THEY have become the best of friends - all thanks to a mystery ingredient.

In a first in the world of zoo keeping, animal experts have successfully set up a new group of meerkats with the help of a decongestant rub.

Three new arrivals at Paultons Park, near Ower, have been introduced to the park's two resident meerkats.

To prevent the animals from attacking the newcomers - which is the usual instinct for meerkats - the keepers came up with the ingenious idea of using Vicks VapoRub.

The novel solution involves rubbing Vicks on the animals' noses, under their tails and around their enclosure to block their scent for a couple of days.

It has been such a success they are now recommending it to other animal keepers.

Geoff Masson, livestock manager at Paultons, said: "It is normally extremely difficult to integrate new meerkats into an existing group - their usual instinct is to try to attack any newcomers. Others have used lion droppings and talcum powder before, without much success. However, thanks to a suggestion from our vet Kate Chitty we were able to neutralise all odours by using a little of the vapour rub on the nose of each meerkat.

"The meerkats then all smelt the same to each other and gladly accepted the new arrivals."

He said Kate had used Vicks with guinea pigs when she was younger and they tried it as an experiment.

"It's not cruel at all," said Geoff. "By the time the Vicks scent rubs off, they have slept in their den and scented themselves and their enclosure so they accept one another. We have seen no aggression at all."

The three new meerkats, two male and one female, came from Bristol Zoo and Banham Zoo in Norfolk, where they had been pushed out of their original groups.

Paultons is hoping to welcome some new arrivals soon too as the group is already showing signs of breeding.