<EM>Meerkat Manor</EM> Meerkat Manor

Are you a furry friend of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor (new episodes air Friday at 8 and 8:30 pm/ET)? If so, these burning questions and expert answers are for you!

Who names the meerkats, and what criteria do they use to come up with the names?
The Cambridge University researchers named most of the meerkats as a way to tell them apart, and assigned some names based on personalities, as with heroic Shakespeare. Others got their names a bit more randomly. "They just run out of names sometimes," says Meerkat Manor executive producer Mick Kaczorowski. "So you see some of them [named after] spices, some [named after] theatrical stars, and then they'll just start naming them something starting with 'St.' In Season 3, I know there's a new group that's coming forward that starts with 'St.'"

Why has the show become such a viewer favorite?
Because of those cute little faces, and story lines that rival Desperate Housewives for dramatic impact. "What's unique about meerkats is that, unlike a lot of animals in the natural world, they live in a family structure much like we do," Kaczorowski says. "So because they stay together and work together as a mob — and you see the various characters stay together and support each other and teach the young — you can kind of relate to the ways we live together in families. I think part of it is that we always try to end on a cliff-hanger or a story point that really makes you want to tune in to the next episode."

Do the producers censor anything from the viewers?
As that heartbreaking encounter between Mozart and her pups and the Commandoes suggests, we see the good, the bad and the ugly. "Meerkat Manor is a documentary," says Kaczorowski. "Sometimes we think there is a limit to how much violence we would want to show you. But once you're following a character or a story line, you feel the need to take it wherever it goes, because we don't want to pretend [that] what goes on in Meerkat Manor is in any way not real. Sometimes meerkats do lose their lives."

What really happened to Shakespeare, the meerkat who mysteriously disappeared?
"The reality is, when a meerkat gets in trouble like Shakespeare did, almost immediately [a predator] can snatch the body," Kaczorowski says. "So that's our presumption. That's why we started off the second season saying he's presumed dead. In most cases, if we are able to film what actually happened, we'll show the audience. I think we owe it to them."

How many cameras capture the action?
Six at most, plus the underground cameras that film the meerkats in their burrows. "Creating this show is a unique experience," says Kaczorowski, "because often in natural-history filmmaking, the animals have to be filmed at night. But the meerkats kind of follow the same schedule we do."

Any hints on what's coming up?
More drama, more rivalries and more heroes. "Young Mitch might be following in his brother Shakespeare's footsteps," says Kaczorowski. "There's also another new group on the horizon, besides the Commandoes and the Lazuli, who will challenge the Whiskers."

Has narrator Sean Astin been to the Kalahari to visit the meerkats?
No, though he says he hopes to go before Season 3. "Everybody's so crazy about the show," says the Lord of the Rings and 24 star. "Even at ‘Lord of the Rings' events, people get excited when I mention the meerkats."

When will Season 3 start?
The network's crew is filming now through April, and plans to premiere new shows in summer 2007. (Season 1 will be released on DVD before Christmas.)

Though you can't keep a meerkat of your own as a pet, you can "adopt" one, thanks to Fellow Earthlings, a California facility that is the only privately licensed meerkat manor in the Western Hemisphere. TV Guide spent an afternoon at Fellow Earthlings, where director Pam Bennett-Wallberg (the consultant for Disney's meerkat Timon in The Lion King) allowed us to get up close and personal with her feisty mob of meerkats, and get the answers to a few more burning questions.

What do the meerkats feel like?
They're furry and soft like a short-haired cat, but their nonretractable claws are quite sharp. Before heading into their enclosures to interact with them, adoptive parents are given a pair of heavy work gloves.

Are they skittish when you approach them?
No. In fact, the seven meerkats who rule the roost at Fellow Earthlings perk up when they see visitors approaching, partly out of curiosity, and partly because they know they're about to get snacks. "They're bottomless pits," laughs Bennett-Wallberg.

Are they as cute in person as they appear to be on TV?
They're even cuter, especially when they stand on their hind legs. And you know how adorable their little faces are when they look right into the TV camera? When a meerkat is sitting in your arms and looks right into your face, you melt.

Do they like to be held?
Some do more than others. The key is to speak in nice, even tones in their presence, to walk softly (the "meerkat mosey," as Bennett-Wallberg calls it) around them, then gently scoop them up while they're eating one of their favorite foods  —  live mealworms  —  from your hand. And, as we know from Meerkat Manor, the creatures are pretty light. Holding a meerkat feels like you're holding a small kitten.

Are the meerkats friendly in the wild? They don't seem afraid of the researchers or the cameras.
The Cambridge University study that led to Meerkat Manor has been going on for 13 years, so the meerkats on the show are accustomed to having the researchers around. But according to Bennett-Wallberg, meerkats wouldn't be that friendly.

Are the meerkats at Fellow Earthlings given names, like the Whiskers family of meerkats?
Of course. Bennett-Wallberg, who opened the facility 20 years ago, says the meerkats are observed for a while when they arrive, and then given Swahili names that reflect their personalities. Currently residing at the facility are females Remi, Bara and Kendi, plus males Jengo, Nalo, Rafiki and Suri. And yes, Suri the meerkat existed before Suri the Cruise.

Do the meerkats in captivity live like the meerkats in the Kalahari do?
In some ways. Their social structure is much the same, and they are competitive with each other for food. But, unlike their hunting brethren in the wild, the captive meerkats are served a healthy diet (consisting largely of live insects and frozen mice). Also, the Fellow Earthlings gang is kept safe from predators in "meerkat condos" that include cushy beds, heat lamps and plenty of toys. This allows them to live as long as 15 or 16 years, far longer than the 10-year life expectancy of meerkats in the wild. In fact, several large zoos have sent teams to Fellow Earthlings to study Bennett-Wallberg's successful strategy for meerkat longevity.

Since the Fellow Earthlings meerkats don't have to spend their days hunting for food, what do they do all day?
Eat, sleep, play and, actually, dig for food. Though Suri and company are fed three squares a day, they still enjoy scoping out extra goodies from the ground. Their favorite treat? Stink bugs! "Stink bugs are like meerkat ice cream," Bennett-Wallberg says. And their least favorite food? Bitter ladybugs, aka "meerkat broccoli."

Can I own a meerkat as a pet?
Unfortunately, no. Meerkats (members of the mongoose family) are one of the most tightly regulated animals in the world; it's illegal to own one without special permits. And they're not ideal pets. "The way they dig through the dirt is what they'll do to walls and carpets," says Bennett-Wallberg.

Can I "adopt" one?
Absolutely. Fellow Earthlings, located about two hours outside of Los Angeles in Morongo Valley, California, offers meerkat lovers the chance to visit the facilities for a two-hour private tour, where you can play, feed and yes, hold, the meerkats for a tax-deductible $100 donation that is used to care for the animals. "It's what's so special about [Fellow Earthlings]," Bennett-Wallberg says. "People can walk away with the experience of having interacted with these amazing creatures, and the meerkats like it, too. It's a win-win situation."