I still need mailing addresses for Felissa L. and Sandi Lewis, who won free Christmas mysteries last week. Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Every Christmas season brings new toys, but only now and then does one catch on and become THE toy, the one every kid absolutely must have and parents drive themselves crazy trying to locate and acquire. Remember Cabbage Patch dolls? This year the “it” toy is the Zhu Zhu Pet, a toy hamster that does all the cute things real hamsters do without expecting food or a clean cage.
Zhu Zhu Pets were created by a guy in St. Louis who has suddenly found himself the head of an enormously profitable family-run company based entirely on a little mechanical rodent. The hamsters are supposed to sell for $10, but they’ve become some scarce that they’re fetching several times that amount on the internet. And once you’ve bought the hamster, what kid will be satisfied without some or all of the “accessories” available? The slide, the skateboard, the fun house, the playground, the little car and garage, the adventure ball, the wheel and tunnels, the “hamster city” ($129.99) – swallow hard and pay up, if you want your kid to be happy with his ersatz pet and stop begging for a real one. (For a while there, it seemed the Zhu Zhu Pet called Mr. Squiggles, pictured above, might be recalled, after a consumer group claimed it contained harmful levels of antimony, but the government has cleared Mr. Squiggles of the charge.)
What will you do if you can’t get your hands on a mechanical hamster for the kid in your life? Don’t despair – this is the golden era of fake pets. Consider the Zzz Animals, artificial puppies and kittens that do nothing but lie on their beds (included) and sleep. According to a catalog, their “little midsections” rise and fall in an amazingly lifelike imitation of breathing. And “the best thing about them is that they’re not real!” No walking, no feeding, no messes to clean up, no biting visitors or scratching the furniture. These “pets” never even wake up. Orange tabby and black and white kittens are available, along with a line of puppies – chocolate lab, pug, Shih-Tzu, beagle, schnauzer, golden retriever, Yorkie, Cavalier King Charles, and just in time for the holidays, the new Portuguese water dog that looks exactly like Bo Obama. Batteries not included.
Looking for something more active? Check out the monkey and puppy that say “Hello!” and proceed to “roll on the floor and laugh and laugh” before saying “Goodbye!” and shutting down.
Then there’s Scoozie, the all-purpose mammal. It looks kind of like a squirrel, but it purrs like a cat and wags its bushy tail like a dog – when it’s happy. If you neglect a Scoozie, it growls at you. It has light and sound sensors and responds to its environment. This fake pet does have to be fed, although the catalog copy doesn’t reveal its dietary requirements (perhaps there’s an expensive fake food available?) or whether it needs a litter box or regular walks. It sounds like almost as much work as a real pet, but I guess you save on vet bills. Maybe that’s the next thing: an artificial pet that needs shots.
If Scoozie is too much trouble and the rolling, laughing monkey and dog freak you out, try the Christmas bear, which will read “The Night Before Christmas” in what is described as “a soothing male voice” (accompanied by soft background music) while rocking back and forth. It will read your child to sleep so you won’t have to do it.
There’s a whole industry producing artificial life forms that are promoted as trouble-free, mess-free substitutes for the real thing. Maybe they fill a need in families where no one has the time to care for live dogs and cats. But it all seems rather sad to me. A child growing up without the companionship of a pet with a unique personality and real needs is missing out on a vital connection to another species. I have lived my entire life with cats and dogs, and through them I have learned to respect and care for all animals. They have taught me that sometimes I have to put my own needs and plans aside. They have shown me that if I give love unconditionally, I will receive it in return, many times over.
I can look to my left as I write this and see our cat Emma sleeping on her pillow under a lamp. Her midsection (not so little, alas) rises and falls with each breath. Any minute she’s going to wake up and start making demands, as real animals are inclined to do – pet me, feed me, love me.
Her brother Gabriel is already sitting by my chair, giving me that look I know so well: If I don’t leave the computer right now and give him a meal, I’ll find out just how much of a nuisance he can be.
They drive me crazy sometimes with their fussy appetites, and they scare me witless when they get sick.
I wouldn’t trade them for all the mechanical hamsters in the world.