Looking at cute beings is not a new phenomenon. Most of us tend to find cats, puppies and babies quite cute; usually it’s the combination of big eyes and a small body that we find adorable and other times it’s because the animal is furry and we want to pet it. All in all, there is no denying that cuteness exists and humans have a weak spot in their hearts for it. Today I don’t want to talk about cute cats, but about cute meerkats. If you haven’t heard about this animal before, the meerkat belongs to the family of the mongooses (for those of you who need a reference point, think of Timon from the Lion King). They have furry bodies, long tails and usually crawl around on their four legs. What I find especially fascinating about these animals is that they have the ability to stand up straight on their two hind legs for quite a long time. This makes them look funny and human-like—the uncanniness of an animal having a human posture is what often makes this species stand out. This great quality, among others, of the meerkat has been, undoubtedly, captured many times on screen. One of my favourite observations of the meerkat has been done over a span of three years in a beautiful television programme that first premiered in 2005 on Animal Planet.
This series is called Meerkat Manor and was presented to audiences as a reality show. As the show is now thirteen years old, the series was truly ahead of its time. To give you an example what I mean with this: Keeping up with the Kardashians first aired in 2007, while Markeet Manor was already two years into its reality series. The show is narrated by the voice of a British man in a dramatic tone, which gives the show an element of entertainment. In actuality, the show is part of a bigger project called the Kalahari Meerkat Project[i], a long-term research project that studies meerkats in their natural environment. This show was therefore a nice way to present a small part of this interesting study in an entertaining format. The show focuses on one family of meerkats from the dozen families of the Kalahari Meerkat Project. Each meerkat has a name and repetitive everyday actions are usually cut out of the show, much like in soap series or a reality TV show. This often makes watchers forget that they are watching a documentary, or that the show is based on a real, long-term study used to observe the evolutionary causes and ecological consequences of cooperative behaviours in meerkats. The possibility of becoming invested in meerkats, humanizing them, becomes reality. Scientific observations become sensationalized fiction through this TV show. And yet, watchers have tuned in every time to watch the Whiskers, the famous family of the show, go about their lives in the Kuruman River Reserve. A favourite meerkat of many viewers was Flower, the matriarch of the Whisker family. Unfortunately, she died and left may viewers devastated[ii]. The same way that viewers of a show can become invested in its characters, in this same way people started becoming invested in the lives of these meerkats.
And although Meerkat Manor vaguely reminds some of reality television—a family is being filmed and drama happens – this TV show differs from the often criticized reality television genre in the sense that the meerkats from Meerkat Manor aren’t manipulated into doing anything for extra ratings or dramatic effect (their observations are, after all, part of a scientific study). Their lives are already interesting on their own—death, disruptions in the family or watching the ‘pups’ get born are interesting enough for viewers. And, although watching the lives of meerkats might seem like an odd thing to do, their lives do not differ all that much from that of humans. Their basic necessities such as food, love, companionship and protection (among others) are many times similar to our own needs. There is therefore an element of being able to relate to certain aspects of the meerkat life. Their cuteness is a nice addition to all of this. If you haven’t watched Meerkat Manor yet, I strongly suggest you do! Their way of living might surprise you.