The Wild, Wired World of Pets

This Christmas, thousands of kids with clean rap-sheets will slip from bedrooms at the glimmer of dawn to find their first pets chirping or purring under the Yule tree. Embracing these companions, they'll learn the responsibilities of feeding, playing with and cleaning up after their own animals. And when Fluffy or Rover finally passes on to that big pet-store in the clouds, these same kids will receive a tear-stained lesson in mortality.Then they'll hit the reset button and start all over again. For readers who have been vacationing on Planet Zog for the past year, the "Tamagotchi" -- known generically as a "virtual pet" -- is among this season's must-haves. Conceived by a Japanese housewife with a lifestyle too cramped for a real pet, the Tamagotchi ("Lovable Egg") consists of an ovoid chunk of plastic, strung with a key chain, embedded with a tiny screen and a series of buttons. When opened, a digital animal -- dogs, cats, chickens and dinosaurs are most common -- springs to life, and the proud new owner must nurture it through various stages of maturity, all via compulsive button-pushing, accompanied by chirps of pleasure or complaint.While they began paddling ashore to North America this summer, the Tamagotchis have terrorized the Pacific Rim for over a year now. Already, all manner of social dysfunction has been blamed on what seem like little more than glorified digital watches. Pile-ups on Osaka freeways courtesy of drivers distracted by hungry Tamagotchis. International flights held up when owners refused to turn off their pets -- to "kill" them! -- despite airlines' concerns they might interfere with navigational electronics. Virtual pet-nappings in broad daylight followed by police pursuits (with helicopters!).In Japan, school authorities banned and confiscated Tamagotchis, then had to bring in grief counsellors for students upset at their companions' "deaths". In Hong Kong, a switchblade-waving "virtual gangster" who needed to be plied with booze and cigarettes was pulled off the shelves after an uproar from parents. In Vietnam, the Ho Chi Minh People's Committee seized a shipment of virtual pets, complaining that they "separate children, and even adults, from their normal life".Death! Destruction! Capitalist conspiracies! I had to get one. What first surprised me is what low-tech junk one gets for 20 bucks. My "lovable" keychain had all the graphic elegance of an early model Etch-a-Sketch, and when the so-called "Cute-Puppy" scuttled from his LCD doghouse to tinny fanfare, he looked more like a misshapen beetle than any pooch I'd ever met.Worse, I'd bought the first Shanghai sweatshop knock-off I'd stumbled over, rather than an original Tamagotchi, and soon learned through the schoolyard grapevine that the "Tams" inspire a peculiar brand-loyalty. True connoisseurs prefer a "genuine" fake pet to a fake-fake one. With few instructions, I was left to trial-and-error in communicating with my virtual buddy. He burped and bleeped. Did he want to be fed? Exercised? Spanked with a digital "Monday"? People on the street gave me worried looks as I fidgeted in my jeans pocket to satisfy my pet's squeaking urges. Frustration. Confusion. We just didn't seem to be "bonding". Still, as they say in the business, over 14 million "units" have been "moved" so far -- and many more Tamagotchi copy-cats -- so I was determined to understand the draw.I read parenting manuals published by virtual veterinarians. I consulted internet discussion groups, where virtual friends traded tales of joy and sorrow about their virtual animals, and even laid them to rest with notes of bereavement in virtual pet cemeteries.My dog and I settled into a more comfortable rhythm of stimulus-and-response -- he'd bark and I'd leap out of my pants -- and I learned that Tamagotchis have become as ubiquitous as cell phones for the playground set. Halloween night, I opened my door to an oversized cardboard Tam begging for candy; other trick-or-treaters had their virtual pets slung around their throats where Unicef boxes used to hang.My own Cute Puppy was an unpedigreed mutt compared to these new up-scale models: pets with "hibernation" functions; virtual hippies and rappers; Tamagotchis encased in cell phones for Upwardly Mobile Grade Twos; and a linkable set of virtual kittens (Mulder and Scully) who play, fight, even mate -- Reform Party-approved apparently, as the game won't let kids wed same-sex kitties.In offices around the city, the halls are alive with the sound of mewling as parents "babysit" v-pets outlawed from schools, while adoptable on-screen "Dogz" and "Catz", who frolic across the computer monitor, chase balls, and scratch themselves against the cursor, have replaced Solitaire as the diversion of choice for 9-to-5 screen-zombies chained to a data-entry slaveship.In the U.S., KFC offers "Nano Pets" with buckets of the Colonel's finest, and, as the final seal of corporate approval, Bill Gates is bringing out a Windows-based Tamagotchi that gets lonely and uses your internet connection to "phone home" -- presumably to a Microsoft product site. You can run but you can't hide. Virtual pets are going to sniff you out.In County Clare, six-foot breakers crash against Lahinch Beach. The summer sun flashes a code across the water, a stiff salt-edged breeze brings blood to the cheeks, and the numb drama of modern civilization seems an ocean away. Lifted on the wind, a shrill cry pierces the air.Chattering sea-birds? A troupe of seals practising routines in the surf? Or one of Ireland's mischievous fairy folk? No. Even here, the distinctive call of a Tamagotchi."My intense dislike began at that moment," says Dr. Elizabeth Grove-White, of a recent trip home to the west coast of Ireland. "We'd be out on a family picnic, on a beautiful desolate stretch of sand, and then "beep! beep! beep!""Mother, teacher, and virtual guru, Grove-White is no screen-smashing Luddite. As the director of the writing program at UVic's English department, she has designed internet-based courses and preached the power of computers in aiding young writers."My nieces were deeply attached to these virtual pets," she recalls. "The youngest, six or seven, is very computer savvy, but she was heartbroken when her creature grew wings [died]. I was astonished when I saw how inconsolable she was."From pop-guns to plastic lawnmowers, Grove-White explains, child's play often mirrors adult infatuations with technology and relations to the natural world. So when mom and dad are hot-wired to the global village, what kid wouldn't want to find My Little Laptop under the Christmas tree?"Through play children learn to extend their senses using various technologies from paintbrushes and beyond. But to move from there to something like computers and video games seems to be a more considerable step. From physical experience or physical technologies to the construction of a virtual, imaginative space, children cross some sort of threshold there."Wary of such parental skepticism, advertisers slyly market Tamagotchis for their educational value. Virtual pets, they claim, teach children responsibility and nurturing, prepare youngsters through a more forgiving medium for the proper care of a living animal."If you keep your Tamagotchi full and happy, it will grow into a cute cyber creature," trumpet the ads from Bandai, the major v-pet peddler. "If you neglect Tamagotchi, it will grow into an unattractive alien."And who wants an unattractive alien sulking around the house? Grove-White scoffs at the sales-pitch promises of kinder, gentler kids: "All it teaches children is to respond to a completely capricious set of electronic beeps from a little technological lump. Maybe this is wonderful training for the job-lives they plan to lead."By week three of pet ownership, I was shopping for a virtual kennel. My puppy and I seemed to be running on uncomplementary sleep schedules: he'd retreat to his doghouse to snooze (accompanied by tiny digital Zs) as I worked during the day, then would bounce back into noisy life as I prepared for bed. Throughout the midnight hours, he would chirrup from my bedstand -- "Feed me! Play with me!" -- and I would slip a groggy hand from under the covers to tend to his requests.One night, roused yet again by squeaking, I snapped and muffled my no-longer-so-lovable buddy under a pillow. The next morning, he was flat on his pug-nose, tongue lolling, bleak-eyed -- sick as a dog -- his square inch of play space stacked with digital turds. I panicked, gave him a "shot" of medicine, felt ill at my negligence as he returned to feeble life. A glum pall hung over the rest of the day, and I attended to his every whim with the sheepish obedience of an adulterous spouse. Just what kind of fair-weather parent was I anyway? I suddenly understood the highs and lows of other virtual guardians. My techno-lump was making me feel "bad".It's no great newsflash that our culture is still reckoning with the aftershocks of a century-old demographic stampede from country to city. We've only begun to remedy the excesses of urban living, to fully understand our divorce from the land and its boom, bust, and echo of how we experience and value the natural world.Suddenly, though, we're faced with a new exodus from the real to the virtual. Why jaw with your neighbour over the back fence when you and your PowerBook could be exchanging recipes and home pornos with a Zulu chieftain? If you're not on-line, you're nowhere, no one, "nada".Many of us can map these disorienting shifts from country to city, from natural to virtual, across the stretched skins of our own biographies. For me, summer holidays on my grandparents' farm meant barn cats, mean-eyed bulls, and chickens hatched, raised and slaughtered. Back in the 'burbs, however, I would visit the laboratory of my father, an aeronautical engineer, and in rapt awe watch slow-motion videos of frozen poultry, fired from a cannon, smacking into airplane windshields. (Conclusion? Don't fly your plane into a flock of frozen fowl.)From hen to hatchet to howitzer -- the modern life-cycle of a chicken. Due to family allergies, the only pets permitted in our house were a pair of gerbils for a Grade 5 science fair. I ran the joyless rodents through endless building block labyrinths, my one TV-bred image of how real scientists learned from animals -- aside, of course, from my father and his Chicken Gun.Machines, however, I had in abundance, graduating from Pong to early Apples in the same way other kids moved from goldfish to golden retrievers. I was shipped to Computer Camp for a summer of circuit boards and Boolean logic, and could get as red in the face about Macs versus PCs as any cat-fanatic confronted by a dog-lover. I was, sad to say, a "natural" for a virtual pet."We shape our tools," wrote Marshall McLuhan, in one of his more intelligible aphorisms, "and afterwards, our tools shape us."But what does this mean for a generation weaned on the point-and-click experiences of virtual landscapes? If, as pet-lovers insist, animals teach us caring and responsibility in a way no virtual substitute could ever hope to reproduce, was I really emotionally under-nourished? A moral monster in the making? Numb to the hot blood of the living world? As my electric puppy limped through its meagre life-span, I was beginning to wonder."Animals are my mirror -- that's how I define myself," says Kip Parker, director of the SPCA's recently opened Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre in Metchosin. "In the animals I work with there are no lies. You can't market yourself to animals. You are what you are. It can be a harsh lesson. But working with wildlife offers me the challenge for a living meditation to define and refine myself."As we admire his office's view of Mt. Matheson and the sloping grounds of the WildARC facility, it's hard to believe that Parker once considered a career as a computer programmer, perhaps coding behaviour for some cyber-chimp rather than tending to the needs of real animals. Parker's first love has always been wild things, however, and he jumped off the high-tech money-wagon to work in zoos in his native New Zealand and Toronto.Eventually, he shifted into his present labour of love in animal rehabilitation, caring for injured and abandoned wildlife. There is no reset switch on the animals in Parker's care, no instant push-button cure. The "living meditation" of Parker's work becomes in this way a meditation on the complex emotional lives of the animal world -- and on his own mortality. All of which makes more difficult the fact that his job often involves euthanizing many animals beyond help -- what rehabilitators call the "other release". The pain he witnesses is our pain. The joy, ours too."What we're helping to do is to change people's attitudes to wildlife and to reinforce that living with wildlife can be a wonderful thing," he says of the educational goals of his facility. "It's part of our spiritual heritage. We are still animals in the living world. At a time in the history of our species when most of us live in urban environments, the gaze of a wild animal can put us in touch with our essential nature."Parker refuses, however, to dismiss virtual pets outright, preferring to see in them a symptom of a deeper, more determined longing."The format of the electronic toy is one that people are very comfortable with in our electronic society," he says. "The presentation, the marketing, the meta-market-morphosing of this "living" thing into an "electronic" thing is fascinating. But stand back and recognize that it's the living aspect of the electronic toy that is appealing to people. Doesn't that tell us about the absolute necessity for people to reconnect with living things?"As our daily lives become infiltrated by technology, leached of their mystery, we seem to project more of our needs and desires onto our machines. Renaissance philosophers like Rene Descartes and Francis Bacon saw the natural world as inert, mechanical, as manipulable as a GameBoy.Now, our imaginations imbue the cold gadgetry crowding our society with the personality, organic life, and even the magic once reserved for Ma Nature. We christen our cars, quarrel aloud with uncooperative PCs. A friend of mine fancies himself a Small Appliance Faith Healer and lays hands on ailing kettles, VCRs, and toaster ovens with the zeal and illusory success of a tele-evangelist.Even computer programmers are listening to what the natural world can teach them about their work. Thomas S. Ray, a Harvard-trained biologist who studies the evolutionary behaviour of Costa Rican flora, has designed "Tierra", a computerized ecosystem which virtual organisms must compete. Used as a tool to study evolution and ecology, Tierra may also employ natural selection to generate complex, intelligent, and continuously evolving forms of software.In the same breath that he demands protection for the Costa Rican rainforests, Ray lobbies for a "Biodiversity Reserve for Digital Organisms", a computer-based sanctuary where virtual beasts can roam free, unmolested by the demands of mere mortals.Weirder still is the "Tele-Garden" project. Now housed in an Austrian lab, the Tele-Garden is an actual allotment garden plot the size of a backyard wading pool with a camera-loaded robotic arm emerging from its centre. Over 5,000 people around the world participate in this experiment in virtual gardening, sending commands via the internet to plant and water seeds, debating the best horticultural strategies or just gossiping like "real" neighbours over their rows of violets. Cynics who dismiss Tamagotchis as the Pet Rocks of the postmodern age should check out the Ecosphere.Marketed by NASA, whose trillion-dollar budget overruns brought us such welcome spin-offs as Velcro and Tang, the Ecosphere evolved out of research into self-regenerating living environments for outer space exploration. The result is a glass ball (eerily reminiscent of the snow orb in "Citizen Kane") stuffed with living micro-organisms, shrimp, algae, and snails -- a model of a "sealed, ecologically perfect community".Like Kane's glass ball, the Ecosphere makes a fitting if rather obvious metaphor. Still, as we continue to screw up our own planet-sized Ecosphere -- Earth [(R)TRADEMARK SYMBOL]! No Assembly Required! -- a "pet" ecosystem might make the perfect stocking-stuffer for a virtual Xmas.Worried about the collateral damage all this surrogate life has inflicted on the tender psyches of Generation Next, I returned to Ground Zero in the virtual pet debate.Ashley, age 11, owns a circus big-top of virtual pets -- A.J. the cat, Lucky the dog, a virtual baby named Aurora, and a Dinky Dino. Almost all her friends have them as well. Asked to speculate about the educational worth of Tamagotchis, whether they might ever replace real pets, whether they are a sinister corporate conspiracy to pollute her impressionable young mind, she shrugs: "It's just a game."It's fun to watch them develop, she says, but they'll never compete for her affections with her dog, Sasha. "I'm starting to get sick of them, actually," she confides, "'cause it's kind of a nuisance when they go off while you're writing a test."Ah, out of the mouths of babes ... Now if we could only get Ashley to have a little tote-a-tote with the hawkers of cell phones, car alarms, computer-dialed telemarketing, e-mail "spam", and the many machines that go "ping"! With Ashley's words in mind, I offered my virtual pet the "other release". I locked him in the glove compartment of my Datsun and enjoyed a night free from his electric bleating. Now, he dances silently on pixel wings, his tiny halo a reminder of my neglect.There were moments of bliss in our too-short time together -- the thrill, for instance, when he evolved from a beetling pup to a recognizable pooch after weeks of feeding and fetching -- but nothing to hold my own digitally diminished attention span. The twinge of guilt I felt was quickly replaced with the giddy freedom of unplugging myself from at least one unnatural chore.Back in the adult world, though, computers continue to nudge their way into the running for Man's Best Friend -- or at least Man's Best Co-Dependent. What's humankind's greatest worry as we approach the new millennium? Environmental decline? Fractured communities? World peace? No, the real hair-puller is whether our computer systems will go on-strike at the stroke of midnight, an error in their internal calendars dragging the whole sound and light show of the Information Age down on our heads. "What about my needs?" the computers seem to whine, louder than any virtual puppy.Much as we might like to, we can't all pitch our PCs through the office-glass and march off to do the wild thing, run with the wolves, forage for nuts and yams. Me? I stare at my monitor until my eyes cross, cut and paste internet factoids, ignore e-mail pleas from my editor -- then preach about the dangers of the virtual life.Left in the journalistic woods with a pencil, a pad and my own spotty memory, I'd starve. I shudder at the prospects of a Year 2000 meltdown along with everyone else. Still, someone's come to rescue me.Johnny Two Socks, the neighbour's shorthair -- a time-share cat who suits my own hectic schedule -- strolls into my home-office and climbs across my writer's block. He, too, is curious about humans and their toys -- within reason. He paws the keyboard, adds a few consonant-thick words."If a million cats sat in front of a million computers, how long would it take ... "Before I can complete the thought, Johnny loses interest and spots a swatch of sunlight on the bedsheets. A yawn and a stretch, then light's out. The air hums with the outboard engine of his purring. I start to listen.

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