Pets as Easter Gifts: A Virtual Solution

If you're thinking of surprising your loved one with a pet for Easter, think again – that cute bunny isn't nearly as easy to take care of as he lets on, while puppies and kittens seem to be powered by a never-ending supply of nuclear energy. Is your intended recipient ready for this?

Giving a pet as a surprise gift at any time of year is generally a bad idea. Ask any animal shelter volunteer and they'll tell you that they see a sharp rise in unwanted animals (rabbits, dogs, cats, and so on) after major holidays. In fact, many animal shelters will refuse to allow someone to adopt a pet if they know it's to be given as a gift.

There are a few alternatives to choose from that may save an animal from a trip to the shelter.

Robotic Pets

In an old movie, "Sleeper," a futuristic robot dog named Rags is given to Woody Allen, who just woke up after 200 years. Rags greets him with a soullessly metallic, "Woof, woof woof. Hi, I'm Rags. Woof woof woof."

Well, the future is here. Sony's "Aibo" has been on the market for more than a year. The robotic dog (whose name means "Pal" in Japanese) can walk, tilt and shake his head, lie down, get up, stretch and "chase" a rolling ball. The dog is programmed to show a limited range of "emotion" – hanging his head in shame, wagging his tail when scratched or raising his paws in joy.

Aibo can be programmed to do tricks using a remote control or roam automatically, barking at objects he runs into. The dog has been a hit in Japan but is not doing as well here. Part of the reason may be the price (between $1,200 and $2,000 ). There are less expensive models available, such as "Latte" for the more budget conscious.

If you want to get someone a "pet" and don't mind the price tag, then Aibo may be the solution. At least, if your loved ones grow tired of Aibo, they can easily find the mechanical dog a good home at the local junkyard.

Using Your Mouse to Get a Dog

A less expensive option is to see how well your loved one does with a virtual pet. Web sites such as give some idea of the responsibilities involved in raising a puppy. is a game published by New York City-based Akula Communications, where people compete against each other to see who can take better care of their pet. Scores are compared and there's even a chat room for "owners" to share their experiences. (For cat lovers, work is continuing on a virtual cat site. Check out

Adopting a virtual dog requires a trip to the virtual pound, where you're given a wide selection of breeds to choose from. Brief information is provided on each breed and its history.

When you select a pup, you're given a license number and a small weekly paycheck to feed and take care of the dog, including those necessary visits to the veterinarian. Advice on how to keep your dog healthy and happy is provided at the various places you take your dog (in the home, at the veterinarian, on the street, etc.).

Like any pet, a virtual dog requires daily attention and care. If you're off your computer for the weekend, and then check back to see how your dog is doing, you'll find your house disheveled with little piles of surprise scattered through it. The more time spent with the virtual dog, the better behaved and happy he will be.

If even a virtual dog or cat is too much work, you can always get a virtual fish from Several programmers from Hewlett Packard developed a program that mimics the habits and characteristics of a parrotfish. Again, this virtual pet requires regular feeding and care (if you forget to feed him for a week, he dies and floats to the top of the virtual aquarium). It doesn't take as much time as the virtual dog, however. The trade off is that you can't interact with your virtual fish the way you can with your virtual dog – just like real life.

If the virtual fish is too involving, then you or your loved one aren't ready for the responsibilities of a living, breathing creature. Here are some tried and true alternatives:

If you feel absolutely sure you want to give a real pet as a gift, talk it over with the intended recipient and the family. A pet can be a 10- to 20-year commitment, and it is one that shouldn't be undertaken lightly.