d like to hold a reptile. On any other day, should you ask me if I want to handle a snake or lizard, my answer would have ben a resounding “No!” But something came over me while I was there, maybe it was how kind and knowledgeable our guide was, maybe it was the high from cuddling all the fuzzy meerkats, or maybe it was just my ‘try all the new things’ mantra while we live in Europe, but I said YES. And even more crazy, I chose to hold a snake over a lizard!
Harley brought out a bull python named Champagne and I knew I was meant to meet him. I mean… champagne and I always get along famously! So out Champagne comes, and he’s the most beautiful snake I’ve ever seen. It sounds odd to me to say that, but he was. Champagne colored (hence the name) with an almost faded looking python pattern, I could see why royals like Cleopatra would wear them as jewelry. I think the lack of pattern made him look less sinister to me and I warmed to him quickly. He wasn’t slimy and felt amazingly soft in my hands, almost like silk.
When Champagne decided to get curious and venture towards my purse, we decided it was time to go. I was so pleased with our encounters with all the animals at “The Animal Experience.” If you can get here to meet Pumba and her babies, I urge you to come. Because everyone needs some meerkat snuggles in their lives.