Animal Planet has launched its new series, “Meerkat Manor,” as part of their Friday night lineup. Following a family of meerkats named the Whiskers, the narration is clearly anthropomorphism run amok. The Encarta Dictionary defines anthropomorphism as the “attribution of human characteristics to nonhumans.” And it has long been a no-no among animal science and serious researchers.
Anyone who has had a pet knows that there are some characteristics that are clearly present in both human beings and animals. Bonding, happiness, sadness, grief, boredom, fear, caring – all are part of an everyday life for most mammals, and a few may be present in other groups. The fallacy is in attributing clearly human motives to animal emotions and actions.
For the Whisker family, life at Meerkat Manor is described by the Animal Planet website as “All My Children” meets “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.” The matriarch, Flower, and patriarch, Zaphod, struggle to lead their family in Africa’s Kalahari Desert. Like characters in a drama, each family member is named and assigned a personality profile. Flower rules her brood with an iron hand, Zaphod is the often absent but always protective father, Tosca and Daisy are the unruly daughters who both have secret flings with Carlos, the tough rogue from another meerkat group. And then there is poor Youssarian who is described as having “social problems.” He is portrayed as the mentally ill uncle who lost his role as dominant male to his brother and now often lives apart from the rest of the family. When he does take part in family activities, his “psychoses” cause strife and division.
In one episode, the meerkat pups are dubbed “cadets” and follow Zaphod with military precision. There is even an owl conducting “countersurveillance” hoping to nab a meal. From unwelcome pregnancies by the defiant daughters to the group nursemaid, Shakespeare (reminiscent of Sunday school teachers born to work with kids), Meerkat Manor covers just about every area of anthropomorphism one can imagine. The meerkats are so humanized through the narration that when something decidedly animalistic does take place, such as the death of a baby, the shock is overwhelming.
It is sad to see a trusted scientific channel falling into the allure of dramatic reality television. Animal behavior is fascinating as animalistic, but ridiculous as anthropomorphic.