A little something for the stocking

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AN ELEPHANT, a penguin, a lynx, a dung-beetle - any one of these creatures might soon be yours, not just for Christmas, but for life. Even as you read this, some kindly friend or relation may be choosing you a gift whose requirements for specialist long-term care, catering and slopping out would make even the most dedicated pet-owner shudder.

But whereas animal welfare organisations are once again beginning their seasonal campaign to discourage the thoughtless giving of kittens and puppies for Christmas, no one has a bad word to say about those who give tigers or giraffes to unprepared recipients. This is because being given one of these more exotic pets doesn't mean being given responsibility for them. Instead, all you have to do is visit them once in a while - if you feel like it - at their home in London Zoo.

The London Zoo animal adoption scheme was set up in 1982 and has proved more successful than anyone dared to hope. There have been approximately 60,000 adoptions in the past 12 years, subsidising the cost of the animals' upkeep to the tune of more than £150,000 a year. This year, more than 5,000 people have taken out annual subscriptions ranging from £20 to £6,000 for the privilege of being absentee "owners" of various zoo animals. There is no guarantee that the animal you adopt will not acquire other adoptive owners as well, but most people seem to feel that these figures represent good value. Included in the price is an adoption certificate, a badge, a car sticker and an entrance ticket to the zoo for every £30 subscribed.

There are more than 100 species to choose from. An Asian elephant costs £6,000; a black rhinoceros, an Asiatic lion and a Sumatran tiger £3,000 each; a dormouse, gerbil or guinea pig just £20. Subscribers can buy part- shares in animals costing more than £60. But most adoptive owners - 80 per cent, to be precise - don't buy their creatures: they are given them.

One-year-old Alexandra Phillips, for example, recently became the proud "owner" of an eider duck, after her father George, a London salesman, paid £30 to adopt one. "To be honest, I don't think she's ever seen one in the flesh," he says. But he hopes that the photographs on Alexandra's bedroom wall, combined with frequent visits to the zoo to see the duck, will teach her to value wildlife as she grows up. "I was swayed by how rare the animal is," he adds. "I feel less obliged to protect a fairly common species."

The run-up to Christmas is the adoption department's busiest time - busier even than the run-up to Valentine's Day (for which growing numbers of lovers have been taking advantage of the scheme to say it with dung-beetles, rats, leeches and two-toed sloths). Seasonal favourites include penguins, tigers, elephants, bush-babies and dormice. According to Frank Wheeler, head keeper of small mammals, the strongest selling-points are fluffy bodies, flat faces and big brown eyes, which the public - incorrigibly anthropomorphic - sees as cute and innocent. "That's why everybody will happily tolerate a hamster," he says, "even though they're nasty little buggers. White rats are actually far more trustworthy, but the naked tails make people nervous."

Creatures with unusual names - like the orange-rumped agouti and the blotched genet - fare less well, which Wheeler thinks is a shame. But he hopes that someone might take pity on them this Christmas. "They don't get a fair deal. A binturong is a superb little creature. They've got big bushy tails and wide eyes. But nobody knows what they are, so they don't get picked." !