03 January 2010

ZHU ZHU: Making of A Modern Monster

Springfield's a far cry from being mistaken as a news-making metropolis, but thanks to the Zhu Zhu, our temporary hometown might just make the national news.  

It seems like just yesterday that we sat huddled about the 19-inch flat screen The Dabbler scored at Wal-Mart's Black Friday sale, glued to the set as NBC news reported the possible dangers of the Christmas season's hottest toy fad - Zhu Zhu Pets.   Apparently, the San Francisco-based Good Guide  gave the  Zhu Zhu's - and in particular the ''Mister Squiggles" Zhu Zhu - a low safety rating because it may  have contained higher-than-allowed levels of antimony, a heavy metal which if ingested can make children sick, causing lung and heart problems, ulcers and diarrhea - an affliction some call  Zhu Zhu Flu.

Zhu Zhu's, we also learned that December 7th day, are manufactured in St. Louis, MO, but with parts made in China.  The latter fact undoubtedly spurred the CPSC to investigate Mister Squiggles with all due haste; and perhaps too hastily, the CPSC then exonerated Zhu Zhu Pets with a clean bill of health.  Perhaps because the Zhu Zhu appeared an innocent and small fluffy-animal toy, or maybe because parents could satisfy their child's Zhu Zhu craving at $10 a pop, the toy's  potential hazards have remained overlooked.

Until this past weekend, that is.  On Saturday afternoon, a six-year-old boy and his seven-year-old sister apparently wanted to test the CPSC's Zhu Zhu diagnosis on two toys their mother had snagged for them at the aforementioned Black Friday sale at Wal-Mart. Within a span of minutes of unsupervised play, both children had decapitated their Zhu Zhu's, with the boy becoming ill shortly thereafter from  having actually ingested the head of his toy hamster.  Have you heard about this? 

The Springfield Zhu Zhu Incident was inevitable; that it occurred here only makes the horror more palpable, but no less real.  What transpired over the weekend was senseless, and never had to happen - and the event raises questions now that the CPSC and other watchdog groups should have addressed a month ago.  For despite the Zhu Zhu's lack of  toxicity, they remain a very real and very present danger.   All-too-real in their appearance, their likeness to real hamsters  is a similarity too close for comfort.  

Since the Columbine tragedy of a decade ago, parents groups have become quite vocal with their concerns over violent toys, from toy guns to cowboy and Indian costumes to action figures and GI JOE.  Many of these groups, like the 5,000 member strong Lion and The Lamb Project, have taken the issue to Congress with demands that the government protect children from violent entertainment. Toys, cartoons, and console video games have all been targeted as the conveying vessels of violence.  Those who opposed their stance have emphasized the important role of parental supervision.  Nevertheless, the belief that toys and games and TV lead kids to violence remains an ongoing  and heated debate.

If links between violent toys and games truly lead to violent behavior, where toy guns, for example, are mistaken for real guns, the Springfield Incident begs yet another question:  just how safe are real hamsters in a world where children playfully bite the heads from their  Zhu Zhu dopplegangers?  

Abbracadabbling paid a visit to the Zhu Zhu Pets homepage HERE, where we found this description of the sell-out toys:  The best alternatives to real live hamsters, Zhu Zhu Pets™ hamsters don’t poop, die, or stink, but they are still a riot of motion and sound. Darting around in their hamster tubes, busily scurrying from room to room, you never know where they’ll go next! 

Obviously, kids mouths is where they'll go next.  Dabblers, if you've ever owned a real hamster, yo know that living hamsters are every bit the 'riot of motion and sound' that Zhu Zhu's claim to be.  This being so,  where does the demand for Zhu Zhu's come from? Unlike our need for lawn flamingos in a country where few exist, living hamsters were in no short supply the last time we looked.  Why do we need a 'best alternative' if no shortage exists?

No shortage today, at least, but the extinction of the hamster might not be far away. Springfield's weekend headline may just be the first - or the reported first - of a growing trend of violence that could have real consequences in an all-to-real world.  Especially when the line has blurred between what's 'real' and what's 'not real' to this extent:
As a safety precaution, we've taken the liberty of indicating that of the two photographs above, the image on the left is of a 'real' hamster, while the image to its right is of Zhu Zhu hamsters that are 'not real'.  Clear  distinctions are possible upon close inspection, but a cursory glance would likely leave any adult  unaware of the pictures' differences. With Zhu Zhu Pets primarily being marketed to children ten and under, the inherent dangers of easy mistakes become obvious - as do the dire consequences these mistakes hold for the hamster community.

In light of recent events, Springfield has had to grow up. Awareness of the dangers realistic toys and other forms of entertainment pose for children, especially when unsupervised, is acute.  While a child may not seem inclined to mouth a living rodent and family pet, the decapitation of two Zhu Zhu pets this weekend has cast a doubt on that assumption.  Had one of the kids placed the barrel of a toy AK-47 into his mouth instead, would the matter have remained in the purview of the local news? 

That, and other tough questions, must be asked. If toys, action figures, and cuddly Zhu Zhu's are indeed indistinguishable from their real-world counterparts by some children, our communities may not be as safe as we'd like to think.  Is the CPSC addressing this concern?   The level of threat will only increase  if our preference for the Virtual becomes greater than our desire for the Actual.  If we do nothing, not only will hamsters become extinct, but Humanity may be right behind them.

Zhu Zhu Linkage:

  • A short biography of Mister Squiggles [link]
  • Mister Squiggles exonerated [link]
  • Zhu Zhu hamsters blog [link]
  • Zhu Zhu Pets 2010 PDF catalog [link]

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