When the San Diego Zoo received its first pair of honey badgers, a subspecies called the Vernay’s ratel, in 1998, a new challenge awaited the keepers. While they were aware of the housing and nutritional needs of this species, the animals’ aggressiveness was a challenge. However, the opportunity to work with a new species in a collection is one of the rewards of being a keeper, and our keepers were eager to learn as much as possible.
The animals spent a good deal of time in a nest box during the day, coming out at night to investigate their new home, so keepers didn’t see much of them. Imagine their surprise when a newborn honey badger was found in the nest box on January 11, 1999! Apparently, the female had been about halfway through her pregnancy when she arrived in San Diego. Hers was the first birth of a Vernay’s ratel in the Western Hemisphere. Over the years, we’ve had nine more babies born here.
Currently the Zoo and the Safari Park each has one female honey badger. Cookie can be seen in the Zoo’s Africa Rocks zone. At the Park you’ll find Benzy, who was born at the Zoo in 2008. Her name is an Afrikaans slang word that means crazy. We mean that affectionately, of course—Benzy is a trained animal ambassador, and her trainers say she is crazy busy and crazy smart! She was not hand raised but raised by her mother, Honey, and socialized with people until she moved to the Park at three months of age. Benzy comes out on a leash most days and can be usually be seen at the animal encounter area outside the bird show amphitheater on Wednesdays through Sundays.
Honey badgers are considered endangered in parts of their range, due largely to human encroachment, which reduces their food supply. The animal’s sweet tooth does not make it popular with people who raise bees for their honey. Some beekeepers kill any honey badgers they see just to protect their beehives. However, since honey badgers can’t jump, many beekeepers have found that simply securing the beehives a few feet higher off the ground discourages honey badgers from climbing up to reach them and keeps the bees and their honey safe. Many beekeepers in Africa are now producing “badger-friendly honey”—it’s a sweet deal for all!