Kool for kats: How meerkats conquered the world

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They guarantee hit TV ratings. They sell car insurance. They scare off burglars. Simon Usborne explains why meerkats really are beyond compare

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There has never been a better time to be a foot-tall, slender-tailed, pointy-nosed mongoose with an elevated outlook on life. Just ask Tony, a two-year-old boy with wide eyes and blonde hair. He's come to London Zoo with his grandparents, John and Jacqueline, who support the boy as he stands on the railings overlooking an enclosure. He doesn't say much – he's only two – but as an adult male climbs a gnarled branch and uncurls its body into its trademark upright position, Tony straightens his back and brings his arms in front of him, letting his "paws" hang above his waist. Bobbing his head left and then right, he opens his mouth and squeals: "Meeeeeerkaaat!"

Britain has gone mad for these upstanding citizens of the Kalahari desert. Meerkats have burrowed into the public consciousness, colonising our billboards, cinemas and television screens. Their adorable faces, quizzical disposition and trademark posture make them seriously cute (and seriously attractive to marketing men) but the diminutive diggers' biggest fans say meerkat mania is about more than charm and charisma. They are the little guys with big hearts whose struggle for survival and fierce sense of family loyalty not only fascinates scientists and seduces film-makers, but also offers a model of duty and fortitude for us all. The mammals' greatest champions go further. They believe – and read on if this sounds crazy – that, in gloomy times, meerkats have a unique power to make us happy. In Germany, they call them erdmännchen, or "little earth people".

When did this madness begin? The meerkats' star has reached new heights but the animals first peered into our lives more than 20 years ago when David Attenborough introduced us to the curious creatures in the BBC documentary, Meerkats United. The film captivated a generation and has been voted the most popular nature documentary of all time. James Honeyborne, who had just joined the BBC's celebrated Natural History Unit as a young biologist, remembers its impact: "It bowled people over – nobody expected these funny little mongooses of the African savannah to be quite so extraordinarily cute." Now an award-winning film-maker in his own right, Honeyborne is the director and brains behind Meerkats – The Movie.

It is one of two big-budget Hollywood films due for release on the same day next month. Backed by the Weinstein brothers and narrated by the late Paul Newman, Honeyborne's film will go head to head in the stocking stakes with Meerkat Manor, an American film narrated by Whoopi Goldberg and featuring the colony that starred in the wildly popular television series of the same name. The movies come out a week after the BBC broadcasts a new meerkat sequence in the latest Attenborough series, Life, which started on Monday.

But there is one personality that has done more to propel the meerkat into celebrity than even an army of Attenboroughs could manage. If you have a television and turn it on occasionally, you will probably know him by the one-word catchphrase: "Seemples!" Aleksander Orlov is the world's most unlikely insurance salesman. The computer-generated Russian aristocrat with a thick accent and a smoking jacket appears in a series of TV ads for a price comparison website, Comparethemarket.com. The bonkers premise: Orlov is so fed up with careless policy hunters swamping his website, Comparethemeerkat.com, he films his own explanatory ads with the sign-off "seemples". "Cheap carinsuuurance, meeerkats – two veeery different things."

The agency behind the campaign, VCCP, has gone to great lengths to make Orlov the world's most famous (and, depending who you ask, most annoying) meerkat. "He" regularly updates his Twitter feed and Facebook page and boasts more than half a million followers. A Flickr album of black and white family portraits reveals his noble heritage and a biography tells how Orlov's "greatest grandfather", Mikhail, fought in the Meerkat-Mongoose war of 1728, while his grandparents survived the Furry Terror of 1921. In the latest ads, Orlov is joined by his web technician, Sergei, a veteran of the Soviet space programme (he designed the "Mir(kat)" space station). "As well as being head of IT, Sergei is also head of my tea," Orlov says on the site. "I like it milky."

The inspired, brilliantly silly campaign has been heaped with industry awards and Orlov, who is voiced by Simon Greenall (who played the Geordie handyman in the BBC comedy I'm Alan Partridge), has transformed the fortunes of a website that used to struggle to be distinctive in a competitive field. Former big hitters are being forced to rethink their own campaigns. Peter Jones, the Dragons' Den star who fronts the ads for MoneySupermarket.com, has proved no match for his Russian rival.

Orlov and his kin have become the Smash Martians of our times. But unlike the potato-selling robots from the 1970s, meerkats actually exist – and arguably it's they who have benefited most from the exposure. Back at London Zoo, on the other side of the enclosure from little Tony (who's given up his meerkat impression) three-year-old Nancy is equally captivated. To the mild horror of her Dad, Simon, she is repeating the "Seemples!" slogan and kissing her teeth in the manner of Orlov. Nancy doesn't know what car insurance is, but she knows a meerkat when she sees one. "When [the advert] comes on she runs up to the TV and starts jumping up and down," Simon says.

It's the same story all over the zoo. Cuddly meerkats are standing head-and-shoulders above their more prestigious stablemates in the gift shop – they are now the third most-popular toy. Over at the new Animal Adventure area, a second clan of meerkats is surrounded by young families and tourists. Keeper Matthew Sowerby sits with the animals, some of whom climb on to his shoulders to drink in the attention. "We get a lot of people coming through to see the meerkats because they've seen the adverts," he says. "Almost every family you see, the first thing they say is 'Comparethemeerkat' or 'seemples'."

Angela Ryan is in charge of training animals for the zoo's educational show. She recently cast meerkats Roo and Liam in starring roles after the infants, who were born in March, were rejected by their mother (more on the meerkat's less-cuddly side later). Their appearance has coincided perfectly with the Orlov effect. "As soon as the meerkats come out the kids go crazy and start shouting ," Ryan says. "We used to talk about Timon, the meerkat in The Lion King, but we're going to change the script and use Aleksander."

Later, Ryan whisks Roo and Liam from their VIP enclosure in luxury cat boxes for a meeting with The Independent. "They can bite very hard," Ryan warns as the 'kats explore a petting pen. "But they're great fun. Roo is the bigger one and is definitely more bolshy, but when it came to training them, he wasn't as intelligent. We used a rewards system to get Liam pretending to kill a rubber snake and he loved it, but Roo won't touch it – he just looked confused."

Watching Roo and Liam clamber over their keeper and their cousins bounding around their enclosures, it's easy to see the appeal of the meerkat. Blessed with beautiful grey coats, big eyes and pointy noses that give them a look of permanent curiosity, they are officially and, especially if you've seen footage of the creatures as mouse-like babies, ridiculously cute. But lots of animals are cute. Many, let's admit, are cuter. So why meerkats?

"You have to think about what cuteness is," says Honeyborne, who spent more than 12 months on his knees making Meerkats – The Movie. "Generally it's a feeling we get when we see an animal that reminds us of ourselves. That's why we're attracted to animals that stand up and have eyes at the front of their face, like monkeys and penguins." Indeed there is science behind this attraction. An Austrian zoologist called Konrad Lorenz argued that humans react positively to animals that resemble babies because we have evolved instinctively to care for our offspring. Our brains are hard-wired to like meerkats.

"But what's really endearing about meerkats," Honeyborne adds, "is their family dynamic and the way they pull together. Their all-for-one altruism really hits home." Honeyborne's film draws one animal's life into a tear-jerking coming-of-age drama, complete with reconstructions and subtle special effects. We watch as Kolo emerges from his burrow for the first time, a tiny, three-week-old entering a world fraught with danger. And we see some of the unique behaviour meerkats have evolved to survive drought, extremes of temperature and the talons and fangs of eagles and snakes.

Meerkat clans operate as highly sociable families of around 20 animals. Such is the precariousness of their existence, not all females breed – it would be impossible to defend so many souls. So brothers, uncles, sisters and aunties perform other duties. They stand sentry while their relatives dig for scorpions. They babysit young for days at a time while others go hunting – often to the point at which they fall asleep and topple over. So tight are these bonds that meerkats sometimes make the ultimate sacrifice. A harrowing sequence in Honeyborne's film shows Kolo's big brother being picked off by an eagle as he runs to defend his charge. It's these traits that make meerkats ideal poster boys for the national Neighbourhood Watch scheme, whose window stickers feature a clan of the animals scanning the horizon for suspicious behaviour.

Some of the most extraordinary scenes in the library of films that star meerkats show older males teaching their little siblings, nephews and nieces, how to snare scorpions. "They start by presenting them with dead scorpions whose stings have been removed," Clutton-Brock explains. "When the infant is used to that, they give them live scorpions with removed stings before gradually moving to a group of young finding and killing a scorpion themselves."

Their indelible family ties, vulnerability to armed attackers and heavy reliance on uncles for muscle evokes a family we can all sympathise with (albeit a bit like the Sopranos, perhaps) because, ultimately, they're like us. Others take the allegory further. Tim Clutton-Brock is the world's leading meerkat expert, having studied the creatures for more than 15 years. A professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Cambridge University, he heads up the Kalahari Meerkat Project, whose groups at the Kuruman River Reserve have starred in several films, including Meerkat Manor. "People have said it's like watching an episode of Dynasty when, at any moment, an enormous bird may swoop and eat a character in full view. Meerkat Manor has been described as a soap opera on steroids. I'd say it's Dynasty crossed with a Shakespearean tragedy."

But anthropomorphism is a risky business. Meerkats have a dark side that would horrify the kids at the zoo. When they're not being cute and cuddly, they can be brutal killers, and when they have to be, murderous cannibals. Meerkats who defy the alpha female to have their own young do so at their peril. Their unwanted offspring must be disposed of for the good of the clan. Babies who are not rejected and left to die are eaten by their grandmothers. The way in which most meerkats suppress the most basic urge to reproduce, and throw themselves so keenly into supporting roles, make them fascinating to scientists. "Collaborative breeding generates fundamental questions about life because it would appear initially to challenge the theory of evolution," says Clutton-Brock. "We try to work out how individuals have evolved to help and not breed."

While biologists grapple with essential questions, the rest of are free to "ooh", "aah" and shed a tear, putting cannibalism to one side as we read whatever we wish into the apparent parallels with our families. But the emotional attachment many have made with meerkats makes them a target for more than just eagles. For some fans it's not enough to giggle at the "seemples" ads or get a toy – they want a real one. Earlier this year, a woman who bought a meerkat as a pet for £500 took it to a zoo in Preston to ask for advice. The growing trade in pet meerkats is a bigger problem in the animals' native land. "It's said there are 5,000 pet meerkats in South Africa," Honeyborne says. "It's terrible. They become attention deprived, which can lead to serious mental issues; they stink, they bite and they will tear your house to pieces."

Honeyborne urges meerkat lovers who want to get closer to the real thing to adopt. Zoos all over the country more used to receiving donations for lions and tigers are swamped with requests for meerkats. Such is the demand at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, quick-thinking bosses have launched Comparethemeerkatbabies.com for prospective parents to choose a "child". London Zoo's adoption programme is similarly popular (now available for £30: Pipsqueak, four, loves digging and sunbathing).

One meerkat fan thinks it isn't enough to lionise the animals in film or even to adopt them – she wants a permanent monument. The artist Tracey Emin is obsessed by meerkats and when the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square was up for grabs last year, she submitted a proposal that would have seen life-size statues of the animals peering over central London. Antony Gormley's crew of human "plinthers" beat the meerkats to it. "I thought it would have been nice to see them looking out," says Emin, who has a theory about meerkats: "Whenever Britain is sad or has experienced loss, like after Princess Diana's funeral, the next thing that comes on the television is Meerkats United. They endear us and give us a sense of togetherness. They used to show meerkats on the monitors on the Heathrow Express because they calm people down before a flight. Meerkats make us happy." Seemples.

Animal magic: Meerkat facts

* Part of the mongoose family, meerkats are also known as suricates and inhabit the rusty sands of the Kalahari in southern Africa.

* Living in highly social clans or gangs of about 20 animals, they hunt for insects, lizards, scorpions and snakes by day, sleeping in huddles by night.

* Only 1ft in height when standing on their hind legs, they use their tails for support as animals take it in turns to scan the horizon for predators.

* Burrows, used for sleeping, breeding and protection, are complex networks of chambers and tunnels several feet deep, with multiple entrances.

* Alpha females can give birth to up to 70 pups, usually producing litters of three. Other females are forbidden from reproducing for the good of the clan.

* Unwanted offspring are often cast out of the clan to die alone. In some cases, dominant females will kill and eat babies born outside the clan system.

* Threats include cobras, which meerkats are capable of scaring off by arranging themselves in mobs, extending their tails to present an intimidating front.

* Meerkat enemy number one is the Marshall eagle, which has a 7ft wingspan and razor-sharp talons perfect for snaring stray young meerkats.

* Drought can kill off whole clans, forcing meerkats to dig deeper for their dinners. Sometimes they will eat less palatable prey such as millipedes.

* Fictional meerkats include Timon from "The Lion King" and Aleksander "Seemples" Orlov, the star of the Comparethemarket.com ad campaign.

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