At Last, the Perfect Pet
For years I've put up with people telling me I need an animal around the house. I don't know why everyone thinks that just because I'm single and don't have any dependents I need something to take care of. Like there's a great big hole in my life that needs to be filled with time, money and inconvenience in return for a couch covered in dog hair, a litter box that violates 17 EPA clean air regulations, and fish that do the backstroke without moving their fins or breathing.It might be because I grew up without pets. Before you accuse my parents of being communist, I want to point out that they were actually Marxists. Just kidding. Actually I think it's because they were both brought up in the city that they weren't accustomed to having pets around. Of course we had a few. There was my younger brother's rabbit which I think hung around for two weeks. There was a dog named Blackie who escaped out the back door and followed us to school every day, causing the principal to call my mother to come get him. For some reason he only lasted about six months. And there was a fish tank, which lent hours of excitement to our lives until I chased my brother into my parents' room one morning, causing him to fling the door open which slammed into the tank and sent the water -- and the fish -- cascading onto the carpet.There's no question that I'm in the minority. There are an estimated 26 million dogs and 21 million cats in this country. That's more than the combined population of Canada and Australia, though not as many as the number of people who watch a Pauley Shore movie and wonder how he keeps getting sent scripts. Even in other countries pets are important. In Italy they allow prisoners to keep small pets in their cells, like cats, fish and caged birds. That's much more progressive than the United States where they're limited to rats, cockroaches, and that cute guy who just moved into cellblock D.In Tokyo pets are as rare as cooked fish. With 30 million people packed together in one big studio apartment, there's hardly room for animals. Some people in Tokyo rent dogs and cats for the weekend, others buy them but leave them at the pet shop, stopping by to visit and walk them when they have time. That's why virtual pets have become big business over there.Virtual pets are dogs and cats which " live" in their computers. These are very different than the video pets which were being sold a few years ago. Those were just videos of pets which were supposed to make us think our dog was around without having to be walked or fed, a welcome addition to the video fireplace, video Cuisinart, and video girlfriend.No, this new version actually lives and grows. Well, in a virtual way, of course. Much like the cyber- pets which are being sold in England and Australia and will soon be marketed here. They start as genetically coded eggs that you hatch onscreen. As if that's not enough, you have to care for them as they grow, breed, and evolve into gremlin-looking creatures. They need to be fed, they catch diseases, and according to the manufacturer, CyberLife, they show emotions and have needs. In other words they're about as real as Michael Jackson, except they don't wear surgical masks or sleep in a hyperbaric chamber.Meanwhile, back in Japan, the big fad is the Tamagocchi, an $18 computer game about the size and shape of an egg. The game starts when an egg on the screen hatches and a chicken is born. Then you have to take care of it. When it gets hungry it peeps. If you don't clean up after it, it peeps even louder. You can tickle it, take its temperature, and even give it injections if it gets sick, all with the click of three buttons. This can go on for days. If you forget about it, lose it, or don't tickle it often enough, it gets sick and mean-looking. Keep it up and it dies. Lose twice and you're not allowed to have children. If only....More than 500,000 Tamagocchis have been sold since they went on the market in November. People are in such an uproar over this that nearly 2,000 people camped out hoping to get one. That shows how much more advanced the Japanese are. Over here the same phenomenon occurred right before Christmas but it was for Tickle Me Elmo, a stuffed toy that giggles when you squeeze his stomach. Big deal, even l do that.Personally, I'm waiting for either the Tamagocchi or the virtual pets to make their way here to the United States so I'll finally be able to get a maintenance-free pet. Imagine, no more smelly pet food, no more messy litter boxes, and no more hoping your dinner guests aren't bothered by a furry creature trying to procreate with their leg while you're serving dessert. All I'll have to do from now on is remember to click on the mouse. Does that mean I'm going to have to start buying virtual cheese?