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The world's most astonishing pet

Published Sep. 16, 2005

(ran TP edition)

Anyone who ever saw those ads in the back of a comic book when they were a kid remembers being transfixed.

AMAZING LIVE SEA-MONKEYS looked like the coolest pets ever, enchanting creatures who would magically hatch from powder in a packet and then play games and learn tricks and have babies right in a jar of water on your windowsill. In the illustrations they wore crowns and bathing suits and had tails and grinning humanlike faces, and they floated in front of fabulous castles where they lived their fantastic undersea lives.

So you eagerly sent in your $3.99, waited a few weeks and finally received by mail a little packet of INSTANT LIFE SEA-MONKEY EGGS! You had to wait some more while a packet of water purifier did its work. Then you could pour in those little crystals and wait for the WORLD'S ONLY LIVING, BREATHING INSTANT-PETS to appear.

But after all that anticipation, what did you get?

Smelly old brine shrimp, for crying out loud.

They looked like the silverfish in your closet, and they certainly didn't live in castles or wear crowns or play ball or even have faces, much less smiles. They just swam around like a bunch of sea-bugs and died after a few weeks.

Sea-Monkeys were the clever scheme of an inventor with an improbable, mad-scientist-esque name. Harold von Braunhut patented his hybrid shrimp in 1957 and gave them the name Artemia Nyos, after the New York Oceanic Society in Long Island, the site of his research laboratory. A variant of Artemia Salina, a shrimp that is still commonly used as fish food, Sea-Monkeys first went on the market in 1960 for the price of 49 cents.

But making a hybrid shrimp with an extended shelf life wasn't von Braunhut's greatest skill. It was his creation of a pseudo-scientific lore and a fantastic range of accompanying products that made Sea-Monkeys exciting, despite their less-than-enticing physical attributes.

Von Braunhut's creatively punctuated copy told you that the fate of a small world was in your hands, a world you could make better with the addition of a "Deluxe micro-View OCEAN ZOO" plastic aquarium, or "BANANA TREAT, a long-lasting supply of tasty "dessert' for your aquatic pals," or CUPID'S ARROW, a "mating powder" for "shy Sea-Monkeys afraid of "marriage."'

If your little friends got sick, there was SEA MEDIC SEA-MONKEY MEDICINE, "almost as good as having a team of Sea-Monkey doctors standing by in the E.R," and if you wanted to take them for a walk, there was the SEA-BUBBLE Pendant, a "Mini-aquarium on a long golden cord that lets you SAFELY take your favorite pets on a day of adventure."

With possibilities like that, who wouldn't get sucked in? Even Barbie didn't have that many accessories.

That's probably why Sea-Monkeys have survived (so to speak) to become a cultural force in the '90s.

They're still available for sale in the back of comic books and through mail-order from the Transcience Corp., as well as in stores like Toys R Us. (If you look closely, there now is a disclaimer on the box: "Illustration is fanciful _ does not depict Artemia Nyos.")

But it's the way the little rascals have gone multimedia that's really exciting.

Although THE AMAZING LIVE SEA-MONKEYS kids' TV show lasted only two years on CBS (it was canceled in 1993, and remaining episodes may still be released on video), Banjo, the king of the Sea-Monkeys, made a later appearance on the cult program Space Ghost Coast to Coast.

If that's too mainstream for you, consider that indie singer Liz Phair made a reference to them on her 1992 record Exile In Guyville. The track Gunshy features the haunting chorus: Sea-Monkeys, do monkeys/The story of my life/Send three bucks to a comic book/Get a house, car and wife.

And in the world of haute couture, the chic image of these primates of the deep showed up at a New York charity gala earlier this year. Club diva Suzanne Bartsch wore a skintight blue and green bodysuit and a crown with water-drop points.

"It's supposed to look like a Sea-Monkey," Bartsch told Us magazine.

But it wasn't until the creation of the "Sea-Monkey Worship Page" on the World Wide Web that the whole "Instant Life" phenom made it into the cyber dimension. The popular site, created by Sea-Monkey fan Susan Barclay, features a birth announcements page, a "Wall o' Grief" for people mourning Sea-Monkey deaths, a Christmas page with gift suggestions (such as a Lincoln Town Car), and holiday hymns like Perky the Sea-Monkey.

There's also a quiz to find out if you're obsessed with Sea-Monkeys, and an interview with von Braunhut, who is now 71 and still at work. (It turns out he was also behind the 1970s hermit crab craze, and is now perfecting a line of pet mini-lobsters.)

Best of all, perhaps, are the pages devoted to the poetry of fans.

"Sea-Monkey Bad Poetry Page _ Songs of Innocence," is for positive thoughts like the Love poem from one Sea-Monkey to another:

"Sweet yummy monkey, I love you so/You make my monkey bunkey glow/There are many monkeys in the sea/But you're the Sea-Monkey just for me."

"Sea-Monkey Bad Poetry Page _ Songs of Experience" features sentiments like those in this haiku: "My poor Sea-Monkey/Floating in the dirty tank / I should have fed you."

Barclay also reserves space for her own brand of wry enthusiasm.

"What other pet comes with a replacement guarantee?" she asks. She invites new Sea-Monkey worshipers to "watch them as they are born, watch them as they grow, watch them as they raise small families in the plastic tank you are supplied with.

"Just remember that they don't appear exactly as illustrated."

You can reach the Sea-Monkey Worship page at: http:/users.uniservcom/ sbarclay/seamonk.htm

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