Virtual pets: The beep goes on

September 14, 1997|By Susan Reimer

FOR ALL MY children's lives, I have handled cat and dog requests this way: "Daddy is allergic. Very allergic. Bring a cat or a dog in the room and within a quarter of an hour his windpipe will swell shut and I will be forced to give him an emergency tracheotomy with a corkscrew. And you know how helpless Mommy is in the kitchen.

"Is that what you want?"

No, they mutter, disconsolate.

But soon the image of their father writhing on the floor, clawing at his neck for air, diminishes, and they begin to plead again. I have had to embellish my husband's allergies over the years to keep them at bay. I am not interested in taking care of anything else that does not pick up after itself.

But that was before virtual pets: cats, dogs and monkeys no bigger than a computer chip and carried on a key chain. Costing two weeks' allowance at least, these Tamagotchi and Giga Pets eat, sleep, poop and play, bleating like a pager when they need attention.

Imported from Japan, where crowded living conditions apparently do not permit the real thing, these pets have captured the tender little hearts of millions of middle-school girls, who will coo over anything, even dull, gray, liquid crystal displays bigger than a postage stamp.

A digital pet virtually lives and dies at the hands of its little owner. If she does not feed it, play with it, discipline it and take it to the vet when it is sick -- in short, if she does not give it constant attention -- its "happiness score" will drop into single digits and it will disappear from the computer screen forever. Jessie killed four kittens the first day. (At least I didn't have to come up with four shoe boxes for four backyard funerals.)

But school is back in session now, and this is where real life and virtual life collide. You can imagine where a bleating Tamagotchi rates on the teacher-annoyance scale. It can quickly end up in a desk drawer until June.

So the girls are asking their parents to care for their pets during the school day. Perfectly sensible parents are carting these things to work or to the grocery store so they can answer the beeps and keep the creatures alive.

Failing to do so would mean much wailing and door-slamming at 3 p.m., and, God knows, there is plenty of that already.

You might well argue that counting on Mother to take over when your virtual pet has become tiresome or inconvenient illustrates, yet again, the irresponsibility of this generation, and you would be correct. But there are larger societal issues.

A person must have a license to drive, fish or marry in this country, but you don't have to have a license to have a Giga Pet hanging from your belt loop. Until we decide that is a step we are willing to take as a nation, we must deal with the consequences: 12-year-old girls, virtually children themselves, cannot begin to care for a relentlessly needy virtual pet.

Our babies are having babies, and this is the result.

We need to convince these girls that they have a future and that a virtual cat or dog -- no matter how much love it gives -- will only hold them back from that future. There will be plenty of time for pets after college, when they can raise them in the context of a marriage.

But what of the girls who already have these digital kittens and puppies? We can't very well put them in a sack and drop them in the river. Unless these girls have our support raising these little ones, they will not be able to finish school and find decent work, and the cycle will repeat itself.

The answer is quality virtual-pet care in this country.

If children are not allowed to take these pets to school, and if parents are unwilling or unable to stay at home to care for them, there must be a safe, affordable alternative.

We must have more family-friendly corporations like the Cape Cod Potato Chip company of Hyannis, Mass., which has established an on-site electronic-pet day-care center where parents can leave their key chains with confidence and visit them during the lunch hour.

Until more companies respond to the needs of the American family, we must have federally funded, inspected and licensed virtual-pet care centers -- affordable and with low caregiver-to-key-chain ratios to allow true nurturing.

If we fail our children here, our neighborhoods will be terrorized by virtual dogs frightening toddlers. Virtual cats will be howling and spitting all night. Our open spaces will be polluted by their digital waste, becoming virtual health hazards. Virtual rabies will be epidemic and the SPCA will be virtually overrun.

Unless we act now, we will raise nothing less than a generation of animals.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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