Animal crackers in my soup,

Monkeys and rabbits loop the loop . . . -- Sung by Shirley Temple, 1935

Little Shirley was wrong. There were never any rabbits. Monkeys, yes. Lions and tigers and bears, indeed. A jaguar, now and again. Even a hyena or two.

Over the past 100 years, 53 different animals have lived in the Barnum's Animal Cracker box. We've bitten off their heads, chomped off their toes and staged circuses on the coffee table -- animal crackers are, after all, the No. 1 exception to the annoying "Don't play with your food!" rule. Christopher Morley wrote a poem about them:

Animal crackers, and cocoa to drink,

That is the finest of suppers, I think . . .

The Marx Brothers did a movie about them. Sort of. (Okay, okay, it was just the name of the movie. But still.)

And Shirley Temple sang about them in the film "Curly Top."

So to celebrate their 100th anniversary -- the crackers were first introduced in 1902 -- Nabisco has decided to add another animal to the box. The company is asking the public to decide among the koala, the walrus, the penguin and the cobra.

The koala is out front, of course. It's cute. It's cuddly. It even comes with its own tree.

And, really, who wants to eat a poisonous snake?

"Well, everyone has their favorite animal, and we just wanted to make sure they were all represented," says Nabisco spokesman Larry Baumann, trying to explain the cobra inclusion. The penguin, by the way, is running second, Baumann says, with the walrus firmly entrenched in third.

The winner will join 17 other animals currently in the box, including the lion, the elephant, the bison and two bears -- one standing up, and one sitting down.

Don't worry. There doesn't seem to be any bear bias. The Supreme Court probably won't have to weigh in on this vote. Besides, the koala isn't really a bear anyway. Remember when life didn't seem so complicated?

It's easy to get nostalgic. Animal crackers belong to a different age, an era of comfort and security. Childhood. Memories of a long-lost time.

"It's definitely a connector," says Lawrence Fisher, executive director of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Conn. "Grandparents come in and start telling kids what they remember, talking about the boxes they had. There's really something special about them."

Even today, they're good for keeping the littlest of kids occupied in the grocery store -- at least until they can balance a Game Boy.

But we know now that things have never been as simple as we'd like to believe.

So, is it possible that they represent the very beginnings, the first evil seed, of that now-inescapable world of product tie-ins aimed at our children?

You know: Monsters, Inc. Happy Meals. Elmo dinnerware. Poseable Spice Girl dolls. Cheerios storybooks.

Barnum's Animal Crackers.

Yikes!

Take heart. James U. McNeal, a retired Texas A&M marketing professor who has researched children's responses to advertising, marketing and promotions for more than 35 years, says we cannot blame animal crackers for this.

"If nothing else, the name itself that little kids use is 'animal,' not 'Barnum & Bailey' or 'Ringling Brothers,' or any kind of brand name," he says. "They're just animal crackers. So in that sense, they pretty well do stand alone."

That's not to say, though, that McNeal is ready to give the cookies a total pass.

"I have to say that I paused when I heard about the four animals, because -- except for the snake -- they tend to be a little bit round, heavy, fat," McNeal explains, referring to the contending koala, walrus and penguin. "This is something that I'm looking at rather seriously."

Seriously?

"Well," McNeal continues, "when we talk about children and healthy lifestyles, there's a tendency to talk about unhealthy food -- french fries, whatever -- but my concern is with cartoon characters, and animal characters, who send out the message that fat is fun."

Think about it. Barney is fat. The Teletubbies are tubby. Porky the Pig is, well, isn't it obvious? Then there's Big Bird with his big belly, and the burly Bear from the Big Blue House . . . we could go on and on.

And, of course, there's also Santa Claus, who is the worst offender of them all.

"Jolly old Saint Nick! A belly like a bowl full of jelly!" McNeal says.

According to Baumann at Nabisco, though, the main reason most of the animals in the box are round, or chubby, is packaging -- the company doesn't want the cookies to break in transit. Alligators, for example, failed to make the cut for the contest because the product development team decided their tails would be too fragile.

"Well, whatever," McNeal says, when given this information. "It doesn't change what I'm suggesting. It's a concern."

Barnum's Animals, by the way, have 260 calories per small box and these days are considered a "low fat" snack food, with eight grams of fat. Nabisco even brags on the box that the cookies are a good source of calcium. In big yellow and white letters. On both sides.

You know, so we'd be more likely to buy them for our kids.

Believe it or not, P.T. Barnum, the greatest self-promoter in history, had absolutely nothing to do with the box that bears his name. And never got a cent for it. That's all according to our man Fisher of the Barnum Museum. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus still doesn't get a cut, or a licensing fee.

This is what happened: In 1889, Barnum decided to do something truly nutty, a tour of England with his circus. So after his buddy Bailey figured out how, exactly, you get a circus that normally takes up 10 rail cars onto a boat and across an ocean, Barnum's animals made their European debut.

The English, meanwhile, had already invented something called animal biscuits. Sensing a marketing moment, several companies started manufacturing animal biscuits with circus packaging and called them Barnum's, and they caught on. Soon the product migrated across the ocean, where the National Biscuit Co. -- Nabisco's forerunner -- first put them on U.S. store shelves in 1902. Originally called "Barnum's Animals," they became "Barnum's Animal Crackers" in 1948.

Despite the name, though, Nabisco considers the product part of its cookie line.

Which is probably why our mothers never bought it when we argued that "crackers" did not count as dessert.

There are lots of varieties of animal crackers/cookies available in stores today. Even CVS has a brand.

But they don't have the box.

The box, the box, we love the box. The circus cages, the brightly painted animals, the old door you could pop out to make it a real "cage."

The origin of those famous circus boxes, sadly, is not solely creative whimsy or unfettered imagination -- it, too, is a result of yet another corporate attempt to make something look better and thus sell more product.

Looking for a special Christmas promotion, National Biscuit executives came up with the idea of specially designed red and green boxes with a circus theme. And thinking that the boxes would make fine Christmas tree ornaments, they added the little string -- to make it easier to hang the box on a tree limb, of course.

So, alas, you were wrong. That little string was not there so that we could carry the box around like a purse.

Of course that's what people (okay, girls) did with it anyway. Marbles, pennies, costume jewelry, rocks -- you name it -- it's all been stuffed in a Barnum box at some point over the last century.

In fact, to find someone who actually hangs the boxes on the tree, we had to go south to Dallas, where graphic artist Linda Sue Lammers uses them on the circus-themed Christmas tree she puts up every year in her circus-themed den. (No, we are not making this up.)

"They just look so cute with all my other circus things," says Lammers, who hangs four of the old-fashioned red boxes, and four green ones, on the tree every year. "I've got a popcorn garland and circus animals and a cotton candy thing my friend made for me."

For the record, though, she always thought the string was a purse thing, too.

An informal survey of animal-cracker eaters seems to indicate that a preponderance of us bite the heads off first.

What this means, we do not know.

It does, however, seem to suggest a certain sense of -- shall we say aggression? -- toward animal species.

So what, dare we wonder, does People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals have to say about all this?

PETA is very clearly anti-circus, given that it has created an entire Web site (www.circuses.com) to detail circus-related sins. Sadly, though, PETA's expert on Ringling Bros. was a wee bit too busy to bother with the animal-cracker issue at the moment.

But PETA's press office was more than happy to provide an official statement of the organization's position on this subject, which reads as follows:

"We are glad that the cookies are vegan, but sad that they promote circus animal misery -- if only they'd make whip, chain and bull-hook cookies to show kids the full story."

So much for nostalgia.

Voting ends Dec. 31. You can vote online at www.nabiscoworld.com. You must be 18, however; it's an Internet privacy issue, the company says. Children can vote with their parents, or mail a vote on a 3-by-5 card to Barnum's Animal Crackers 100th Birthday Vote for the New Animal Sweepstakes, P.O. Box 324, Pine Brook, N.J. 07058.

The koala is a contender to join Nabisco's menagerie on its 100th anniversary.Lions and tigers and . . . cobras? The snake, far left, is among the candidates for a coveted spot in the Barnum's box, along with the penguin, left, and walrus.