People will fall in love, on a TV or movie screen, with a creature they would gladly kill were they to find it in their kitchen. So audiences have cheered on Rodentia from Mickey to the aspiring chef of Ratatouille. So, too, with the social, saucer-eyed, erect-standing mongoose relatives of Meerkat Manor, who have followed in the paw prints of The Lion King's Timon to raise their species' star in Hollywood. The Kalahari nature show is Animal Planet's biggest hit, a saga of turf wars, sex, betrayal and cuddly pups. It's manna from TV heaven: all the drama of human life, none of the salaries or liability issues.
But in its third season, this self-described soap opera has turned into the last act of Hamlet, with corpses littering the stage. After the deaths of several supporting meerkats, Flower--the show's matriarch and protagonist, a furry female Tony Soprano--died of a snakebite defending her pups. A few weeks later, Flower's long-suffering daughter Mozart--a fan favorite who was abandoned by her mother and lost several pups--was killed off camera by an unknown predator. Grief-stricken fans held online vigils, created Diana-style tributes, even suggested the deaths were faked. (Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance--they hit every stage.) Manor is a study of animals, but it's become a study of humans. How much reality do we want from reality TV? And when nature, producers and providence fail to provide justice, how do we step in?
Like the meerkats, Manor is an odd beast. The crew is forbidden to intervene, and the producers don't sugarcoat the animals' less cuddly habits (infidelity, abandonment of young, occasional cannibalism). But the meerkats are named and given human traits ("courageous," "caring," "bully[ing]"), and their antics and tragedies take place over a sound track. Manor is both brutal and melodramatic and thus more devastating than most documentary or scripted drama. Imagine Brothers and Sisters if every once in a while, Sally Field, Rob Lowe or someone else got eaten by a goshawk.
Since meerkats can't speak for themselves, Manor is a kind of metaphysical Mad Libs, in which fans fill in the blanks with their own morals and worldviews. On Animal Planet's Web forums, they mourned, eulogized and fantasized. One imagined Flower welcoming Mozart in heaven, apologizing for her earthly neglect by serenading her daughter with Always on My Mind. On YouTube, they created dozens of video shrines, scored to power ballads. Some castigated the crew for not intervening. Some debated who was less "deserving" of dying. (Flower: survivor or slut?) Others argued that nature is beyond morality. But even science-minded fans were involved with the meerkats as characters, not just representatives of the genus Suricata.
Anthropomorphism isn't, after all, just for laypeople. Primatologist Jane Goodall broke with convention and gave her chimps names quite deliberately. "I don't think people would have been as interested if [chimp] David Graybeard had been No. 29," she told USA Today. Sentiment is not a bad trait in a dominant species. Sometimes it can be all that keeps us in line.
And humans need sentiment too. TV critics may bemoan the "fakeness" of some reality or nature shows. But as viewers, we depend on that manipulation to provide the order, sense and purpose that the universe fails to. "Behind the desert's great beauty," as narrator Sean Astin says just before the camera pans to Mozart's body, "lies a frightening indifference for life."
That would be the same indifference that nature shows for our lives. Neither Darwin nor physics requires closure, foreshadowing or justice. And as anyone who's watched a loved one die knows, biology does not supply sound tracks, convenient timing or highlight reels.
That's where we come in. The need to find--or create--order, arc and purpose in life and death is the root of art and religion. The difference between studying an animal's survival and writing her a poem is the difference between asking how and asking why. The latter may seem odd, but it's as much an adaptive response as a meerkat's serial mating. We are social creatures in a beautiful, cruel universe. We use whatever tools we can to survive.