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Animal-adoring Czechs take puppy love to new heights By Eric Johnson

dpa German Press Agency
Published: Wednesday October 11, 2006

By Eric Johnson, Prague- A tobacco shop in Prague's Old Town district offers two kinds of picture postcards: the tourist sort featuring the city's architecture from every conceivable angle, and cute animals. "What do furry kittens and galloping horses have to do with Prague?" a customer asked the counter girl.

"People love animals!" she gasped, stunned by a question with such an obvious answer.

Obvious, at least, in Prague and the rest of the Czech Republic, where animal love is a powerful cultural phenomenon that's growing with the country's prosperity as a new European Union member.

This is a nation where dogs are welcomed in restaurants, zoos are busy breeding the world's threatened animals, schoolchildren carry pet mice in pockets, and the first chain of pet stores recently opened to an enthusiastic clientele.

In the cities, dog-walkers commonly greet each other's dogs before making human contact.

In the countryside, wildlife is making a comeback thanks to habitat-protection legislation and a cleaner environment. Joining the EU in 2004 prompted the government to earmark 800 nature sites for special protection.

"Some endangered species are doing well," said Ondrej Fiala of the Czech Union for Nature Conservation. "Conditions are improving, for example, for the beavers" who now enjoy "the better quality of the Elbe and Dyje rivers."

Conservationists were especially pleased in the past year to find more bears, wolves and lynx roaming the country's eastern mountains, and dozens of rare Ural owls nesting in south-western forests.

While rural areas swarm with indigenous critters, millions of Czechs flock to more than a dozen major zoos around the country to stare affectionately at exotic beasts.

The 5,000 animals at the Prague Zoo, the nation's largest, entertained 1.2 million people last year - an attendance equal to the city's population.

A zoo in the quiet town of Dvur Kralove, population 16,000, is home to a rare collection of African animals including the world's largest, captive group of northern white rhinoceros, which are nearly extinct.

A passion for animals is also reflected in the ambitious, publicly-funded breeding programmes involving zoos and non-profit foundations.

Prague Zoo, for example, is helping Mongolia restore its wild Przewalski horse through a breed-and-release project. The Dvur Kralove Zoo this year added a female okapi - an endangered relative of the giraffe - to its collection of two males and plans to return their offspring to the Congolese jungles.

An unusual footnote to the animal-recovery story was written this year when Czech TV sponsored the world's first reality show starring gorillas, live from a zoo, to raise funds for anti-poaching efforts in Cameroon.

But the average Czech is even more interested in whatever sort of "milacek" (sweetheart) lives at home, whether it's a fluffy rabbit or imposing Great Dane.

A recent pet-trade report by Euromonitor International said among Czechs "pets are increasingly regarded as members of the family. Dogs and cats tend to be well cared for and pampered" thanks to "improving standards of living."

That explains the success of the country's first pet-shop chain, Pet Center, which has opened 13 stores since 2004.

Of course puppy love has its drawbacks. In the residential Prague 6 area, for example, officials say street cleaners can't manage the droppings dumped by the district's 7,500 registered dogs.

"An hour after cleaning, the ground is filled with dog excrement," the district's mayor, Tomas Chalupa, told the Prague Post.

Fiala, the conservationist, said more could be done to teach the public about properly caring for wildlife such as birds of prey, which are sometimes poisoned because they eat mice.

But animal cruelty is abhorrent to most Czechs, and treatment of farm animals was a hot topic in recent campaigns for parliamentary elections.

There were angry denials from the government and citizens last year when animal-rights activist Heather Mills McCartney, wife of ex-Beatle Paul McCartney, claimed stray cats were skinned alive for their fur in the Czech Republic.

One official said the charge was ridiculous because, in the animal-loving Czech Republic, there are hardly enough stray cats to make a coat.

© 2006 dpa German Press Agency