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Reality TV shot with a burrow-cam

Animal Planet's popular `Meerkat Manor' focuses on digging dirt and family dynamics.

July 01, 2006|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

So, there's this extended family of strong personalities -- photogenic, outgoing, all living under one roof. A camera follows their daily lives: what they eat, their sexual liaisons, power struggles, jealousies and sacrifices for one another. But the hook -- for those who want more reality in their soap operas -- is that these family members are meerkats living in the Kalahari Desert.

The Whiskers, stars of Animal Planet's unscripted "Meerkat Manor," airing Episode 6 of its first 13 at 8 p.m. Friday, must learn how to eat scorpions, battle rival clans and obey the iron rule of a female leader. The winners get to survive.

For a documentary, "Meerkat Manor" is unusually anthropomorphized, dispensing with the familiar "voice of God" narration that accompanies most such shows in favor of characterization, story arcs and close-up reaction shots. As in any soap or reality show, the characters are presented to engage viewers' emotions: Will Shakespeare survive the poisonous snake bite? Will Flower evict Mozart from the family for good?

So far, the series has "all the makings of a hit," at least by the cable network's standards, said Maureen Smith, Animal Planet's executive vice president and general manager. The premiere drew more than a million viewers, and more in subsequent episodes. "Even more interesting, it was the adults that were driving the increases," she said. Though not intended, many viewers said they related to the power struggles in the family, producers said.

Working in conjunction with Oxford Scientific Films, the network has already planned a second season and is negotiating for a feature film, Smith said. "We just hope they don't get agents, or negotiating for Season 3 will be tough," she joked. Already, the meerkats are listed individually as actors ("Flower the Meerkat") on the Internet movie database IMDB.com.

Documentarians have tried, but often failed, with such personality-driven animal films. According to executive producer Mick Kaczorowski, "Meerkat Manor" succeeds partly because it is episodic and partly because of the animals themselves, mongoose relatives with strong community behavior, an alert, prairie dog stance and dark, wide eyes. Think Timon from "The Lion King."

"Nothing can compare with closeups of little meerkat faces," Kaczorowski said. "When those heads turn and you see the reactions of their faces, you can almost feel what Flower is going through, what her daughter is going through, what Shakespeare is going through."

Although in conversation they sometimes refer to the meerkats as people, network executives and scientific consultants insist the series has not overly anthropomorphized the animals. Editors do insert some out-of-context reaction shots for the effect, but situations are not manipulated as in some reality shows, Kaczorowski said. To be convinced, viewers must be able to see for themselves that what the narrators say is true, he said. "Though we say it's a soap opera with fur, these are not stories we're making up; this is really what's happening."

A camera placed underground managed to capture footage of a poisonous snake biting Shakespeare as he was trying to dig it out. The camera crew then followed the wounded animal hobbling home and, later, curled up in a fetal ball, accepting sustenance from community members. In another scene, a young meerkat babysitter gets bored with the job and runs off, leaving the baby to find its own way back to the burrow.

Strictly speaking, however, the meerkats do not experience human emotions, said professor Tim Clutton-Brock, a zoologist at the University of Cambridge who oversees the 13-year meerkat study at a privately owned ranch in southern Africa upon which "Meerkat Manor" is drawn. "I expect they feel their own emotions," he said. Scientists had already named many of the meerkats in the Whiskers family.

"It's hard not to anthropomorphize them," said Pam Bennett-Wallberg, the director of the world's only known meerkat sanctuary, Fellow Earthlings' Wildlife Center in Morongo Valley. Each of the seven animals in that facility has a distinct personality, fears, likes and dislikes, said Bennett-Wallberg, who, along with Clutton-Brock and seven other zoologists, consulted on the series to ensure fundamental scientific accuracy.

The study, which has produced dozens of papers for scientific journals, aims to explain why some groups of animals will help family members breed but not breed themselves, a puzzle for evolutionary biologists. To gain genetic control, dominant meerkat females like Flower go to great lengths to prevent their own daughters from breeding, Clutton-Brock said. "Grandmothers are quite commonly killing grandchildren," he said.

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