SALT LAKE CITY — Hogle Zoo officials say it's a coincidence that Disney's release of the new live action film "The Lion King" should fall so close to the inauguration of the zoo's new Meerkat Manor, located just a few feet away from the home of two recently acquired warthogs.
"It just happened to coincide" said Erica Hansen, spokeswoman for the zoo, noting that "if we can catch some of the community fever and hopefully get people out to enjoy these amazing species, then we're all for it."
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the manor, old friends and some elected officials gathered around for a moment reminiscent of Mufasa's famous presentation of his newborn son Simba in the popular Disney cartoon.
Even Husani the gorilla came out to watch. Sitting atop a platform in the zoo's Great Ape House, he munched on leaves as Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson spoke.
"Hakuna Matata," she declared. "It means life is good, we're relaxed, we're happy."
Wilson said she could not think of a place "where you feel that any better than the Hogle Zoo." Her voice cracked a little as she reminisced about being a child at the zoo.
"I'm getting a little emotional, because it is such a special place," she said.
Present in the audience were state Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and Jenny Wilson's father, former Salt Lake City Mayor Ted Wilson.
As it turns out, Pumba and Simba are not the only two lovers of the meerkat. The curious creatures' new habitat at the zoo is dedicated to James E. Hogle Jr., who says they are his favorite animal.
"They're terrific. They are like little people, they have their own little colonies and families, they are just fun to be around," said Hogle Jr.
Pivotal to the founding of the zoo, the Hogle family has been actively involved with its operation since day one. Hogle Jr. is the grandson of the late Mary and James Hogle, who originally donated 42 acres of land from their family farm for the zoo's creation.
Following in the footsteps of his father, the late James Hogle, Hogle Jr. has served on the zoo's board of directors for 40 years.
"He is the longest-serving member of the zoo's board of executives. Without his service and dedication to the zoo for 45 years, the zoo would not be what it is today," said co-board member and — according to Hogle Jr. — old time friend, Paul M. Dougan.
Zookeeper Jana Thompson said that while it's unlikely you would ever see a meerkat sitting atop a warthog's head, meerkats are quite social among themselves.
"They can live in large mobs of up to 20 in the wild," she said, noting that while the zoo isn't looking to host quite that many meerkats, it is part of a survival program for the species.
"We are hoping, cross your fingers, that we will have some more babies here at the zoo in upcoming years."
The three meerkats currently living in the manor are a family — mother Cali, daughter Kendy and father Finch.
Thompson said Cali and Finch "had one baby, Kendy, but for some reason they haven't had more, so we're hoping that (the new manor) will spice it up."
The zoo has recently acquired the two warthogs, which Thompson said are beginning to acclimate to their new environment, a process zookeepers call the "howdy."
Patrons of the zoo will be able to participate in naming the warthogs by entering their favored name into a drawing after making a donation through the zoo's website.