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The Meerkats

The Meerkats
The Meerkats (Animal Planet)

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Mick Kaczorowski
Exectutive Producer for the Animal Planet, 'Meerkat Manor'
Wednesday, October 17, 2007; 11:00 AM

Mick Kaczorowski, executive producer for Animal Planet of Meerkat Manor, was online Wednesday, Oct. 17, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the popular documentary/drama which follows the everyday life of a meerkat family called the Whiskers living in the Kalahari Desert in South Africa.

A transcript follows.

"Meerkat Manor" airs on Fridays at 8:30 p.m. ET on Animal Planet.

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Mick Kaczorowski: I'm glad to be here today and look forward to answering all your questions about "Meerkat Manor" and the new season.

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Eagle, Idaho: Mick, how many days does it take to shoot a single episode and how many hours of tape will the photographers shoot before it's edited into the final product?

Mick Kaczorowski: Good question. Because we actually have no idea what's taking place out in the Kalahari on a day to day basis, there's not a single answer I can give. Sometimes we get an episode in a matter of a couple weeks; sometimes a story doesn't appear because nothing really happens for days on end. But in the end we really shoot four weeks of footage before we send it back to begin editing.

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Alexandria, Va.: How long have you been following or gathering information on the Whiskers family?

Mick Kaczorowski: The Whiskers are part of a 13-year study that was originally started by Cambridge University and they are the longest studied mammal on the planet. So we've only been filming them for the last three years but the study has been going on over 13 years.

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.: I was skeptical at first but man the show is great! My question is: what is the disparity between time of filming and airing on television? Or did Flower die like, two years ago and we're only just finding out now?

Mick Kaczorowski: We begin filming in the springtime in the Kalahari and we wrap filming for a season around April. So about seven to eight months of filming take place. Flower actually died in January 2007 so she actually died in the season that you're seeing.

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Vero Beach, Fla.: How many total seasons are being planned and will the filming extend past just the Whiskers and nearby mobs to some of the other study mobs?

Mick Kaczorowski: We've already started filming season four in the Kalahari and, because this research area is so large, we have to focus on only one or two groups that interact with the Whiskers. So for now, most likely it will be the one or two groups that interact with the Whiskers.

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NW D.C.: How do the photographers/researchers tell the Meerkats apart? I always take the word of the narrator to know who I'm looking at, but sometimes I wonder if, with nearly 30 of them in the Whiskers at one point, they got confused as well.

I love the show, and often use it to procrastinate from studying. Keep up the good work.

Mick Kaczorowski: Thanks. The researchers put a little marking of hair dye on the meerkats, strategically placed so they can recognize them. Obviously, as the meerkats get older they're much more recognizable to the researchers and the cameramen.

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Huron, S.D.: Our family loves your show! My question is: After being so closely associated with the Whiskers for much time, does your crew find it hard to not become involved in the group dynamic or to maybe have prevented the death of Flower?

Mick Kaczorowski: Because we're part of a research study, although the natural instinct of any human being like the cameraman would want to intercede, but these are completely wild animals and it's our obligation to let nature take its course, so the scientists can learn the most information from their daily lives.

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Atlanta, Ga.: My wife and I love Meerkat Manor! We have noticed that this season has gotten especially dark -- and the advertising for the show seems to play this up. Is there a deliberate attempt to insert more drama into the series, and focus more on deaths and tragedies -- or is this really a particularly tough year for the meerkats?

Mick Kaczorowski: The short answswer is yes, it's a particularly tough years for the meerkats. When you think of the lifespan of meerkats being between six and seven years in the Kalahari, much longer in a zoo they can live to 10 or 11, you're seeing what goes on, really, after three years of following the meerkats that we're focusing on. So you're seeing what's happening naturally in the wild and our cameras are just capturing it.

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Laurel, Md.: When is the movie about Flower coming out and what will it show? Will it comprise of clips of her up until her death?

Mick Kaczorowski: The movie about the life of Flower is coming out next year. Everything in the movie is original -- originally shot. It is the prequel to the series, "Meerkat Manor," and it will tell the story of Flower from her birth to how she rose to be queen of the Kalahari.

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NW, D.C.: My boyfriend was CRUSHED when Flower died protecting her family. Why do you think everyone took such a liking to her?

Mick Kaczorowski: Because she was a strong leader and a caring mother.

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Washington, D.C.: I see that the Zappa Family is the new Commando Gang. But what happened to the Commandos?

Mick Kaczorowski: The Commandos just didn't interact this season as much with the Whiskers. We have no control, really, when they decide to interact so it's sort of just what happened this season basically.

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Mick Kaczorowski: It doesn't mean that we won't see more of the Commandos.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: What is the greatest surprise you learning from your filming? Thank you for your work and letting us learn about these fascinating animals.

Mick Kaczorowski: I would say how much personality they exhibit that reminds us of our own family relationships. Because they live in groups and their leader is a dominant female it's wonderful to see how people relate to them, that's very different from other animals that we make movies about at Animal Planet.

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Richmond, Va.: Love the show--it's very addictive! Who names the meerkats? Are there guidelines that they follow? There seem to be many herbal and floral names (Rose, Basil), as well as historical figures (Mozart, Shakespeare).

Mick Kaczorowski: The researchers in the field have to keep track of hundreds of meerkats with all the 15 different groups that they're studying. So instead of giving them numbers they just come up with names and so the names, when they start, they'll call them spices, for example, such as Salt, Pepper, Paprika, etc., but we can't make a whole show with meerkats named after spices or condiments. So we pick some of the characters' names that feel appropriate but we also have to make sure that you can follow the storyline so we have to bring in other names that we add to the families.

This year we've changed some names to honor some people, like Flower's last pup we named after Elizabeth Taylor; we've named a meerkat after Denis Leary who's a big fan of the show and coming up on Friday's episode one of the early fans of "Meerkat Manor" was Whoopi Goldberg and we've named a meerkat after her.

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Philadelphia, Pa.:

I have a pet guinea pig who seems to react and 'talk' to the meerkats when she sees them. I wonder if you have heard of any other animals,such as cats, who are as fascinated by these critters as we all are.

Mick Kaczorowski: No, I haven't heard of anything. You're the first one.

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Mick Kaczorowski: But if you want to go and communicate with other Meerkat Manor fans and ask that question, you can go to one of the chat boards on animalplanet.com where there's always a discussion about the episodes.

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Starkville, Miss.: What are the collars that the meerkats wear during the show. Are they used for identification.

Mick Kaczorowski: The collar is put around the dominant female of each group and they are radio collars and they help the researcher track the movements of the different meerkat groups.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Did you ever learn more on what happened to Shakespeare?

Mick Kaczorowski: No.

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Vero Beach, Fla.: Did you at Animal Planet have any idea how popular and big Meerkat Manor was going to be?

Mick Kaczorowski: I think there's always a hope that we'll make a program that connects with our audience but I think we are truly surprised by the positive reaction and we're really excited to be making something that's not only popular but educational as well.

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Olney, Md.: How large can a meerkat family grow before it really needs to split apart?

Mick Kaczorowski: Between 40 and 50.

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U St., D.C.: I really love this show - thank you for doing something so different and exciting. Much better than the semi-standard "this is what animals are like..." kind of shows.

My question relates to how the meerkats and humans interact. How aware of the presence of the cameramen are the animals? Are they skeptical? Curious? Scared? And how does the film crew get close enough to tag/dye them, without really interrupting the way these animals naturally act?

Mick Kaczorowski: The animals are completely habituated to the cameras and the researchers and that's what allows us to get so close to them to film them. But it's all part of the research study and the meerkats, although they see us, basically are only followed by the camera people but in order to film them and get close to them we still have to move slowly so they're not frightened by us with our equipment. But because they've been studied by human beings for so long, seeing cameramen and people around their burrows is very natural to them.

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Washington, D.C.: How does the show support the scientific research on Meerkats? Does the show give money directly to the project or give research grants? How much input do the researchers have into the information presented in the show?

Mick Kaczorowski: The science in the series and the scripts and the stories are completely vetted by the scientific team in the Kalahari and professor Tim Clutton-Brock, who is the head of the research study.

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Baltimore, Md.: Great show! How did Sean Astin come to narrate the series?

Mick Kaczorowski: We were looking for someone young, talented and could bring a new voice to the "Meerkat Manor" and I think Sean was a great addition to the series.

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Silver Spring, Md.: In a recent episode, when it was talking about Zaphod leaving the group to start his own group, it mentioned that eventually Mitch may have to do that same. At what age, do male meerkats normally leave their group? Does that always occur or do some males stay with their family group for their whole lives?

Mick Kaczorowski: Yes, Mitch will eventually have to leave the group to find a partner to try and start his own family. It depends what age -- it's roughly a couple of years -- and Mitch will have to leave because all the Whisker females are his sisters and Zaphod has to leave because the Whisker females are his daughters.

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Olney, Md.: How many cameras do your researchers have access to at any given time?

Mick Kaczorowski: It's between one and two cameras but most of the time it's one camera just beause you can't have more than one cameraman and one sound person interacting with a group of meerkats. The researchers allow only certain amount of people to get close to the meerkats.

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SW D.C.: First off, I want to say that our family is a big fan of the series. My eight year old daughter particularly loves the show and watches it whenever she can.

Now for my question - are there are any books or other programs that you would recommend for a 3rd grader who is interested in learning more about these wonderful creatures.

Thank you and keep up the great work.

Mick Kaczorowski: Go to our Web site: animalplanet.com for some suggestions.

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Crystal City, Va.: How can someone who loves animals, particularly meerkats, get into your line of work? As in research, and film, etc?

Mick Kaczorowski: First, it's imporant to go to school and take classes in filmmaking or media so you can understand about the process that we go through in making a television program or a movie. Secondly, if you're interested in making natural history programs or becoming a researcher, a lot of the researchers who study the meerkats in the Kalahari are volunteers that come from all over the world. So it's just good to go to a Web site and find something you're really interested in and volunteer, and that will get your foot in the door.

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Silver Spring, Md.: How many of the burrows have cameras in them?

Mick Kaczorowski: We move the cameras around the burrows when we decide we think something like a birth or an attack is going to happen.

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Mick Kaczorowski: I want to thank everbody for the wonderful questions and I'm sorry I didn't get the opportunity to answer more of them. Thank you for supporting "Meerkat Manor" and I hope you enjoy the rest of the season. Thanks very much.

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