Meerkat Manor: The Next Generation

"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.

Flower's Demise

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.

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