In South Africa, the idiom “tough as nails” doesn’t cut it. To assert a rough-and-ready attitude, the phrase is “as tough as a ratel.” These fearless and persistent creatures are recorded attacking cobras, shredding into beehives amidst the stinging swarm, and even chasing lions off their kills.
All the more amazing, considering this brashness is bottled inside a mere 25-pound creature with the deceptively friendly nickname of African honey badger.
Beginning Saturday, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens becomes one of only four American zoos where this extraordinary species can be seen.
Fearless and persistent perfectly describes the ratel. They will rip wooden planks from hen houses and dig under walls to get a meal. Even the stings of bees do not deter them from tearing into beehives with their immense claws. Their thick skin and dense hair protects them from many stings. It is that taste for honey that earned them the “honey badger” name.
Their diet also includes scorpions, rodents, berries, roots, and tortoises. In a still unknown process, ratels survive envenomation by cobras, puff adders, and other deadly snakes. After killing the snake, the bitten ratel drops and remains still as if dead, but eventually rises from its toxic stupor to eat its would be assassin.
Although commonly associated with Africa, the honey badger ranges all the way to India. When cornered, ratels will savagely attack and most predators have learned to leave them alone. Even the South African army named their armored infantry fighting vehicle the ratel in honor of their toughness.
The three ratels arrived in Naples a few months ago from Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, another nationally-accredited zoo. After the standard quarantine time to insure their health and to make habitat renovations, the ratels are ready to greet zoo guests.
And “habitat renovations” is putting it lightly. Heavy tie wires on the mesh walls were replaced with even heavier steel. Feeding dens were completely rebuilt. The ground was excavated and covered in 6-gauge chain link; the chain-link seams were ringed together and concreted, as was the entire perimeter of the habitat. Finally, a naturalistic rock wading and swimming pool was crafted before the habitat was refilled with dirt.
The zoo opens at 9 a.m. to the public.
Naples Zoo members can be among the first to see the new badgers as early as 8 a.m. on Saturday to see the new arrivals. Members must bring their member cards and photo ID. Not a Zoo Member. It’s not too late. Join online at www.napleszoo.org/.