Nell Matthews has 19 of them. Luke Ryan owns 15 but desperately wants at least three more. And twins Sarah and Eddie Kornache finally got the black cat they begged for, even though the spotted frog remains elusive.

For lots of grammar-school kids, a Webkinz isn't just a toy, it's a way of life.

If you haven't been to a local toy store lately or if you aren't often in the company of youngsters, the excitement around Webkinz might have gone unnoticed.

But for many kids and their weary parents, who are often hunting down and forking over for the latest addition to the product line, the frenzy has hit close to home.

Webkinz are small stuffed animals — if you recall Beanie Babies, you'll have a good idea of what they're like — that seemingly come to life when the secret code attached to their label is plugged into a Web site.

"It's so fun," says Nell, a 9-year-old New Yorker. "You can take care of them, and they're virtual, so you can play games online with them, too."

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Susan McVeigh, spokeswoman for the Toronto-based toys and collectibles company Ganz, says the Webkinz collection, begun in 2005, was the brainchild of current company president Howard Ganz.

According to her, it combines the traditional play of nurturing and dress-up with the intrigue of the Internet.

Children "find a community of friends, have fun and are continually challenged and intrigued by the site," McVeigh says.

When kids log onto the Webkinz site for the first time, they name their pets, choose their genders and "officially" adopt them.

Once each plush animal has its cyber alter ego started on the Web site, its owner is responsible for its care. The site monitors each pet's health for one year, motivating the user to return a few times a week to check in on the creature.

The Web site also offers ways for the children, through their Webkinz animals, to earn points by answering questions in a trivia challenge or winning games like "Polar Plunge," where a polar bear has to jump over a log or be submerged in the frigid water.

The points earned during the game are then converted to "Kinz cash." With this currency — kids get 2,000 units when they first sign up a doll — children can "buy" things for their Webkinz.

According to Ganz, the Webkinz site is updated each night and another game or feature is added each month.

Creature Comforts

Purchasing things comes in handy, since each Webkinz is automatically given a cyber-, and very empty, apartment.

Children are motivated to decorate their pets' rooms and can add such items as potted plants, trampolines or a comfortable chair specifically designed for their animal to make it more homey.

Another big hook for kids is the socialization feature of the site. Anyone with a Webkinz can enter and play on the site, but users can also choose to play online with a friend or group of friends, as long as they know their user names or are on their buddy lists.

Children have made Webkinz top sellers throughout North America, but many parents have already had their fill of the toy.

At $13 a pop for each Webkinz, and around $10 for a smaller version dubbed Lil'Kinz, collecting the furry creatures can get pricey, not to mention obsessive.

"Emma is addicted," says Sally Wollcott, a St. Louis mom, of her 7-year-old daughter's interest in the animals. "Any extra money she has, she wants to buy the newest one, because she is sure it will be sold out and she will not be able to buy it ever again."

There also have been some concerns and glitches. Parents and experts fear that the time kids spend online playing with Webkinz is cutting down physical activity.

The Web site has suffered some technical snafus, resulting in disappointed kids not being able to log on or play all of the games. McVeigh says such technical problems are typical for any large Web site and says they are being addressed.

Then there was a dearth of Webkinz last spring, right before the Easter holiday. Harassed store owners blamed the empty shelves on stalled manufacturing issues in China.

At the same time, rumors about the planned demise of the Webkinz site and all creatures living on it ran rampant through the Internet and middle schools, bringing anxiety to Webkinzians.

"Unfortunately, this rumor resurfaces every few months," says McVeigh. "It is completely unfounded and very frightening for some of our members."

The infatuation with Webkinz might be part of a growing trend toward "adoption" of electronic or Web-based toys, say experts.

Digital pets are prized for their interactivity, say youngsters.

The hit game "Nintendogs," for instance, is played on Nintendo's handheld DS game console line and lets users choose a canine and care for him virtually.

In the late '90s, kids went crazy first for Tamagotchi, an LCD-display doohickey that hung from a keychain, and Neopets, which lived only on the Internet; both are still popular.

Toy sales totaled $21.3 billion in 2005, with the youth-electronics sector showing the healthiest gains — a 14 percent increase — according to research house NPD Group.

"Most kids born in the last 10 years were essentially born with a computer mouse in their hand. Their use of, and familiarity with, digital devices, computers and the Internet is more commonplace than many adults realize," says Reyne Rice, toy trends specialist for the Toy Industry Association. "The rise of the 'CyberPlayground' as a viable playdate will continue to grow and evolve with time."

While the family-owned Ganz is staying mum on the number of Webkinz it has sold, there's little doubt the toy has pumped new life into the plush industry.

The stuffed animal market saw a decline of 15 percent in sales from 2004 to 2005, says NPD Group — but then Webkinz sold $45 million in retail sales in 2006, the collection's first full year on the market.

"Viral word-of-mouth communication among kids and the media has propelled the Webkinz brand to a strongly appealing brand among kids," says Rice. "Most U.S. kids either know of the products, have played on the Web site, or know someone who has, or perhaps have their own collection of Webkinz plush characters."

Of course, there's no telling whether fickle children will sustain these furry friends as the gotta-have-it toy or if today's mass collections of Webkinz will find their way to attic boxes next to Cabbage Patch dolls.

Until then, Ganz has found a way to incorporate old and new that meets with kids' approval — and opens parents' wallets.