It was 6:30 am. I was tired. The kind of tired you only feel after months of sleep deprivation, hard physical work, a strained back, a jaw infection turned systemic and a gin-based hangover (oops). I had been waiting 20 minutes, mentally pleading with my colleagues to get up so we could start work.
The first of my workmates to emerge was Snotbubble. A little too keen, he came running over to say good morning before jumping on the scales I’d set up anticipating his early arrival. Soon his family followed and my morning work could start. I had around 20 meerkats to identify (based on marks we made with hair dye) and weigh by coaxing them onto a pair of scales, using scraps of boiled egg and water from a hamster bottle.
It looked like it was going to be a typical morning. But then, heavily pregnant Treeva emerged, with a tiny bald pup in her mouth. The pup was young enough that it shouldn’t have been out the burrow, so I knew this wasn’t going to be good. Despite not being the dominant female of the group, Treeva had decided to monopolize the group’s childcare for her impending litter by eating the pup, technically her half sister.
For some sadistic reason, she decided to do so starting with the back end. Amongst the gore and screaming, I tried to decide whether to vomit or run back to the farmhouse and fetch my camera to show the the vast difference between the perception and reality of meerkat family life.
Although made several months in advance, my decision to go to South Africa was to some extent spontaneous. I had been searching for work for the year after my Zoology degree, and whilst in the midst’s of my final exams and a messy breakup, “far away” and “for a very long time” became part of my job search criteria.
So when a professor mentioned the Kalahari Meerkat Project, although I had no previous affinity for meerkats, I ran to the library to send off my cv. Next thing I knew I was boarding a plane to Johannesburg, with just 20 kilos of luggage to cover me from temperatures of -10 to +40 degrees C, excitedly anticipating what I correctly predicted would be the oddest year of my life so far.
If you’ve ever watched "Meerkat Manor," or even just watched a lot of David Attenborough, you’ve seen where I’ve worked. It’s both beautiful and isolating, 32km2 of open space in the middle of the Kalahari desert, about 4/5 hours from the nearest town. It hosts anywhere between 10 and 45 people at any one time, most of whom are studying the meerkats.
The project has an established method for training its research volunteers -- throw you straight in. For the first two weeks, you have someone with you to teach you the ways of the ‘kats and step in before you throw your water bottle at them in frustration. After that you work alone, trusted to resist any violent urges.
The meerkats personalities range from grumpy old man to mischievous child; very intelligent, they will run rings around you if they can get some extra egg out of it. I used to find cursing at them in a sweet tone was a good stress relief on bad days. The only time I found myself having to walk away and shout at a bush was after being bitten by Kori, but I was told he was probably acting out because he was sexually frustrated due to a lack of suitable mates. In the end I felt more sorry for him than my finger.
In my first weeks, I had doubts. I felt clumsy and useless. I struggled to be patient with the meerkats and remember everything I was supposed to do. I found things started to perk up when I could laugh at the situation rather than stress.
For example, in my second week, on a day when I’d failed to weigh half of them before they’d gone to bed, the person training me suggested I should attempt to add the identifying blob of hair dye to the newest pup, who was still up. So I crawled on my belly under a thorn bush, trying to sneak up on a baby meerkat with a paintbrush covered in hair dye. I was so proud when my stealth self managed to do it, my scratches didn’t matter -- until he ran over to an adult who groomed away my mark.
But I was able to laugh at the meerkat who had groomed him, gaining a moustache in the process. I figured I’d catch the little one tomorrow.
A typical day could start anywhere between 4:40 and 7 am and end anywhere 5 and 8 pm. It changed depending on the sunrise/sunset. In summer we had 5-hour lunch breaks; in winter, we’d be lucky to upload our data and still get lunch-but at least we got to sleep. Each morning you’d be designated to one of 20 meerkat groups, ranging from 3-40 meerkats. We’d set off in in rusty old cars, or if you were lucky (unlucky?) you got to ride "the P.O.S.," and arrive at the relevant meerkat groups territory.
To locate the meerkats, you’d get out radio tracking equipment and wave an aerial around your head, straining to hear a faint "beep." The beep was coming from a radio-collar attached the dominant female meerkat of the group, assuming she hadn’t been eaten. You’d find the meerkat burrow whilst they were all still fast asleep. Then the wait, then the weighing.
Some meerkats, like Snotbubble, would fight to get on the scales, some meerkats were afraid of them. Some of them were so indifferent you could just pick them up move them, seemingly without them noticing.
After you’d coaxed all of them onto the scales, you’d start taking behavioral data. The idea was to capture as many interactions between individuals which represented cooperative or dominating behavior. This included: fights, hip bashing, rubbing anal glands on each other and submissive whining. Meerkats are so intensely studied because they are fascinating in the ways they live and maintain their lives in a cooperative group, a rarity in mammals.
After 3 hours of behavioral data, you’d weigh them all again before radioing whoever dropped you off and coordinating your trip home. Then you’d come home and enter your data, before napping/eating/watching "Dexter" and getting ready to go out in the evening and finding more meerkats (our morning and evening groups could differ), collect another hours worth of behavioral data and try and weigh them all before they vanished back down one of their many burrows. It was exhausting but I really felt like it was doing me good, physically and mentally.
After about a month and a half of being there, my Kalahari best friend arrived, a slightly eccentric Canadian, followed by a very eccentric Mexican who soon became my girlfriend, and I settled more happily into life there and missed home less. I actually enjoyed living in an isolated bubble. I didn’t have to worry about bills, food shopping, cooking, looking presentable, and there was always someone about to talk too.
Despite our limited Internet and costly phone bills, I made the effort to stay in touch with friends and family back home, but sometimes the conversation was strained. I couldn’t really relate to their lives and I felt my day-to-day life was monotonous to an outsider.
During a conversation, I found myself having to hold back from a 3rd 4th of 5th meerkat story.I figured it was like talking about work colleagues they have never met and had no interest in. I took to mass emails and blog posts as a main form of communication. I began to feel more comfortable talking to or about meerkats than having "real life" discussions.
The longer I was there, the more I started to see the meerkats as individuals and see how unique each one could be. Much like our domestic cats and dogs, they have their own little personalities and quirks and not a day went by when I couldn’t find something to laugh about with them. Falling out of trees, rubbing their anal glands on your hands (also Kori), falling asleep in amusing positions, using you as a lookout post, coming up with unique ways to trick you into letting go of an egg and playing, both with my stuff and with each other.
You gain favourite groups and individuals, hope for the underweight underdog to survive or not be evicted, designate villains, find love stories and enjoy watching the scenarios play out over weeks and months. You get excited to see different rare behaviours -- like their "war dance." You laugh out loud when they fall out of trees and silently cheer when a reluctant nervous individual finally gets on the scales.
I flew home during the London Olympics, expecting to be can’t-stop-talking happy to see everyone again. Instead I found London relatively quiet and myself retreating inward. I enjoyed "normal life," but I felt overwhelmed by the busyness of it. I missed Africa and all I associated with it. I had the disconcerting feeling that I hadn’t been away from the UK more than a couple of months, yet my friends had gained masters degrees, settled into graduate job and made other big changes in their lives. All the changes made me feel isolated from them.
I’ve been home for over a year now, and I still apologize to animals that I accidentally startle. I still find out about trends from 2011/2012 that I missed (Gangnam-what?). I still miss the weather, my friends and meerkats. I don’t think I’d like to do something so isolating again for so long, but it was definitely an experience I’m glad I had. I’ll leave you with a picture of one of my favourite meerkats, Cecil. Who very good-naturedly held my hand long enough for me to take this photo.