- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

We’re in recession romance mode this Valentine’s Day. And it’s downright tacky.

The risque factor is at red alert level as would-be love wranglers vie for the attention of newly frugal couples with a few disposable dollars.

Shame, shame, shame.

Many of the nation’s zoos are offering X-rated, adults only, behind-the-scenes tours of their facilities to view the mating rituals of animals - complete with cocktails, hors d’oeuvres and often hefty ticket prices. Among the many offerings: “Zoorotica” in Milwaukee, “Love on the Wild Side” in Philadelphia, “Animal Magnetism” in Tampa, Fla., “Animals Do It” in Akron, Ohio, “Wild for Love” in Houston and “Woo at the Zoo,” right here in stodgy old Washington.

The Milwaukee affair, in fact, advises Valentine voyeurs that they will be treated to “biting, clawing, scratching and mid-air acrobatics,” not to mention the possibility of an overnight stay at a nearby Holiday Inn, complete with champagne and strawberries.

But supposing the one-and-only doesn’t go for all the biting and clawing?

Hijinks among the fauna could be a risky activity, according to consumer researchers who have found that “shared experiences” on a special occasion can backfire with more ferocity than a lousy gift. That’s right. The sweetheart could be more annoyed with an ill-fated, X-rated zoo tour than say, a toaster.

“A bad choice of an experience could make your valentine unhappy for a much longer time than will a badly chosen material gift,” said Julie Irwin, a consumer psychologist with University of Texas at Austin who published her co-authored findings Saturday in the Journal of Consumer Research.

“Experiences ‘stay with’ us longer than material purchases, whether good or bad,” she said.

Restaurants from coast to coast, meanwhile, seem to have discovered the word “aphrodisiac,” plastered it all over their Valentine’s Day menus and stocked up on things such as oysters, asparagus, chocolate, pink champagne, caviar, garlic and truffles - much of it is billed as either “seductive” or “decadent.”

Valentine’s Day cocktails of the naughty rather than sentimental sort also are heavily emphasized. Will such maneuvers resonate with romantics? Maybe not.

“Valentine´s Day this year will be more about small tokens of affection rather than extravagant purchases,” said Phil Rist, a pollster for the National Retail Federation.

Americans are expected to spend $14 billion on their sweethearts this year, down from $17 billion in 2008, he said, dropping from $123 per person to $102. It’s the quiet, “just the two of us” dinner at home that appeals in these trying times, Mr. Rist said.

A survey released Friday by Rasmussen Reports also found that the meal is the centerpiece for many couples this year - 69 percent of Americans are looking forward to “dining with someone special.” The majority - 52 percent - will be at home, however.

Findings from Harris Interactive are even more emphatic, with 81 percent of married couples preferring a nice dinner at home instead of going out to eat on Valentine’s Day, according to a new survey. Nearly two-thirds said it is “more intimate or special,” while 75 percent framed the home dinner as “more personal, thoughtful or caring.”

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