Animal crackers crack 100

The animals even vegetarians love to eat prove they are no endangered species

MEAT EATER Though called “crackers,” Barnum’s Animals are much too sweet to put in your soup. This guy has the right idea.

MEAT EATER Though called “crackers,” Barnum’s Animals are much too sweet to put in your soup. This guy has the right idea.

photo by Tom Angel

Chiropractor for pets? “Animal Cracker” is also the name of a llama farm in Toccoa, Ga., a toy store chain out of Myrtle Beach, S.C., a nationally syndicated comic strip and a Marx Brothers’ film. But it is not the official name of the famous cookie.

Animal crackers are 100 years old. No, not the package that’s sitting on your kitchen shelf next to the Fudge Covered Double Stuf Christmas Oreos with the yummy green-creme filling—after all, only Twinkies have a shelf life that long—but rather the brand itself.

It was way back in 1902 that Nabisco took a cookie—yes, even they admit it’s not really a cracker—that had been popular in England for years and created Barnum’s Animals as they’re officially called. That same year the Wright brothers flew their first airplane, Crayola crayons hit the market, and Strom Thurmond was elected to his first term in Congress. It was a good year for longevity.

Barnum’s Animals was an instant success thanks to marketing—Nabisco put them in a package that looked like a circus wagon and attached a string handle so young boys who carried them would look effeminate and be laughed at by their older brother’s friends. Just kidding. Actually the string was so the boxes could be hung on Christmas trees. It’s true. Before there were Snoopy, Simpsons, and Hooters Christmas ornaments people hung cookies on the tree. Of course, that was after they’d tried loaves of bread, kettles of soup, and glazed hams with limited success.

Everyone knows what animal crackers are. They’re the small, dry, tasteless cookies that teach children that it’s OK to bite animals in the butt. Is it any wonder cats are scared of children? But even if for some reason you didn’t eat them when you were growing up—like maybe your parents were communists—you undoubtedly heard Shirley Temple in the movie Curly Top when she sang about putting them in her soup.

This is not only one of the first examples of product placement in a movie, it’s also a decidedly disgusting concept. Oyster crackers, OK. Ritz crackers, fine. But animal crackers? What next, crumbling Fig Newtons into your egg salad? Luckily, Campbell didn’t pick up on this or they would have put out Cream of Mushroom with Animal Crackers soup. MMMmmmmmmmmmmm good! Or maybe Duck Soup with Animal Crackers, though that would work much better as a Marx Brothers double feature.

We all had a favorite animal whose head we preferred to bite off. Some kids were bison biters. Others camel chompers. Still others were hardcore, dyed-in-the-wool monkey munchers. I have a feeling there’s a scientific study buried in this that I could use to get back some of my hard-earned tax dollars in the form of a research grant.

Think about it. Children who eat animal crackers whole probably grow up to be well rounded. If they eat too many, they end up too well rounded. One who eats them slowly, body part by body part, might wind up with eating habits similar to Jeffrey Dahmer’s. And those who refuse to eat them at all on moral grounds probably end up as vegan members of PETA throwing red paint on people who walk out of the house to get the morning newspaper while wearing fuzzy bear slippers.

Over the years 37 different animals have been depicted on the crackers, though at the moment there are only 17. That means 20 animal cracker animals are extinct, which is a travesty. Even worse, the World Wildlife Fund couldn’t care less. Though to be fair that may be because they aren’t aware of it. After all, they’ve been so busy the last few years suing the World Wrestling Federation over the use of the initials WWF that they can’t be expected to pay attention to anything as mundane as vanishing animal cracker diversity.

Nabisco, though, is trying to help. In honor of the 100th birthday of Barnum’s Animals they’re adding a new animal to the line-up. And you can have a say in which one it is. If you go to you can vote on whether you’d rather chew the legs off a cobra, koala, penguin, walrus, or Rob Schneider. Just kidding about Rob, though if you’re one of those people who have trouble separating movies from reality you might just think he is The Animal.

This is actually a pretty important decision. After all, the Nabisco factory in Fair Lawn, N.J., turns out 300,000 animal crackers an hour, which is 40 million packages a year, or one for every man, woman, and child who looks at any given cracker and says, “Is that shapeless lump a rhinoceros or a kangaroo?” Hey, that’s a lot of crackers. I mean, cookies.

I’m predicting that the walrus will win. Not because I think it’s the most deserving. Or would even be the most fun to eat. No, I’m making this prediction based on clues left by the Nostradamus of the Silver Screen, Shirley Temple. In her song about animal crackers she sings, "The Grocer is so big and fat. He has a big moustache. He looks just like a walrus, just before he takes a splash." She doesn’t mention a cobra, koala, penguin, or Rob Schneider. Though come to think of it the fourth verse does seem to hint at impending Armageddon. Pass another rhinoceros cookie this way, will you?