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No 'hakuna matata' for this meerkat

Is Shakespeare . . . dead?

Shakespeare, a loyal member of the Meerkat Manor clan, became a favorite of viewers in Season 1 after he survived a snake bite, rescued a stray pup and defended newborns from a rival gang before disappearing.

It is the disappearance that has caused a brewing controversy on the Internet. Season 2 of Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor series starts tonight, and anguished fans want answers. Did he die in the burrow protecting the pups? Did he die after the snake bite? Could he have lived and simply have left the group?

Animal Planet insists it knows nothing other than that Shakespeare is missing - and that it has never produced a show that has generated such an intense emotional reaction from viewers. A mixture of wildlife documentary and soap opera, the series follows a family of 40 feisty meerkats in Africa's Kalahari desert, where, led by an unforgiving matriarch, they face predators and rival gangs.

But recently, an angry edge seeped into fans' Internet postings when they began to suspect, like viewers of MTV's Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County, that all was not as unscripted as advertised. They asked one another whether Animal Planet could possibly have substituted another dark-eyed, straight-backed, pointy-nosed mammal and just called him "Shakespeare." Sharp-eyed viewers said they noticed Shakespeare had different markings in different scenes. Another theory was that the footage had been edited to disrupt the true chronology of events.

"What was really upsetting is that Animal Planet ran promotions saying to tune in to find out the key to Shakespeare's fate," said Fay Popejoy, 58, of Covina, Calif., in an interview. Through an international Meerkat Manor fan site, she has heard that Season 2, which began in Britain on Sept. 4, does not definitively answer that question.

Executive producer Mick Kaczorowski said he understands viewers' frustrations, but no one really knows the fate of courageous little Shakespeare. Kaczorowski denied the producers used another meerkat to stand in for Shakespeare or any other major character on the show.

The series is filmed from September through April, the meerkats' mating season, in conjunction with an ongoing research project by Cambridge University. The action is captured by stationary camcorders, burrow cams and camera operators in a 3-mile area.

One technique researchers use to tell the animals apart is to mark them with splotches of hair dye, which would account for various markings on a single meerkat, Kaczorowski said. "It's all very innocent," he said.

The series focuses on the Whiskers family, led by Flower, a dominant female with Lady Macbeth-like characteristics. She is the only female allowed to breed and banishes or bites females who break the rule.

Other fan favorites are Tosca, a banished daughter presumed to have died, and Columbus, an explorer. Popejoy said it appeared that young Mitch might be stepping up to take Shakespeare's place as the show's hero.

Kaczorowski attributed viewers' powerful response, in part, to the fact that each family member has a name, and weekly shows reinforce viewers' involvement with individual personalities. Another is that meerkats are cute and small (adults are a foot tall when standing; pups are 2 inches when they leave the burrow) and must band together to survive.

Judging from his mail, Kaczorowski said viewers are most troubled by the animal deaths, particularly the young pups. Popejoy said she couldn't understand how the photographers could watch dying pups and not save them.

"It is how difficult life is in the Kalahari," Kaczorowski said. "Only one in four pups really make it."

Now that the animals have become used to the cameras, and producers have become used to storytelling, he said viewers can expect increasing drama and intimacy in Season 2. In other words, fans should prepare themselves for more heartwarming and heartbreaking moments.

Filming will begin this month on Season 3.

And even Kaczorowski, who knows better, said he couldn't help begging the researchers, "Please, don't let anything happen to Flower."

TV PREVIEW

Meerkat Manor returns to Animal Planet at 8 tonight.

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