I Was an Internet Meme

How a meerkat selfie made me famous (for precisely 15 minutes).

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The meerkat was the mob’s sentry. His job was to scout the horizon for hawks and other threats to his fellow meerkats, and to do that he wanted a high point for a good vantage. They 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” though I can’t 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. When one climbs on your head, you realize they’re 10 inches 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. Now that would be a picture.

Well, I’d come this far. I handed my camera to my mate, 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.

A meerkat perches on top of Todd Pitock's head as he takes notes in Botswana.
Head-scratcher? “When a meerkat climbs on your head, you realize they’re 10 inches of solid muscle sheathed in bristly golden hair. And claws.” (Courtesy of Todd Pitock)

Meerkats are a type of mongoose indigenous to southern Africa, and here in Botswana there were colonies of them in a salt pan. They have a particular appeal that goes way beyond Africa, or even social norms. I don’t know if it started with Timon in The Lion King, but it’s global now. When Jeremy got a position doing research in a lab in Korea, we met in Seoul. Even in Asia, far from southern Africa, there was a fascination with meerkats, including a place called the Meerkat Café, where someone had imported and bred them, and guests could come into a pen to play with them. I assume they were declawed but don’t know because I only looked on from outside the pen, where guests seated in a circle with blankets on their laps communed with them. One young man cuddled a meerkat in his lap, and kissed him, mouth to mouth. The meerkat was a willing partner, though it seemed that first base was a means to getting to second, which in the meerkat world meant investigating his nostrils, pressing its mouth high enough into the nasal cavity to distort his face, and this did not prevent the young man from resuming kissing him.

Leaving the Meerkat Café, Jeremy said, “I have to admit, it wasn’t as interesting as I thought it was going to be.”

Reddit, on the other hand, was a lot more interesting than I could have imagined.

Within a short time, Jeremy reported that my meerkat photo had made the top 100. And then it started getting interesting. Its ranking, and viewer comments, took over my morning, and by lunchtime or thereabout, it broke the top 10 on its way to becoming No. 1. It spread to other sites. A Facebook page devoted to pop science garnered 64,000 likes. I did very little but bask in volumes of likes, and images of thumbs and arrows generally pointed up.

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.

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 green trail-running shoes; one warned that walking around in the bush with them put me at risk of plantar fasciitis, which 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 taken, 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. … —Murphey the meerkat.”

Some outside-the-box thinker enlarged the meerkat, shrank 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 20,” 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 40. Human still thinks I’m a hat.”

It was a peculiarly 21st century kind of notoriety: witnessed but doubted. Random, unintended. Though seen by millions, nonetheless anonymous. Even I identified myself in relation to a 10-inch desert animal whose name people believed they knew — Timon, a character from The Lion King.

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 café 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!”

Todd Pitock’s last piece for the Post, “Cold Comfort at the Ice Hotel” (Nov/Dec 2018), won an honorable mention in the American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing awards.

This article is featured in the July/August 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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Comments

  1. Wow Todd, you really went from the freezer to the frying pan for this feature compared to the “Cold Comfort at the Ice Hotel.” I’m figuring it was pretty hot in Botswana, so you would have had the hat on anyway. I’m glad the meerkat was friendly and apparently safe enough.

    The Meerkat Cafe sounds interesting, but I’d still need to know more about any animal I might have interaction with; kind of like the way Johnny Carson and Jay Leno used to when they’d have Jack Hanna on as a guest. This was before ‘The Tonight Show’ became the unwatchable zoo/mess (no pun intended) it became once Jay signed off.

    To go through what you did and be accused of photo shopping would not be something I’d take kindly to. I’m glad you could prove it was real. By the way, your shoes aren’t ugly at all. I like the look of camouflaged snakes, lizards and iguanas!

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