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.
"Over the years, the meerkats just basically started to ignore human beings, the researchers, and now they started to ignore the film crews. So we could get as close as, closer than probably any other animal," Kaczorowski said. "Meerkats crawl right up on the film crews."
The "Meerkat Manor" staff differs from traditional natural history filmmakers. Animal Planet brought in crews and editors who Kaczorowski said were used to making dramas. "That's also how we wanted to differentiate this series from any other natural history film," he said.
The new season of "Meerkat Manor" premiered last Friday on Animal Planet. Click here to visit the Web site.
Celebrity involvement also adds appeal. This season actress Stockard Channing is narrating the U.S. version. The show's success has even spawned a feature film, narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, which debuted at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in New York. But the series' real star was heroic, tragic Flower. In the meerkat world females are the leaders. And she was the leader. Over various episodes she rose to queen status and led her mob through various trials and tribulations.
Then one day, while protecting her babies, Flower suffered a deadly snake bite.
Kaczorowski remembers the reaction at Animal Planet headquarters when word reached them that the best-loved character of their show was dead.
"We were months before we were going to actually premiere the show, and we didn't want to let anybody know that that happened," Kaczorowski said. "We didn't know exactly how we were going to deal with it ourselves until we got in the editing room."
But the truth was the truth, and after the episode in which Flower dies, the show's makers really understood what a following they had.
Videos started showing up on YouTube, and at the California wildlife center run by Bennett-Wallberg, mail and phone calls came in from all over the world.
"We would get telephone calls," Bennett-Wallberg said. "Women crying saying, 'I am so embarrassed to be reacting this way, but I couldn't help but call you.'"
Indeed, human grieving for Flower ran so deep and so far that Animal Planet held a kind of memorial service in New York City that was well attended by media and fans.
"This is a bittersweet moment for those of us at Animal Planet," said Animal Planet executive Marjorie Kaplan at the event. "We're saddened by the death of Flower and we acknowledge that her death has caused a devastating sweep across the nation."
Some of the fans were upset with the show's makers for not stepping in to try to save Flower. But Kaczorowski said that's not something they're willing to do as natural history filmmakers.
"We're going show you the real world, we're going show you the way animals live and die," Kaczorowski said. "And we don't get involved in it because once you get involved with it there's a chance you're going unbalance the world that they live in."
That's a far cry from the way some filmmakers used to interfere not so long ago when fights between creatures were as staged as cock fights yet passed off as spontaneous. In Disney's 1958 "White Wilderness," lemmings were actually corralled and chased off a cliff by producers to fulfill the myth that lemmings commit mass suicide.
Human Grief Tops Meerkat Reaction to Flower's Death
Because meerkats are social and highly cooperative animals that band together for survival, it's easy to perceive human-like personality traits. They stand guard for one another, they babysit one another's young, they groom one another and engage in play. But even when given human names by a television show, they are still wild animals.
"It's kind of a dicey line between humanizing animals, anthropomorphizing them, but I do see courage in them, I do see bravery, I do see selfishness. I see what's good and bad in our society," said Bennett-Wallberg.
Of course, the deeper qualities we consider human are not there. And "Meerkat Manor" does not pretend they are.
The show never ascribes emotions like love and hate. And the producers purposefully avoided saying that the meerkats grieved after Flower died -- because they didn't.
"That's one thing you kind of don't see in meerkats. You do see grieving in elephants. I mean there is grief in the animal kingdom. We know that and that's absolutely certain. We didn't see that in the meerkats. Quite honestly, they were immediately struggling to go on to, to search for food, to move on," Kaczorowski said.
Ironically, the fans took Flower's death harder than Flower's own relatives did.
Self-described "uber-fan," Mary Xanthos remembers "sitting on the couch sobbing, a grown woman just sobbing, at the thought of this little animal being killed. And that's when I knew -- wow, I'm very attached."
Inspired by Flower, Xanthos co-founded the East Coast Meerkat Society, which now has members across the country. Together they help improve conditions for meerkats in zoos, and they also gather together for screening parties.
At a recent get-together in Sierra Madre, Calif., guests donned meerkat T-shirts, munched on homemade meerkat-themed cupcakes, and quizzed one another on previous "Meerkat Manor" episodes. Fan Jess McIntyre made a special toast: "To Flower and all of her accomplishments -- both in Africa as well as in bringing all of us together, people who would have otherwise not known each other had Flower and her story not come to light."
And at that, everyone cheered.