March of the meerkats

Observations on role models

It was long overdue. But meerkats have finally hit the big time. The BBC's Natural History Unit has just signed its first ever Hollywood-backed deal to make a feature film about the furry inhabitants of the Kalahari desert. The idea was inspired by the international success of Luc Jacquet's Oscar-nominated March of the Penguins, which grossed over $120m worldwide and is the second-highest grossing documentary at the US box office after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11. The project has attracted backing from the influential Weinstein Company (owned by film mogul brothers Harvey and Bob) and filming starts later this month in South Africa.

As meerkat fans (and there are a lot of us) could have told the Weinsteins a long time ago, this is a shrewd move. The meerkat is the most endearing and fascinating of animals. It combines approachability and independence, cuteness and intelligence. Its physical appearance is ridiculously appealing: bobbing stance, twitchy nose. And who can resist those little upheld paws, crossed protectively across the body, footballer-style?

But we are not just talking pretty faces. Meerkats are a popular choice for wildlife photographers and film-makers because they adapt quickly to new situations: they react to danger but learn to ignore animals who do not pose a threat (such as the BBC's natural history team). As the film's producer puts it: "People do love meerkats, but there is far more going on than their just being cute and furry and standing on their hind legs."

If the penguin documentary succeeded thanks to its tendency towards anthropomorphisation - for which it was also criticised - the makers of The Meerkats will be able to have a field day.

The desert rat (as detractors call Suricata suricatta) has a vast array of traits which can be likened to human behaviour. A National Geographic study concluded that they interact and co-operate with each other socially, even more so than apes. They are the only mammal species apart from humans who actively teach their babies. The young of other animals learn from observation: meerkats, like humans, show their babies what to do, even performing repeat demonstrations. Some researchers believe they have a kind of language which carries meaning, one likening it to a form of yodelling.

Meerkats live in a sophisticated society where they behave altruistically to protect one another, acting as lookouts while others forage for food (the head bobbing and hind leg business must really help with this). But they can be ambitious, too, killing the offspring of others to advance the interests of their own. Their family structure is complex and unreplicated anywhere else in nature: mature meerkats stay with their parents instead of dispersing to breed.

With this in mind, the film carries an unexpected moral message, promising "an inspiring look at how one family's connection to each other and their surroundings stands as a model of resilience and fortitude for us all". In the meerkat, Hollywood may well have found the ultimate vehicle for promoting family values.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2006 issue of the New Statesman, Missing presumed tortured