Missing meerkat has fans frantic with worry

September 25, 2006|By Lynn Smith | Lynn Smith,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Is Shakespeare - dead?

Shakespeare, a loyal member of the Meerkat Manor clan, became a favorite of viewers in Season 1 after he survived a snake bite, rescued a stray pup and defended newborns from a rival gang before disappearing.

It is the disappearance that has caused a brewing controversy on the Internet. Season 2 of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor series won't start until Friday, but fans want answers now. Did he die in the burrow protecting the pups? Did he die after the snake bite? Could he have lived and simply have left the group?

Animal Planet insists it knows nothing other than that Shakespeare is missing - and that it has never produced a show that has generated such an intense emotional reaction from viewers. A mixture of wildlife documentary and soap opera, the series follows a family of 40 feisty meerkats in Africa's Kalahari desert, where, led by an unforgiving matriarch, they face predators and rival gangs.

But recently, an angry edge seeped into fans' Internet postings when they began to suspect that all was not as unscripted as advertised. They asked one another whether Animal Planet could possibly have substituted another dark-eyed, straight-backed, pointy-nosed mammal and just called him "Shakespeare."

Sharp-eyed viewers said they noticed Shakespeare had different markings in different scenes. Another theory was that the footage had been edited to disrupt the true chronology of events.

"What was really upsetting is that Animal Planet ran promotions saying to tune in to find out the key to Shakespeare's fate," said Fay Popejoy, 58, of Covina, Calif., in an interview. Through an international Meerkat Manor fan site, she has heard that Season 2, which began in Britain on Sept. 4, does not definitively answer that question.

The self-described "meerkat maniacs" on the site who e-mailed the show's research consultants received vague or hopeful sounding replies.

A few said they had shed tears; others prayed for the meerkat's survival. "If they hadn't made the meerkats so `human' we humans would not have become so addicted and their passing wouldn't have hurt so much," said one fan.

Reached by telephone at Discovery Communications headquarters in Rockville, executive producer Mick Kaczorowski said he understands viewers' frustrations, but added that no one really knows Shakespeare's fate. "It's more honest to say we don't know what happened," he said. "We didn't find a body. We don't know the way it ended. He disappeared. We presume he's dead."

Of course, Kaczorowski said, "Like any other television show, we're looking for a dramatic moment that will engage people enough to tune in" for a second season.

"Unfortunately, it was such a dramatic moment with a major character, Shakespeare. I don't think we did it in a way to upset the audience."

Kaczorowski denied the producers used another meerkat to stand in for Shakespeare or any other character on the show.

The series is filmed from September through April, the meerkats' mating season, in conjunction with a research project by Cambridge University. The action is captured by stationary camcorders, burrow cams and camera operators.

One technique researchers use to tell the animals apart is to mark them with splotches of hair dye, which would account for various markings on a single meerkat, Kaczorowski said.

The series focuses on the Whiskers family, led by Flower, a dominant female. She is the only female allowed to breed and banishes or bites females who break the rule.

Now that the animals have become used to the cameras, and producers have become used to storytelling, Kaczorowski said viewers can expect increasing drama and intimacy in Season 2.

Lynn Smith writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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