LOS ANGELES - Flower believes she knows best. Daisy chooses an inappropriate mate. Shakespeare gets into a potentially lethal fight. Tosca falls out with her mother. Youssarian is kind, but a bit goofy.
These are the stars of "Meerkat Manor," an Animal Planet documentary series that follows the shifting passions and perils of the Whiskers, a family of meerkats. The half-hour episodes air Fridays, 8 p.m.
Meerkats are possibly best known because an animated one, Timon, was featured in the 1994 movie "The Lion King."
Despite their catlike name, these feisty little creatures, native only to Africa's Kalahari Desert, are not feline. Neither are they related to ferrets, weasels, stoats or prairie dogs. Pointy-nosed, dark-eyed, about a foot in length, weighing around two pounds, and classified under the scientific name Suricata suricatta, they are members of the mongoose family.
So why are they so interesting to watch?
"Their social behavior is so like our own... In Germany they are called 'erdmannchen'... it means 'little earth people,' which is very apt because of the way they stand up," says Pam Bennett-Wallberg, executive director of the nonprofit Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Center, a refuge for abandoned or rejected meerkats.
As she talks in the idyllic oasis she has created in California's Morongo Valley, her seven meerkats prove her point. Gamboling in their spacious runs, they constantly distract the eye with their lively antics and alert demeanor, especially when balanced on their hind legs, staring skyward.
In the wild, this seemingly cute behavior has a very serious purpose. It's guard duty, designed to keep the family group, known as "a mob," safe from predators, particularly birds of prey.
Bennett-Wallberg spent time in Africa with Cambridge University zoologists, whose decade-long study of meerkats is the basis for the Animal Planet documentary.
Mick Kaczorowski, executive producer for Animal Planet, says there are several factors that make meerkats an ideal subject for an ongoing reality series. They are diurnal, leaving their home burrow at dawn and returning at dusk. They occupy a limited territory, which they defend fiercely from rival mobs and predators. The structure of the family unit enables audiences to distinguish individual personalities and recognize "there's a lot of drama that goes on, very like our own."
The Animal Planet filmmakers added additional cameras to those the zoologists had already set up outside the burrows, and installed tiny fiber-optic ones in the underground havens. They were able to keep track of the mob's forages and skirmishes during the day because Flower, the dominant female and leader of the Whiskers, is outfitted with a monitoring collar.
"People worry that we project too much personality or that we anthropomorphize animals... we try to stay away from that," says Kaczorowski, noting before the network started filming most of the animals had already been given names by the zoologists.
Designed to be both scientifically correct and entertaining, the series, narrated by Sean Astin, is geared to a family audience. So care had to be taken to walk a fine line with the sex and the violence, natural parts of any meerkat's life.
"There is no blatant sex, but we talk about things in a way, I think, in which parents and children can both sit on the same couch and feel comfortable watching" says Kaczorowski.
He believes most viewers will identify with a favorite meerkat. Choices include the super matriarch Flower, Shakespeare, "the hero" of the group, or even Carlos, a Lothario from the rival Lazuli mob, who is constantly trying to seduce the Whiskers' young females.
The scientific researchers and the filmmakers respect the meerkats' natural behavior, but inevitably the animals are aware of their presence, responding with keen curiosity and intelligence.
"If you are not going to be a problem for them and you are not going to be a predator, they are going to use you very conveniently," says Bennett-Wallberg. She recalls that during her trip to Africa a meerkat "came bolting out of the bush, ran up my arm, sat on my shoulder for a second, looked me square in the eye, and then clambered on my head."
It wasn't because the wild animal took an instant liking to her. It was because it immediately recognized she was at that moment "the tallest thing in the desert" and made a perfect "perch point" for observation.
She mentions that Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the famous Jungle Book story "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi" about a larger type of mongoose native to India, said that a mongoose's slogan should be "Run and find out."
Animal Planet is hoping humans will follow that motto and tune in to "Meerkat Manor," especially as a second season about the highly volatile lives of the Whiskers mob is already in production.
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