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Who's the Cutest Little Cannibal? You Are!

Here's a fun fact about my husband that he may or may not have wanted shared with the Internet: he loves meerkats. We have tons of digital snaps of meerkats perching winsomely in their habitats in zoo after zoo across America. We have framed photos of meerkats doing their little standing-up-with-the-friends number. Out of love, I have yelled at teenagers who leaned over "Do Not Feed the Animals" signs to feed the meerkats Cheetos. Out of love, I have bought a meerkat sponsorship at the Oakland Zoo. And out of love, I have set up the TiVo to record Animal Planet's "Meerkat Manor."

Eventually, someday, my husband may forgive me this last action.

Sure, the meerkats are cute. And when you see them in zoos, the helpful placards convey the impression that meerkats are the New-Age Mammals of the African Savannah. They live in a commune! They don't have any gender hang-ups about who raises the kids! They live in matriarchies, so there's no phallocentric aggression! They have posted sentries! They take turns babysitting so the mothers can have both a fulfilling career of foraging and the rewards of parenting! They're already paw-lettering their "Feingold/Obama in ’08" signs!

The truth as revealed in "Meerkat Manor" is far different. (Some might argue it's equally as unsavory.) Sure, the meerkats are social, but only in the way that people bumming cigarettes off you at a party are social. Approach them ten minutes later and they'll peer at you through a cloud of smoke, visibly wondering, Do I know you? Meerkats not what you would call "bright," which makes sense, given that their cranium houses a brain the size of a lima bean. And although the meerkats do engage in co-operative babysitting, there is one significant difference between them and the Birkenstock-wearing do-gooders at the community center: the meerkats avoid the issue of over-enrollment by eating their young. Really! The dominant female meerkat engages in a little eugenic adjustment by eating any pups that could compete with her own for precious resources. Hippies can't do that because they went vegan back in '86.

Although "Meerkat Manor" has not shown us footage of meerkats in mid-cannibalism, it spent the first three episodes ceaselessly dangling that possibility in front of our faces. "See this cute animal, with its widdle expressive face?" asks Sean "the fat Hobbit" Astin. "Now imagine the adorable hindquarters of an even cuter, widdler animal dangling from its bloody jaws."

Well, not in those words exactly, but pretty close.

My problem with "Meerkat Manor" is not that it's proven the New-Age Mammals to be as considerate as a roomful of Executive Branch appointees. My problem is that this show -- and many others that attempt to bring the wild kingdom into our living rooms -- attempts to impose a human narrative on the non-human. Trying to explain a meerkat's behavior through the filter of human experience makes about as much sense as explaining a person's behavior through the filter of a cat's brain. Imagine how a cat anthropologist would observe the act of ordering a pizza:

The male, whom we've called "Shadow" for his vestigial chin coating, begins hunting. Although he lacks decent teeth or claws and his sense of smell is incredibly poor, he does have several nimble digits, which he then uses to manipulate a toy. After a series of social chirps, he waits patiently by the door. Another male comes by his territory! Bafflingly, Shadow does not begin marking the territory. He doesn't even puff up his scanty neck hair to tell the intruder to back off. And he makes submissive noises while gesturing to the intruder. Mysteriously, the intruder drops something that smells great and leaves without scenting the door of what should be his new territory. This mysterious transaction takes place and then, bizarrely, Shadow eats the object that's already marked with the intruder's scent.

Oh, sure. I know what you're saying: cats don't get along, so there's no way they'd ever be able to conduct peer-reviewed research, much less find any peers who would agree to review it.

My point is this: if the aim of imposing an anthropomorphic narrative on an animal subject is to get us to relate to the subject -- so we won't enthusiastically hunt it to extinction, presumably -- then it is not working. Assuming animals share our values is a mistake. This makes the animals more vulnerable to our judgment the moment we do find out they don't believe in the right to bear arms. It also ignores the fact that most animals are not working from the same frame of reference we are, no matter how many cute animated movies insist otherwise.

If we really wanted to use animal stories as a way to broaden people's understanding of the nature they never encounter, we'd tell the story as it is, not as we think it would be for us. Things like finding a mate, finding food and avoiding a painful death are all tough for your average non-hominid. Tough often makes good story fodder. Being a foot tall mammal on a savannah that hosts some of the world's most effective predators is probably no picnic, so tell us how meerkats manage. Tell us how they fit into the broader picture of African wildlife. Tell us what happens to them as animals. Just stop trying to recast their natural behavior as titillating or horrifying just because we humans would never do it. After all, there are plenty of behaviors we manage to justify that you never see in the wild.


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