Chico, L.A.'s ‘lonely’ meerkat

There’s an easier way to spot celebrities than prowling the produce aisle at a Whole Foods Market in Hollywood in hopes that Paula Abdul will stumble along. You can go to the zoo.

Chico the Lonely Meerkat now joins such famous fauna as Ruby the Abused Elephant and Reggie the Elusive Alligator at the Los Angeles Zoo, whose collection has come to more closely resemble a troupe than an exhibit. These animals have become household names for a variety of reasons, but mostly because they’ve gotten more media coverage than a Britney Spears court appearance.

Chico’s turn in the spotlight came after his domestic partner, Spanky, expired in January. The suddenly solitary Chico was a disturbing sight to zoo patrons, leading to an online campaign demanding that the zoo either find him a new companion or ship him to a meerkat colony in some other zoo. After a story on the campaign appeared in The Times, the online petition had 1,224 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

The outcry over Chico is unusual in that it doesn’t concern an elephant -- the proper care of pachyderms tends to inflame passions, such as a local controversy last year over Ruby and a more recent one over Jenny, a lonely African elephant at the Dallas Zoo. But if activists never forget elephants, they’re becoming increasingly vocal about meerkats. That’s largely thanks to a hit show on cable’s Animal Planet called “Meerkat Manor,” which demonstrates that meerkats have more interesting social networks, as well as better communication and grooming skills, than the cast of “Big Brother.” It’s terrific entertainment, but hardly science; segments are edited to emphasize the animals’ human qualities, while a narrator spins anthropomorphic tales about the critters.

Judging from the comments on the petition website, this tendency to humanize animals helps explain the fuss overChico. “Humans are social animals too ... can you imagine being subjected to this type of isolation?” wrote one petition signatory. Zoo officials, meanwhile, say Chico seems to be adjusting well to his newfound solitude. What’s more, he’s an elderly meerkat with teeth problems and might be in danger if he were introduced to a new group -- as social as meerkats are, they also can be violent to strangers.

Until there’s an eHarmony for meerkats, it might be better for Chico to stay single. Though if the zoo wants to set up some video dating for him, we won’t complain.