“My daughters are sleeping around.”
“The neighbors are trying to evict us.”
“I’m pregnant. Again. And again. And again.”
To the uninitiated, the TV commercial that ran this summer with those provocative declarations must have seemed like a teaser for a new network soap opera, or perhaps for HBO’s effort to follow up The Sopranos with a daring new family-centered drama.
In fact, the commercial spot was announcing the third season, now in full swing, of Meerkat Manor, the extraordinary Animal Planet series chronicling the lives of a clan of Suricata suricatta, or meerkats, in the Kalahari Desert. The most popular show on the cable network and an Emmy nominee for best nonfiction series, Meerkat Manor draws as many as 1 million viewers per episode, and its success has even sparked a full-length feature film, now in the works from the unlikely combination of the BBC and producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein.
What sets Meerkat Manor apart from the typical animal TV show and makes it among the most compelling programs on the tube is the nature of these family-oriented critters—and the mirror that they hold up to our own lives. To survive in the deadly Kalahari, the tiny, vulnerable meerkats live in clans composed mostly of extended-family members, who exhibit an unusual degree of cooperation. Scientists of the Kalahari Research Project have undertaken an extraordinary decade-long effort to understand how meerkat society works, tracing meerkat family trees, mapping the relationships among hundreds of the animals, and studying their habits. As a result, what the camera catches on a typical day under the desert sun, which might otherwise seem like the innocuous activities of 12-inch-high furry creatures, becomes a succession of family tales—sometimes comically evocative of human domestic life, and sometimes heartbreakingly brutal (as life in the Kalahari inevitably must be), but never boring.
Observing the complex interactions of meerkats, in fact, one is reminded that family isn’t some artificial creation of bourgeois society, but has a deeper history and a more essential purpose. As the director of the meerkat study, Cambridge professor Tim Clutton-Brock, observes: “Human cooperation probably has an ancient history, and by studying meerkats, which depend on their group for survival, we gain a window into the evolution of cooperative societies.”
The show focuses on the largest of the meerkat clans, dubbed the Whiskers by scientists, a group of nearly 40 members that dominates its little speck of the desert. Dominant female Flower—a tough-minded leader and nurturing mother until she meets an untimely death at the hands of a snake—headed the clan, along with her burly mate Zaphod, for nearly three full seasons. The researchers fondly give the meerkats names from high culture and the pop scene. The Whiskers’ clan includes Flower’s daughters Mozart, Tosca, and Rocket Dog, sons Mitch and Shakespeare (until he mysteriously vanishes at the end of season one), and Zaphod’s dysfunctional brother Youssarian, described as having “social problems” (he’s a lousy babysitter, for one thing) which probably stems from his brother’s having replaced him as the dominant male.
In meerkat society, the urge to couple and pass on one’s genes often conflicts with the needs of the larger group, and therein lies part of the family drama. Only dominant females get to breed, so that the entire group can focus on the survival of their pups and ensure the clan’s success. Whenever one of Flower’s daughters wanders off and winds up impregnated by a male from a rival clan, the family summarily boots her out, usually permanently. Even the mere scent of a male from another family on one of her daughters can provoke a stern beat-down from Flower.
Among meerkats, the consequences of single parenthood are devastating. Surviving alone in the Kalahari is hard, and raising children alone is impossible. Poor Mozart, who can’t control her baser urges, loses two litters in exile over the first two seasons. She miscarries one after the stress of getting cast out, and loses a second when a rival group discovers the pups in a burrow and slaughters them. Not without reason does the show open with a warning that what you are about to see are the “real life and death events” of meerkats.
Family life can be so harsh for unruly meerkats precisely because the clan, as the basis of their survival, must operate on strict codes of behavior. Non-breeding adults, for instance, will help raise the dominant female’s pups, improving their chances of survival. Babysitters, left to watch the kids while the rest of the group forages for food, will risk death to protect the pups. Meerkats undertake sentinel duty, groom one another to rid one another of disease-carrying insects, and build and maintain burrows together for shelter from the weather and sanctuary from enemies. When members neglect their duties—as in one episode, when babysitters became engrossed in play and let a pup wander away—the results often prove fatal.
Much of Meerkat Manor’s power flows from the producers’ decision to portray meerkat society through the stories of a few major “characters,” especially the challenges Flower faces as she tries to retain power and ensure her large family’s survival. In doing so, the show navigates a middle course between the sentimental anthropomorphism of Bambi on the one hand, and dispassionate scientific theories that view animals as little more than living automatons, on the other. Meerkat Manor reflects a slow shift within the scientific study of the animal world, where for decades the career of any researcher could run aground with the slightest suggestion that he was humanizing his subjects. Only slowly have such attitudes begun to change; the meerkat project is one result. The researchers have carefully presented the results of their work in dispassionate, scientific language; but they also haven’t been afraid to ask questions such as: “Do meerkat sentinels display altruism?”
When Shakespeare’s sisters crowd around him after a puff adder bites him, are they offering him comfort? Science may never be able to answer that question. It’s enough that the audience thinks that this is what’s happening, and reflects on the heroic nature of his defense of the family from a predator and the distress of those who “love” and “need” him. The other Shakespeare—the human one—would have understood the appeal of such a story.