Today we visited the Mundenhof mob again. There is good news and bad news.
The good news is about Sayuri. We have been very surprised and delighted about her progress in general. During the time when we were on vacation in August we were very worried that perhaps there would be only two pups when we returned and we also got an email from one of the keepers during that time that did not sound very hopeful. But she has pulled through and developed into a very strong personality full of joy for life.
Flashback - to sum up, Sayuri was born with a neural condition that causes problems with coordination of her movements and her sense of balance. We do not know exactly what it is and whether there is a causal relationship with the fact that she has an extremely short tail; a similar combination can show up in dogs (and humans...) in cases of spina bifida. Many of her symptoms fit in with damage of the cerebellum - what is described as 'Cerebellar tremor (also known as "intention tremor")', and Dysmetria / Asynergy. However she does not have any indication of general problems with muscle tone or strength.
Today was the first time we saw her jump up onto one of the lookout hills, the smaller but steeper one. We have observed that she finds her own "special solutions" for many challenges.
There are many things that she cannot do just by following the instincts of her body like the other meerkats because her muscles will simply not get the right signals.
For instance, all the other kats will just jump up to the stone beneath the heatlamp in the interior enclosure from some random angle. It is natural for them that they can size up the distance and angle, and their brain will subconsciously send the exact right signals to their muscles to always jump exactly the right way and land perfectly.
This is what does not work with Sayuri. It is not an issue of muscle strength, she is quite strong although a bit smaller than the rest of the kats. If she tries to jump like this, she will usually just land on her back with all legs kicking in a not very dignified pose (can meerkats be embarassed; sometimes I think so!) - Landing in general is something she is not good at.
So the tremendous work that Sayuri does is to find conscious solutions for all these things. She will develop a workaround, memorize it, and use that, until she finds another, better one - or by exercise learns to accomplish it the "proper" way. For instance whe she wants to get up to the stone under the heatlamp, she looks for a certain point on the concrete ledge quite a bit away from the stone, pulls herself up with her front paws up onto the ledge, and then walks over the narrow ledge to the stone. The ledge is about as high as she is when she stretches out fully.
No other meerkat will ever get up on the stone like this - for a "normal" meerkat it is just natural to jump from wherever they stand. but Sayuri has to look at each situation like this and find her own complex trick to get where the other kats are. We have observed quite a few instances of her finding such solutions for different problems in the enclosure. It is very interesting to see how an animal like this copes with such a situation. In fact humans with cerebellar injuries can have similar issues.
One result of this is that many of the little daily things that a meerkat does naturally, are hard work for her. When she gets tired, and she can't concentrate anymore, her movements get very uncoordinated and she becomes quite helpless and miserable to watch. As soon as she's gotten a short nap and can focus again, she performs much better.
We were very disturbed when we watched her once, tottering about like a punch-drunk boxer in the last round, not even able to find a direction to walk in, and thought she had a serious relapse or even some additional brain damage - but then after half an hour of rest she was reborn.
Another thing is that she has a problem multitasking. The other pups have no problem walking forward, and looking up into the air (watching a plane, ec) at the same time. This is very hard for her to do and she will usually stumble, or have to stop in her tracks.
She can run as fast as the others over open ground but she careens about a bit and when she runs along the side of the enclosure, where there is a kind of "fast track" along a wall that leads to the interior part, she will bounce off the wall a bit like a badly driven race car in a video game. But she gets there!
Sayuri was not able to get out of the burrow when she was ca 3-4 weeks old and this was a time when the meerkats still got their nourishment from their mother's milk, but she mostly fed them overground.
So Sayuri was only able to drink at night when the entire family was in the burrow, while the other pups could drink all day. This is probably where she got her developmental lag in terms of size but ever since the pups have started to eat their own solid food she has been closing the gap. Probably she will always remain somewhat smaller though.
She is very intense and serious in her defence of food and often starts spit-calling, growling and lunging at competitors (even the dominant male!) right away, when anyone shows even the slightes interest in her food - or gets close enough she imagines an interest - , probably because this is just "no fun" for her remembering that hunger.
At this point we are sure Sayuri will grow up to be a very special meerkat who will, sometimes in a roundabout way and with some strange tricks, be able to do most of the things all other kats can.
She will never stand as tall and free as the great sentries like Plattohr, and will never wrestle quite as elegantly on two legs as the others, but she has learned to lead a rich and fulfilled life despite her handicap and is full of energy.
One thing we observed very early on with her is that she NEVER GIVES UP. even when she literally couldn't make it out of the burrow she would try for hours and in the end appeared in some obscure hole at the lowest point of the enclosure, that was totally forgotten. This caused quite some distress with the adults who then rescued her from this desolation.
So that is the good news about Sayuri.
Sadly we have a new problem case and that is Swingkat (Schaukelmännchen), one of five males who joined the group in Autumn of 2002 as very young juveniles.
We noticed that he has a deformed face and lower jaw and that he has lost a horrific amount of weight.
He is very emaciated, his face which was always kind of "childish" looks aged, his bones stick out and he looks almost as if he would break apart in the middle. He was always the smallest of the adults anyway. He also has problems eating; there were some corn (maize) kernels strewn about which are not extremely attractive for meerkats, but Sayuri was able to eat them, and normally a desperately hungry meerkat would go for something like this to fill up, but Swingkat ignored them. We reported the situation to one of the keepers and he came around with some mealworms, that Swingkat devoured ferociously. Swingkat has always been an absolute darling with the pups but in this case, on the brink of starvation, he viciously defended his meal against the pups, which are actually a problem for him in this situation, because they are very agile and will take away most of his meals - because it takes him so long to chew them up and he will always have to drop an item of food and pick it up again and again. We observed this when he was eating a tiny "cherry tomato" which a meerkat will usually crush and gulp, this was quite a a challenge for him.
The best guess right now is an abscess somewhere in the lower right jaw, according to the photos. He will be seeing the vet on Monday. We know how tough meerkats are from Meerkat Manor, were in some episodes you could see quite horribly emaciated meerkats that were still able to forage. However meerkats do not store energy in fat reserves and if they fall ill and can't get enough energy into their body it is a serious problem. A meerkat that can't eat properly will get into serious danger within a few days. We could see how Swingkat instantly developed more energy and was not as listless and immobile after getting his additional treats.
We hope very much that with some supplemental feeding, attention, probably antibiotics and perhaps pulling a rotten tooth our little Swingkat will pull through. A this moment we cannot tell what the cause of his illness is but we are hoping that it is something relatively simple as a tooth abscess, because this fits with the swelling on his jaw and his trouble chewing/biting, and would explain his weight loss as we saw how he lost most of his food to the vigorous pups, and he is unable to eat items like mice in this situation.
Back in 2004 we observed something similar with Stubbytail (Stummelschwänzchen) who also developed an abscess; he would carry away his mouse normally but would be unable to do anything with it, he would fumble about with it with increasing frustration and finally creep away to stay hungry while someone else ate the mouse.
The problem is that from a viewpoint of "getting food" a meerkat at this point seems normal - you have to stay around to make sure that everything is eaten. During the busy schedule that exists at the animal park, it is therefore possible that Swingkat's condition when it initially developed was not obvious to the keepers, because he picked up his mouse normally - and Swingkat anyway is one of the kats who often retreats a bit with his item of food.
What is it with the abscesses, they generally seem relatively common, and this may have something to do with all the trash that is thrown in by undisciplined visitors. We've seen anything from ice cream, french fries, pasta leftovers, cake, salt crackers, baloney to... the devil knows.
Dental health in general is not too good in the group, there are some kats who seem to be remarkably immune but several of the males have strangely rounded teeth that look as if they are molten down, or partially dissolved - as if they were made of ice and mostly thawed away. So the canines which should be quite sharp are like rounded pebbles. Möfzi has some time ago lost one of her lower canines but this could be unrelated to food issues, as she is also the oldest kat in the group and we don't know how exactly how old she is, we have known her for 8 years but she is probably at least 9 - unless she was not a pup when the meerkat display was opened, in which case she might be even older yet.
Ironically the kat which we were originally most worried about in terms of dental health was Plattohr (Flat-Ears) who had some very brown/black teeth from a quite early age, but together with Orlok he has some of the finest meerkat canines left in the group.
We will post a few photos next week and keep everyone informed as to how Swingkat's condition develops.
Of course we love all of the meerkats but Swingkat has always had a special place in our hearts because of his playful antics, his personality which mixes mischieviousness, some shyness but also a lot of brazenness. And he has always just been "the cutest" until the pups emerged :)