The meerkat was the mob’s sentry. His job was to scout the horizon for hawks and other threats, and to do that he wanted a high point for a good vantage. The small carnivores move on four paws but stand on their hind ones. I wanted a picture of a meerkat on my head. Without exchanging a word, each side knew what he was getting from the relationship.
I got down on one knee and kept still. I could hear the patter of his steps – I say “his” but I cannot say for sure he was a he – and then felt a quick, thrilling and alarming movement, the weight of him climbing aboard.
Meerkats are adorable in photographs and from a distance. They are a type of mongoose indigenous to southern Africa, and in Botswana there are colonies of them in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pan. This one had been habituated by a local safari camp, meaning that they assigned a worker to stand nearby until the meerkats got used to him and understood he, and his kind, didn’t present any threat.
When one climbs on your head, you realise they are 25 centimetres of solid muscle sheathed in bristly golden hair. And claws. That’s the feature I didn’t see but couldn’t miss as I felt him on the top of my cranium, and the warm wonder evoked by their adorability was replaced by wondering if the next sensation of warmth would be of blood running in patterns down my face like Christ on the Via Dolorosa. Now that would be a picture!
Well, I’d come this far. I handed my camera to my friend, who was already shooting his own photos. I neither grimaced nor smiled. Once, in Baghdad, a guard had handed me his AK-47 and a photographer took a shot of me smiling, which under the circumstances made me look idiotic, whereas with just a serious face I looked merely homicidal. In any event, I sensed the appropriate move here was deadpan. I held my reporter’s notebook.
Back home, my son, Jeremy, asked if he could post it on Reddit. “If it gets on the top 10, I’ll buy you dinner,” he said.
I didn’t know what Reddit was. “Go for it,” I said.
It quickly became much more interesting than I could have imagined.
Within a short time, the photo had made the top 100. And then it started getting traction. Its ranking, and viewer comments, took over my morning, and by lunchtime, or thereabouts, it broke the top 10 on its way to becoming No 1. It spread to other sites. A Facebook page called IF***ingLoveScience garnered 64,000 likes. I did very little else the rest of the day but bask in volumes of likes and images of thumbs and arrows generally pointed up.
Some of the two million unique viewers had something to say. They compared my looks to Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad, though a few were kind enough to note he appeared to have lost weight. A lot of people didn’t care for my bright-green running shoes; one warned that walking around in the bush with them put me at risk of plantar fasciitis, which, I don’t know, seemed a little off-topic. One thread debated the picture’s authenticity. A few explained how they could tell the photo was photoshopped or otherwise faked, and I must admit, if I hadn’t been there when the photo was shot, I may well have been convinced they were right.
I posted an explanation. “I’m the guy in the meerkat photo,” I began, to which some wit with the handle Apocalypse__Meow almost instantly responded, “I’m the meerkat in the photo. I was walking around my yard looking for my keys, I dropped them other night by mistake. It was bright daylight so I thought I would spot them easy because of the metallic reflection. Suddenly a human with the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen was just kneeling there frozen immobile ... D – Murphey the meerkat.”
Some outside-the-box thinker enlarged the meerkat, shrunk me, and placed me on top of its head. Most just added captions to the original image: “I have still yet to see a meerkat,” read one. “Day twenty,” wrote someone called “Schateenteufel. “The meerkat continues to evade my observations. I know it exists, as the food I put out for it disappears at night, yet I have not yet seen the creature in person.” And, “... day forty. human still thinks I’m a hat.”
It was a peculiarly 21st century kind of notoriety: witnessed but doubted. Random, unintended and, though seen by millions, nonetheless anonymous. Even I identified myself in relation to a semi-bipedal desert animal. That my proverbial 15 minutes of fame was global was assumed. What was ironic and more surprising was that it was also local.
At my regular cafe outside of Philadelphia, the barista pointed at me as I came in. “Hey,” he said, “I saw you on Reddit.” And then he noted the true measure of what had been achieved. “Dude,” he added, so it wasn’t lost on me, “you’re a meme!”