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Just add water

Lifelike puppies and kittens that actually breathe, says the ad for Perfect Petzzz, the authentic breathing petzzz in the window at the Narberth Five and Dime in Philadelphia. For about $40, I can adopt a puppy or kitten, complete with carrier, collar and bed. And during the life cycle of its Double-A batteries, my pet will nestle in its bed and breathe peacefully in a never-ending sleep.

Does anyone buy ersatz dogs and cats?

I wondered, until I remembered that there is an inanimate animal kingdom out there supported mostly by an army of seven-year-olds. There are digital pets, virtual pets, conceptual pets, and novelty pets. The realm covers extensive territory, including stuffed animals, interactive learning experiences, and gimmicky robo-dogs.

Most American seven-year-olds will gladly tell you how adept they are animal care. They’ve become experts as a result of their computer skills and hours spent taking care of Webkinz®, stuffed animals who “come alive” on the Internet.

The Webkinz hook is simple: each animal has a “secret code” on its tag that allows kids to “adopt” their pets on the Webkinz website. (Only Webkinz-branded animals have codes that can’t be shared or traded on the Web.) Once in the site, “owners” buy food, decorate houses, walk pets and even play arcade games to win KinzCash to buy more things. The “animal’s” health and happiness is monitored to help kids understand how to keep a real-world happy pet. All this is networked like Facebook: Kids can “visit” pets and the houses of friends.

Remember the late 1990s Tamagotchi craze? A digital pet in the shape of an egg that you could nurture, grow, and then starve. Sustaining your Tamagotchi’s life became an addiction. Likewise, killing it was considered high art.

Unbeknowst to me, the Tamagotchi didn’t go the way of Growing Up Skipper. Instead, it evolved. With the help of the Web and video games (think Game Boy, Wii, Nintendo), Tamagotchi can “breed” with each other, go to school and get a job.

Digital and virtual pets are ideal for children and animal lovers (or sociopaths) who can’t keep real pets (allergies, finances, travel, strict parents). They’re a kind of half-way house (or missing link) between the animate and inanimate animal kingdoms. Though some are one-hit wonders, others last and expand. Search the Internet for digital and/or virtual pets and (in addition to Tamagotchi and Webkinz) you find Neopets, Creatures, Hamsterz, and Viva Piñata.

But one mother I spoke with offered a word of caution. While Webkinz are a great learning experience, she senses she’s “lost” her daughter to a online Koala. Apparently, playing with bikes and dirt in the sun is no longer as cool as spending hours indoors taking care of a virtual marsupial.

Perhaps it’s time to consider a return to old-faithful novelty pets. Some were interactive, some portable, and a few just plain weird. Pet Rocks, Slinkys, and the Invisible Dog Leash all come to mind as “somewhat” interactive inanimate pets. You could “walk” the dog, teach your Pet Rock to sit, and have Slinky chase you down the stairs.

But homage is due to the best and favorite of all novelty pets: the “Amazing Live Sea Monkeys,” freeze-dried brine shrimp. After all, they’re the ones that taught me the most vital lesson about life and death — it all comes in an insta-packet. All you need to do is rip it open and add water.