Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation

Mournful songs like "Amazing Grace" and "Arms of the Angels" accompany literally dozens of YouTube videos made in honor of Flower, the famous meerkat matriarch. They were created by diehard fans of "Meerkat Manor," the TV show that made little Flower a star.

If you're familiar with the story, you know by now that Flower is dead. But if you don't know the plot, the show or the species at this point you are probably wondering, what's a meerkat?

Standing 12 inches tall and weighing less than 2 pounds, a meerkat looks a bit like a squirrel or a gopher. But they are not rodents. Meerkats belong to the mongoose family, which makes them closer to cats than rats. Native to South Africa, they dwell in burrows and typically live within family groups called mobs.

To find out why a TV show about these furry creatures is proving so addictive, "Nightline" ventured to the Fellow Earthlings Wildlife Center in Morongo Valley, Calif., to meet some meerkats up close and personal.

Pam Bennett-Wallberg, who runs the center, introduced us to two feisty meerkats, Rafikki and Kendi, and we fed the animals their favorite snack: chilled meal worms. Despite a few ferocious growls and barks, they were very cute.

Bennett-Wallberg has worked with meerkats for 22 years, but she credits their new star status to "Meerkat Manor." For her, it's no surprise they make for such good television. "They're just so cute," she said. "They're watchable. I mean, they have such big personalities."

Rivalries and Ambitions

Originally seen in Britain, "Meerkat Manor" is now in its fourth season and remains Animal Planet's biggest hit ever. The weekly episodes chronicle the running story of an extended meerkat community in a spot of desert in southern Africa called the Kalahari.

Members of the Whiskers family, led initially by the ill-fated Flower, work through their rivalries, their ambitions and their personality flaws. They compete for rank and the attraction of the opposite sex. They mate, they care for their young and they get in fights with their neighbors.

When a show like this is about humans, we call it a soap opera. Mick Kaczorowski, the show's U.S. executive producer, says that's precisely the idea behind "Meerkat Manor," which is scripted more like a soap opera than a traditional animal documentary. The executives weren't always convinced, however, that the show would bring in ratings.

"We didn't know that we would get enough interesting behavior out of an animal, that the stories would be complex enough, that anybody would be interested," Kaczorowski said. "But I think stylistically the approach we took, keeping it only to a half hour, giving the meerkats names that people could relate to, and the way that the stories unfolded, people got drawn to it like they do a soap opera."

It takes film crews about eight months of shooting in the Kalahari desert to get enough material for 13 episodes.

Luckily, the meerkats in the show are already habituated to human spectators, because they've been studied for years by Cambridge professor Tim Clutton-Brock. He started studying the meerkats in 1993 and soon discovered that they made excellent research subjects.

Following in Clutton-Brock's footsteps, Animal Planet producers also found out just how accommodating the meerkats can be.

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