It starts out the usual way; you’re bored out of your mind and so you go channel surfing. That’s how I found The Crocodile Hunter on Animal Planet and The Dog Whisperer on National Geographic. At first, Meerkat Manor was just one of those shows I would flip to when commercials were on whatever else I was watching and then, without realizing it, I got hooked.
I think what’s refreshing about this show is that it’s absolutely real, unvarnished, and unstaged. There are no humans (except for unseen narrator Sean "Rudy" Astin), no human interference or contact and no script. By using dozens of automated cameras, including fiber-optic ones in the underground dens, Cambridge University has been able to follow the lives of a “mob” of meerkats for over ten years. Animal Planet has managed to present the drama/comedy of the lives of this mob of about forty critters called "the Whiskers" clan and keep it equally as genuine as it is entertaining.
Not an easy feat on TV these days.
A meerkat is a member of the mongoose family and stands only about twelve inches tall and weighs maybe two pounds – if that. They set up a territory with several well-placed underground burrows where they sleep and raise their young, wandering from den to den as the mood or necessity strikes them.
A mob is ruled by a dominant female, much like in a beehive, but a meerkat female is a true hands-on leader, guiding foraging expeditions and personally fronting fights to keep control of her ground from rival mobs.
In this case, the leader is a tough woman named Flower, who despite her name, rules her domain with an iron hand. The dominant female is the only one allowed to mate and produce pups. That doesn’t mean her husband Zaphod is exactly a wimp. As on a chessboard, the queen has all the power, but the king, in the end, is just as important to the outcome. A tracking collar around Flower’s neck monitors her movements in the game.
I will warn you, though, that as ridiculous as this sounds to those who haven’t seen this program yet, their story is incredibly addictive. Because of the way they stand up while on guard and look around, it’s nearly impossible not to give them human emotions. Meerkats have a fascinating society where all the members look out for each other. They fight, they love, they nurture, and their story is nakedly presented, with all the sex, violence, deaths, births, and conflicts presented for us to see.
On daily trips looking for food, guards stand balanced on their hind legs and tail tripod-fashion watching out for predators on the ground and especially in the air so the others can eat in peace. When Flower leads her gang out, others dutifully and unselfishly stay behind to guard her pups back at the burrow against predators.
They are incredibly dedicated to each other’s safety, to the point of risking (and, in some cases, giving) their lives for the others' survival. Family dedication even extends to the other females lactating so that Flower’s pups will be fed by multiple sources.
Meerkats don’t do well on their own because their very survival depends on lookouts being constantly vigilant while the others dig deep into the ground for their meals of worms, lizards, and the occasional fat millipede. Desert storms wreak havoc; birds of prey are a constant threat to the pups and occasionally to the adult meerkats themselves. Their health also depends on constant grooming by their fellow family members to guard against ticks and other parasites (which conveniently make for tasty treats).
Keeping control of about three square miles of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa is not an easy task. When food is scarce during droughts, rival gangs (in this case, the Lazulis and the Commandos), can be downright deadly. In one recent episode, Flower’s spotters glimpsed a bird of prey while they were foraging near a Lazuli border and they all scrambled into the nearest scattered collection of holes for cover.
Flower, her pups, and six of her family thought they were safe after the bird gave up and left. As they all climbed out into daylight, the Lazuli returned to what turns out to be their den. As Flower and the others retreat back into the hole, the rival gang pounces in overwhelming numbers to reclaim it. We are left wondering if she and her young pups (on their first feeding trip) will survive as the Lazuli began feverishly digging her out in clouds of flying sand.
Then there’s the soap opera side of the story, including kidnappings by rival gangs, fights over food, births, deaths, and dangerous weather.
Flower’s dominant male is Zaphod. Her ex is his brother Youssarian, who still lives semi-peacefully with the mob. The adolescent males will leave the group on occasion to find a roving or ejected female from another mob to start their own family, or just to mate with and return home the next day.
Other characters include Casanova Carlos, a roving male from the Lazuli whose sole purpose in life seems to be to mate with as many females as he can find, regardless of affiliation, and then heartlessly leave them.
Flower’s daughter Mozart was one of Carlos' victims and recently went against Flower's rules for the second time and got pregnant. As before, she was kicked out of the family. In the freezing desert night, with no family to huddle with for warmth or to scavenge for food, her health deteriorated fast and she lost her litter of pups. She has currently been trying to find a way back into her mother’s good graces in order to rejoin her family, but knows if she doesn’t choose her time just right, she could receive a vicious beating and permanent banishment.
One of my favorites of the group, Shakespeare, was guarding the pups back at the den when the Lazuli attacked. Though having been bitten by a puff adder weeks before, and all alone to guard them, he faced down overwhelming odds.
The season cliffhanger proved a disappointment for us Shakespeare fans because the first episode of the current season showed that the pups survived, but Shakespeare was never heard from again, and no mention or explanation has yet been made as to what happened to him.
While I love this program and make it a point to watch it every Friday on Animal Planet (8PM eastern), I do have one problem with it. It’s presented in two back-to-back half-hour episodes. A lot of time is wasted at the beginning of each and every program repeatedly explaining how Cambridge University has been studying them. At the end of that episode, previews are given for the following one to air in only a few minutes, and the second episode wastes more time again on the CU commercial, needlessly recapping the episode we saw just moments before.
I think they would be better off following The Dog Whisperer’s lead and changing to an hour-long format instead of two half hour programs.
I will warn you again that if you watch even one episode, you will become addicted.