By Chris Fish
BREVARD -- At the Brevard Zoo, a group of children, with exhausted parents rushing behind them, gather outside an exhibit.
They shout excitedly, pointing and screaming at the Zoo's newest $500,000 attraction: a group of seven meerkats from South Africa.
"I've never seen a meerkat exhibit as big, as interactive and as beautiful as this," said Sebastian Carcano, zookeeper for the "Africa" portion of the Brevard Zoo. "It really is state-of-the-art, with incredible content for anyone wanting to see a good example of meerkats."
Since March, these seven meerkats, and "Nelson," a dik-dik, have entranced Brevard County residents, organizers said.
A dik-dik is a small antelope that lives in the bush-lands of eastern and southern Africa.
"I think that their appeal and why there are so many (television) shows about them is that people identify with them," Mr. Carcano said. "It has a lot do with their social structure; it's very much a family, and you watch them interact. They're very entertaining animals to watch, and kids indentify with that."
For nearly the past month, the animals have done everything together: when one stands on its hind legs, they all do, looking into the distance together at some unknown.
When one jumps playfully on another, they all join, wrestling each other to the ground, as "Nelson" observes from a corner, nervously watching his fellow exhibit-mates.
"Dik diks are skittish animals and they are not necessarily found in the same areas as meerkats in the wild," Mr. Carcano said. "So far, their interactions have been interesting. The meerkats allow him to explore."
While meerkats are insectivores in nature, Mr. Carano said that employees are not always able to feed them scorpions and spiders. Instead, the zoo gives them a diet, primarily of crickets.
When Mr. Carano enters the exhibit with a bucket-full of crickets, the meerkats all swarm to him, with one resting its front paws on his knee, looking up at him playfully, as he feeds them.
"(I can't believe) how active they are," he said. "I thought it was editing on TV's part."
The meerkats burrow beneath the ground in their exhibits, creating tunnels as they would in the wild.
"They are burrowing animals," Mr. Carcano said. "They can have anywhere from 50 to 60 different entrances and exits (in the wild) that lead to (underground) dens."
Leesa Whittlef, platform area manager for the "Africa" portion of the zoo, said the Zoo is in the process of breeding the animals, but whether or not the new meerkats will stay at the Brevard exhibit remains to be seen.
"Learning about all of their breeding behavior was very interesting and surprising for me," she said. "(I enjoy) learning about how they work within a social structure."
Once feeding time is over, a meerkat scales the glass of its exhibit and comes face to face with a smiling child, and they look at one another through the glass.
The Brevard Zoo is located at 8225 N. Wickham Road in Melbourne.
For more information, call (321) 254-9453.