misery: Thanks to that TV ad, they're now a must-have pet... but behind
the cute image lies shocking cruelty
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.
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.
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.
Meerkat 'Aleksandr Orlov' in the adverts for price comparison site comparethemarket.com
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.
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
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.
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.
in: Meerkats become distressed if deprived of company
majority are prised from their litter-mates and parents and kept on their
own, which can cause huge psychological trauma.
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.
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.
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.
none of this is stopping some pet shops and breeders from selling the animals
- and neither is the law.
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.
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.
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
trend: The animals were originally bought from zoos by experienced breeders,
but they are now in such high demand that amateurs are cashing in
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.
are highly sociable animals, they need to be kept in groups and are probably
rather unhappy alone,' says Professor Cluttonbrock.
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.
the meerkat is kept in a tiny cage in the shop, the buyer thinks that's
how it can live all its life.
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
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.'
of that is mentioned by breeder Andy from Wigan, who is advertising three
male pups on preloved.co.uk for £600 a piece.
as a potential buyer, I tell him I work all day and wonder if that might
cause a problem.
'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).
diet is . . . well, they can eat anything,' he says. 'Dog food, cat food,
live worms, locusts, sausages, anything.'
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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
'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.
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
need look no further than lonely little Simples, scrabbling vainly at the
floor of his cage, to agree.