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Naples Zoo now features a trio of honey badgers

By Staff | Aug 25, 2011

A species native to Asia and Africa, an exhibit of three honey badgers debuted at the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens on Saturday. The badgers had previously been housed at the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska.

As one of the most popular attractions for residents of and visitors to Southwest Florida, the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens has been known to feature some of the most interesting and popular animals found around the globe.

But it had never before featured a YouTube sensation. Until now, that is.

On Saturday, the zoo debuted an exhibit featuring three African honey badgers, known in the animal kingdom as one of the most fearless and persistent creatures despite their relatively small (25 pound) stature. They are fierce, competitive critters who – as depicted in the now-famous YouTube featurette from Randall’s Wild Wild World of Animals – will shred into beehives amidst a stinging swarm, chase lions off their kills and even wrestle with a King cobra.

“I’m stunned by how many people know what a honey badger is when I tell people the zoo is bringing them in and it’s almost always Randall’s video,” explained David Tetzlaff, director of the Naples Zoo. “These badgers are incredible, which is why we wanted to share them with our guests. We’re all surprised and excited that so many folks already know what they are and look forward to seeing them in person.”

According to Tetzlaff, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is currently one of only four American zoos where you can see this extraordinary species. Honey badgers will rip wooden planks from hen houses and dig under walls in order to get to their prey. Even the stings of bees won’t deter them from tearing into beehives with their immense claws. Fortunately, 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.

David Tetzlaff, director of the Naples Zoo, wearing his "Honey Badger Don't Care" t-shirt.

In a still unknown process, ratels – as they are also known – 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.

Randall’s Wild Wild World of Animals’ hilariously narrated video of a honey badger doing battle with a cobra – which has more than 14.5 million views worldwide – garnered the attention of Forbes magazine and even led to a commercial endorsement for the popular voice-over actor. Prior to the opening of the honey badger exhibit at Naples Zoo, Christopher Gordon, one of Randall’s crew members, filmed the trio of honey badgers exploring their new habitat.

In fact, the phrase “Honey Badger Don’t Care” became a pop culture catch phrase and best-selling t-shirt earlier this year due to the popularity of the notorious YouTube video.

“(Randall) started asking about the opening of the new habitat. It was a little hard to believe that he was calling, but that voice is unmistakable,” said Tim Tetzlaff, the zoo’s director of conservation and communication. “If there’s a celebrity associated with honey badgers, it’s Randall.”

A member-only preview of the exhibit began shortly after 8 a.m. on Aug. 20, when the three mature (between 8 and 9 years) honey badgers – one male and two females – entered the enclosure which formerly housed a pair of ocelots. David Tetzlaff explained that while the honey badgers have been in Naples for several months, it took a major renovation of the habitat to secure the formidable diggers.

A honey badger licks honey off of one of the stone spheres featured in their enclosure.

“The enclosure has been modified with a concrete base and chain link fence that goes down pretty deep,” he noted while watching the three ratels explore their space, which includes several elevated landings, a tree house and ramp, large stone sphere, wading pool and feeding dens. “It’s nice to have a living group of honey badgers, because normally they’re a solitary species.”

Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that has opened five new feature exhibits in the last five years, is located at 1590 Goodlette-Frank Road (across from the Coastland Center Mall). It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last ticket sold at 4 p.m. To learn more, visit www.napleszoo.org or call 239-262-5409.

The crowd of zoo members gathered around the honey badger exhibit.

The three honey badgers living at the Naples Zoo are a rare sight in the United States.