Meercat TV AD Cruelty


Meerkat misery: Thanks to that TV ad, they're now a must-have pet... but behind the cute image lies shocking cruelty

Right at the back of the pet shop, between the cages of mice, sacks of puppy feed and swarms of goldfish at £2.50 a pop, a little animal no more than eight inches tall is running up and down a poky mesh cage.

Simples, a one-year-old meerkat, is on sale for £900, making him quite a money-spinner for the store. Despite his high value, however, he looks anything but happy. His cage at Planet Pets in Radcliffe, north Manchester, is just 5ft by 2ft ('not good enough,' according to the RSPCA) and he is kept in it alone, despite the fact that wild meerkats live in groups of ten to 30.

Cute factor: Meerkats are selling at pet shops up and down the country for as much as £1,500 each

The animals are also hardwired to spend their days digging tunnels, but Simples has only a shallow layer of wood chips to play with.
And he's far from the only meerkat living in these kind of conditions, because they are big business - selling at pet shops up and down the country for as much as £1,500 each.

TV star: Meerkat 'Aleksandr Orlov' in the adverts for price comparison site

The animals, which are native to Botswana, were originally bought from zoos by experienced breeders, but they are now in such high demand that amateurs are cashing in on the trend.

Why are they so popular? The clue is in Simples' name - it's the catchphrase of 'Aleksandr Orlov', the meerkat star of adverts for price comparison site

This oddly compelling creation - a smoking, jacket-wearing puppet with a Russian accent - has more than 720,000 friends on Facebook and the advert has been watched more than 400,000 times on Youtube.

Some of these fans have decided to take their enthusiasm for Aleksandr Orlov to the next level by buying a meerkat - even though the RSPCA says the creatures are wholly unsuited to being kept as domestic pets.

Caged in: Meerkats become distressed if deprived of company

The majority are prised from their litter-mates and parents and kept on their own, which can cause huge psychological trauma.

That ranges 'from self-harm to hair-pulling, pacing up and down and, in severe cases, chewing off their own paws,' says the RSPCA's scientific officer Ros Clubb. Then there are the injuries that 'tame' hand-reared meerkats can inflict on their owners.

They have centimetre-long canine teeth, which feel 'like someone sticking a penknife into you - very painful,' according to meerkat expert Professor Tim Cluttonbrock, of the University of Cambridge, who has fallen foul of the creatures' gnashers.

Worse still, if you let them run loose indoors 'your carpets will be ripped up, any wires chewed through and if the meerkat hasn't electrocuted itself, it'l l certainly have ransacked the house,' says Craig Redmond of the Captive Animals' Protection Society.

Unfortunately, none of this is stopping some pet shops and breeders from selling the animals - and neither is the law.

If the meerkat trend continues, says Craig Redmond, then many owners will tire of the animals long before the end of their ten to 12-year lifespan. Huge numbers will be released into the wild (where 'they do not stand a chance') or will be put down.

But buyers are often told none of this by sellers keen to make a lucrative sale. even Planet Pets' manager Gareth admits the £900 price tag is steep - that's why the animals are sold individually.

Isn't keeping a meerkat on its own a bit cruel, I ask? 'No, it's not cruel to keep them on their own at all,' he says. 'You can stroke it and have it on your lap and everything.' Another pet shop owner I speak to doesn't have any in stock but 'can get his hands on them' for me at around £800 each.

Meerkat trend: The animals were originally bought from zoos by experienced breeders, but they are now in such high demand that amateurs are cashing in

Adam, of The Ark in Carlisle, even goes as far as telling me: 'They're much more interesting if you've just got the one.' He doesn't mention that isolating meerkats in captivity can cause them serious psychological damage.

'Meerkats are highly sociable animals, they need to be kept in groups and are probably rather unhappy alone,' says Professor Cluttonbrock.

Last year, the Captive Animals' Protection Society secretly monitored meerkat sales during a six-month study. It found that the majority are sold individually and buyers are given insufficient advice and help.

'If the meerkat is kept in a tiny cage in the shop, the buyer thinks that's how it can live all its life.

'They don't realise meerkats spend most of their days burrowing and digging and need fresh air, company and space,' says Redmond. even the most conscientious seller I spoke to, New World exotics of Beeston, Nottingham, (they ask would-be owners to fill out an application form and question buyers to find out if they're suitable) said: 'You can keep them indoors but they have to have free rein.'

But Redmond argues: 'It is outrageous to give a meerkat a free run inside, especially if you are out of the house. The damage they can cause is catastrophic as they're natural diggers.'

None of that is mentioned by breeder Andy from Wigan, who is advertising three male pups on for £600 a piece.

Posing as a potential buyer, I tell him I work all day and wonder if that might cause a problem.

He answers: 'It could be.' But he quickly adds: 'The way around it is to give it a cuddly toy or something with your scent on it and it'll cuddle up to "you". 'They're similar to a cat really. They're happy to live in the house and are quite inquisitive . . . I take mine for a walk on a lead and they're local celebrities.' Astonishingly, he even tells me I needn't necessarily feed my meerkat chicks, mealworms and insects (their usual diet).

'Their diet is . . . well, they can eat anything,' he says. 'Dog food, cat food, live worms, locusts, sausages, anything.'

Such sales spiel anger s Redmond, who says: 'The people who are in it for the money are often ignorant of everything: the right way to keep them and their dietary needs. I can't remember a single pet shop telling me meerkats need fruit in their diet.

'Keeping a meerkat in captivity is never going to be good enough. There's never a way of keeping them that's as good and natural as when they're in the wild'. The problem is that there is no law against keeping meerkats. Owners do have a 'duty of care' to their pets and have to meet their ' behavioural and social needs' - or face prosecution under the 2006 Animal Welfare Act.

But such rules are hard to enforce. You don't need a licence to keep or breed them, so the number of meerkats being kept as pets is impossible to estimate. The majority are sold by unlicensed breeders, although exotic pet shops often act as middle men and offer to 'track one down' for you. When I spoke to Danny at Manchester Pets and Aquatics he told me they had none in stock but said he could order one for a 'good price'.

The only shop I contacted that would only sell them in pairs ('because they can't be left on their own') was New World exotics in Beeston. But even that wasn't good enough for Craig Redmond who said: ' They' re hardwired physically to live in colonies of ten, 12, even 30 - so living in pairs just isn't big enough.' He adds: 'It's hard to be surprised by the numbers being sold. I visited one breeder in Leeds, a decent-looking couple in their forties living in a detached new-build on a nice estate.

'Right there in the hallway, they had five meerkat babies locked up in a small parrot cage, separated from their adults and the female adult was already pregnant again.
'She and the male were so wild, they were shut up in a tiled conservatory with nowhere to dig and absolutely no way of going outside.

'Can you imagine caging them up like that? You have to ask yourself why would you be so cruel as to try to tame something that is innately hardwired to be wild?'

One need look no further than lonely little Simples, scrabbling vainly at the floor of his cage, to agree.

By Laura Powell

From Dusk 'til Dawn
An Insider's View of the Growth of the Animal Liberation Movement

© Keith Mann