My definition of reality TV involves shows that feature real people in real or artificial situations, not animals, even if they are anthropomorphized. But recent events on Meerkat Manor, Animal Planet’s series following meerkats in the Kalahari Meerkat Project in Africa, make an exception necessary. The show is now in its third season (the fourth is currently being filmed).
During the episode that aired Sept. 28, Flower, a dominant female and popular meerkat, was killed by a Cape Cobra. That left some fans heartbroken (check out the tribute videos), and others wondering why the producers let that happen. In a chat following the episode, the show’s executive producer, Mick Kaczorowski, explained how the show is filmed and why they didn’t (and couldn’t intervene).
“The bite happened underground. It wasn’t until Flower emerged that everyone actually saw the swelling. At that point, you have to let nature take its course. There was no way we could intercede or change the effects of the poison,” he said, noting that her actual death occurred around January 27, and that she died within 48 hours of being bitten.
While he says that “the scientists don’t believe that they should intercede because they don’t want to have an effect on the gene pool by saving a weaker meerkat. Or affecting the outcome of what’s natural in the Kalahari,” they scientists will euthanize meerkats in the event that there’s an outbreak of disease. “The only euthanization that takes place is when a disease comes into the Manor. Sometimes, because there are cattle around the area and other meerkats in other areas have succumbed to bovine TB, they will euthanize meerkats to protect the whole group because they don’t want a disease to wipe them out — especially if it’s not a natural disease. So, that’s also the reason why they would possibly euthanize an animal. But like Shakespeare surviving his snake bite, no one knew whether Flower would survive — whether or not she was strong enough. That’s why they wouldn’t have euthanized her.”
Kaczorowski also explains how the show is filmed; producers use small cameras for shots inside the burrow. And “when the battles happen, the meerkats are completely oblivious to human beings, researchers and the camera crews. So, the camera people can actually get amongst the meerkats with the camera and just follow the battle. It is truly amazing,” he said. The meerkats, he added, are “are observed by scientists, filmmakers and other people so they’re actually not afraid of human beings because they have this interaction and see human beings around them.”
He also discussed naming the meerkats (“we called Flower’s last born pup Liz, in honor of Elizabeth Taylor, who’s a big fan of Meerkat Manor”) and how the producers can tell the difference between them (“when you see the little markings on their tails or some of the black circles, those are markings put on by the researchers and that’s a little hair dye so at a distance they know which meerkat is which”).