After World War Terminus, the world became—how to say this politely?—a hot mess. Entire cities were destroyed, large swaths of wilderness were wiped out, and entire animal species died thanks to radiation-laden dust in the wind. This disaster led to two very important changes:
First, nursery rhymes had to be completely reworked. Mary's Irradiated Lamb, Old McDonald Had an Animal Row Shop, and the Itsy-Bitsy Nano-Spider were the new favorites of preschoolers everywhere.
Okay, okay, that didn't actually happen. What did happen was that animals needed to be cared for by humans if their species were to survive. Citizens of future earth had to care for animals how and where they could, whether in their apartments or on their rooftops.
In fact, it became faux pas to not own an animal, and people who didn't were looked down on as being immoral—you know, those people. If you weren't high-roller enough to buy your very own ostrich, no worries: you can purchase an electric one to make yourself presentable to your neighbors.
The animals represent regeneration, which makes them a type of anti-kipple. See, after the war, the people of Earth decided to care for the remaining animals to keep them from going extinct. It wasn't just an isolated environmentalist group either, but all of society. As Bill reminds Rick:
"You know how people are about not taking care of an animal; they consider it immoral and anti-empathic. I mean, technically it's not a crime like it was right after W.W.T., but the feeling's still there." (1.57)
They want to save what they can from the old world and maybe even return things to the way they were one day (… though that last part seems unlikely). The cool thing is that animals aren't just a symbol for the reader; the characters in the story see them symbolically, too—at least in their hallucinations. After the spider has its legs removed by Pris, Isidore tries to drown it in the sink. The trauma pushes him into a hallucination where he meets Mercer, who hands him the spider "with its snipped-off legs restored" (18.94). That's a clear symbol if we ever saw one.
Case of the Gimmies
Here's the funny thing: turns out, it's hard to stay committed to the common good. There are hints in the book that preserving the animals it has moved beyond a "let's all pull together" attitude and into just another type of social elitism.
We can see a few of these clues here and there in the novel. When Bill spoke of his brother's boss's animals, his "eyes glazed over, imagining such possessions; he drifted by degrees into a trance" (1.39). Another clue is when Rick said he didn't want an animal he could afford:
Rick said quietly, "I don't want a domestic pet. I want what I originally had, a large animal. A sheep, or if I can get the money, a cow or a steer or what you have, a horse." (1.60)
For both Rick and Bill, owning an animal isn't just about the social good. It's about increasing their social status. And that is so not the point.
I Sing the Animals Electric
But what about all those electric animals? Are they a symbol of degeneration—or of regeneration?
At the beginning of the novel, Rick might have said "kipple"—something that leads to degeneration. As he thinks to himself, "Owning and maintaining a fraud had a way of gradually demoralizing one. And yet from a social standpoint it had to be done, given the absence of the real article" (1.36).
Clearly, he sees an electric animal as a something less than genuine, not life and not even real and therefore not a part of society's push toward regeneration. And he's hardly alone. Bill says the same thing when he finds out Rick's sheep is electric, saying "You poor guy" (1.47).
Still, by the novel's end, Rick changed his tune. When he finds the toad in the wastelands, he is overjoyed to have recovered an extinct animal. Just imagine being able to resurrect an extinct species; that'd be crazy exciting. But the excitement lasts only as long as it takes Iran to find the toad's control panel.
Rick isn't disappointed though. He responds, "But it doesn't matter. The electric things have their lives, too. Paltry as those lives are" (22.30).
The toad may be artificial, but in its own way, it's still a toad. While it may not bring organic toads back into the world, it can still keep the memory of the toad alive for people, which in its own small way is part of the process of regeneration as well. Vive le crapaud artificielle!