Meerkat Manor is a British television programme produced by Oxford Scientific Films for Animal Planet International. Blending more traditional animal documentary style footage with dramatic narration, the series tells the story of the Whiskers, one of over a dozen families of meerkats in the Kalahari Desert being studied as part of the Kalahari Meerkat Project, a long-term field study into the ecological causes and evolutionary consequences of the cooperative nature of meerkats. The original programme is narrated by Bill Nighy, with the narration redubbed by Mike Goldman for the Australian airings and Stockard Channing for the American broadcasts.
Meerkat Manor premiered in the United Kingdom on 12 September 2005, and the first 13-episode series concluded on 24 October 2005. With the success of the programme in the UK, Animal Planet started broadcasting it on its national channels in Australia, Canada, and the US. The series is now available in more than 160 other countries. Three series have aired in their entirety, with the fourth series premiering in the United States on 6 June 2008 and in the United Kingdom in February 2009. The fourth series, subtitled The Next Generation, saw Stockard Channing replacing Sean Astin as the narrator in the American dubbing.
Although the show faced criticism from viewers for not intervening when a meerkat was injured and faced death, as a whole Meerkat Manor has enjoyed considerable success and is now Animal Planet's top series, both on the cable channel and through its video-on-demand service. The show's experimental format broke new ground in animal documentary filming techniques and allowed viewers a long term, intimate look into the lives of its meerkat stars, breaking the traditional wall between viewer and subject found with most documentaries.
In 2007, Meerkat Manor was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards. It has won three awards at the 2006 Omni Awards, and at the 2006 and 2007 New York Festivals Award Galas. All three series of the programme have been released to DVD in both Region 1 and Region 2. In 2007, a book entitled Meerkat Manor - The Story of Flower of the Kalahari was released in the UK, detailing the life of Flower and the Whiskers before the series filming began. A television film, Meerkat Manor: The Story Begins documenting Flower's birth and rise to matriarch of the Whiskers aired on Animal Planet on 25 May 2008.
The show is primarily filmed using Sony DSR570 cameras, although special equipment is needed for some unique footage. For scenes inside the animals' burrows, mini fiber-optic infra-red cameras are employed; wide-angle shots are filmed with a seven-meter crane and a remote-controlled camera platform. An off-camera wireless microphone is also used to record many meerkat vocalizations, only partially audible to cameras' on-board systems. Most filming is done by a single cameraman and a single sound engineer; researchers have required a minimal human presence to avoid stressing the animals. Eye-level shots are difficult to achieve at times, due to the meerkats' small size and the limited height of even the smallest tripods.
For tracking purposes, the dominant female of each group is fitted with a radio collar, as are some dominant and roaming males. The meerkats – especially younger animals – are marked with dye to differentiate them. As the meerkats are habituated, they will usually ignore the camera crew as long as their "personal space" is respected.
De la Soul (named for the rap group of the same name), one of the sisters who started the Starsky group, was renamed Whoopi in the US as a tribute to actress Whoopi Goldberg, an early fan of the series. Animal Planet US has also renamed some of Flower's pups born in season three to honor two other famous fans of the show, Elizabeth Taylor and Denis Leary. Several episodes have also been renamed: the title of the final episode of the second series was changed from "The Killing Fields" to "The Quiet Fields". During the third series, the third episode's title was changed from "Something's Got to Give" to "Sister Act" (another Goldberg reference), while the sixth episode's title changed from "The House of Zappa" to "Sibling Rivalry".
The show follows several groups of meerkats, who act communally for the benefit of the groups in which they live. These groups are typically led by a dominant female and male, who maintain almost exclusive rights to have offspring. The group followed most closely is known as the Whiskers family. This group was chosen because of its matriarch Flower, an unusually successful dominant female who led the group for five years. During series three, Flower died from a snake bite and was succeeded by her daughter Rocket Dog.
Animals in neighbouring groups are highlighted in each series as well. In the first series, a group called the Lazuli were shown frequently in competition with the Whiskers family, and the opening credits referred to them as the "neighbours from hell". Although their dominant male Big Si died between series, the Lazuli appeared in the second series, mostly as a source of roving males. Another group called the Commandoes, led by a one-eyed male named Hannibal, introduced themselves by attacking the Lazuli burrow, killing a pup and badly wounding the babysitting adult. The Commandoes became the new major rivals in the area, killing the pups of evicted Whiskers female Mozart and taking over some of the Whiskers' territory.
The Whiskers' new neighbours were the Zappa and the Starsky. Although smaller than the Whiskers, the Zappa attacked frequently, and when they fled after one attack, the Whiskers – in a rare occurrence – adopted an abandoned Zappa pup. The Starsky group, on the other hand, was no threat to the Whiskers. Formed by a trio of Flower's daughters permanently evicted from the Whiskers, the small group was ravaged by illness, predators, and a lack of new pups. The constantly struggling Starsky succumbed in the penultimate episode, with the death of the last survivor, Mozart, who was killed by a jackal.
The meerkats are all named by Kalahari Meerkat volunteers; the individual who first sees a new litter emerge from the burrow is awarded naming rights. This has produced a variety of names, frequently drawn from volunteers' favorite books, movies, musical groups, family and friends, historical figures and geographical locations. Animal Planet sometimes renames the meerkats for narration, arguing that researchers' names are too limited, often relating to spices and food condiments. Because of these changes, fans of the series who seek information on the Friends of the Kalahari Meerkat Project website sometimes have trouble locating particular animals. The project has created a list of alterations to help viewers connect the animals on the show to their real-life counterparts, and to match episodes to the monthly KMP Life History reports. The list, however, is only available to paying members of their website.
Two of the major Whiskers family rivals are composites, created with footage and blended stories from multiple groups. For example, the Commandoes group on the show uses some of events from the real Commandoes group, but is primarily shown with footage from the Vivian research group – including its dominant couple. Similarly, the show's Zappa group is mostly presented using footage from a group called the "The Young Ones" (named for the British television show); however, the actual story and dominant couple are from the real Zappa Group. Axel, the abandoned pup from series three, has a research number that indicates he is probably a Young Ones pup, rather than being a Zappa as the show claims.
Meerkat Manor was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards in 2007: one for "Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming" and one for "Outstanding Picture Editing for Nonfiction Programming". It was also nominated for a 2005 Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival Award in the "Animal Behaviour" category, and in 2007 for "Best Original Score". At the 2006 Wildscreen Festival, the series was a finalist in three categories: "Animal Behaviour", "Innovation", and "Popular Broadcast". The series won Gold Statues in "Natural History" and "Cinematography", and a Silver Statue for "Writing", at the 2006 Omni Awards. Meerkat Manor was a two-time Gold Medal winner in the "Nature & Wildlife" category at the New York Festivals Award Gala, in 2006 for series one, and again in 2007 for series one and two.
While many documentaries maintain an emotional distance from their subjects, Meerkat Manor – due to its extended length, soap-opera-like narration, romanticization of the animals' lives, and close-up filming techniques, provides a closer, more personal view of the meerkats. Viewers describe being emotionally involved in the animals' lives, sometimes forgetting they are watching a documentary. The meerkats' frequently short lives and brutal deaths become surprising and disturbing to some audiences. This experimental format is seen as expanding the boundaries of both the nature documentary genre and the nature of reality TV.
A book written by Professor Tim Clutton-Brock entitled Meerkat Manor: The Story of Flower of the Kalahari (ISBN 0-297-84484-9) was released in the UK in a hardback edition on 4 October 2007. The book focuses on Flower's life and the story of the Whiskers, tracing how the group started, providing a timeline of Flower's life, and detailing all of the pups she had over her lifetime, as well as their current locations. The book also gives more background on how the Kalahari Meerkat Project started, the research goals and results, and researchers' personal lives. A paperback edition of the book has been announced for release in the United States by Simon & Schuster through their Touchstone imprint on 15 April 2008. The US release will be titled Meerkat Manor: Flower of the Kalahari (ISBN 1-4165-8767-5).
Discover Communications has partnered with Activision to make a video game based on Meerkat Manor as the first in a new series of nature-based games. It will be released on multiple platforms, with release projected for late 2008.
The film included re-edited footage and a new musical score. The Whiskers story is simplified some, with the Lazuli being the only rival group to appear in the film. Unlike with the Meerkat Manor series, the film does not actually depict any of the real Whiskers meerkats. Untrained "meerkats actors" play the role of Flower and her family, with the camera crew searching out appropriately aged meerkats, then following them until the meerkats acted in a way that was needed for the film. Flower herself is depicted by approximately eight female meerkats.