World Cup fever hits the animal kingdom: Athletic roosters, lions, elephants and even lobsters play soccer

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With World Cup excitement at a fever pitch, even the animals are getting into the spirit of things.

Zoo animals, household pets and even the occasional prognosticating mollusk are excited about soccer nowadays -- like the roosters above, for example. These two feisty birds aren’t new to the sport; owner Zhang Lijun of Shenyang, China, began teaching them to play soccer in 2007, and they’ve been at it ever since.

In the past, we’ve noticed a wide variety of adorable animals taking up their soccer balls with varying degrees of skill, from a clumsy-but-charming giant panda to a talented Shetland lamb to a rabbit we took the liberty of dubbing the David Beckham of the pocket-pet set.

But prior to the 2010 World Cup, we’d never seen creatures like lobsters, fish and even elephants get into the act. Now we think we’ve seen everything!


We’ve assembled our favorite shots of soccer-playing animals over the past few weeks; we hope you enjoy their silliness as much as we do.

Above, the chimpanzee residents of the Ramat Gan Safari zoo in central Israel celebrate the start of the World Cup on June 10. (Helpful hint, from the staff at the Ramat Gan Safari to you: If you ever feel the need to convince a family of chimps to play soccer, try covering a ball with strawberry jam. It worked for them!)

Penguins decked out in tiny South Korean national soccer team uniforms play with a miniature soccer ball to the delight of young spectators at the Everland amusement park in Yongin, South Korea, on June 3.

A talented dog plays with a soccer ball at the Harbor of Cape Town, South Africa, on June 13. That’s quite a bit of air he’s caught, isn’t it?

Two lobsters square off for control of a soccer ball in their tank, decorated to resemble a soccer pitch, at the Sea Life aquarium in Berlin on June 16. Every afternoon during the World Cup, aquarium staff have given the lobsters a miniature soccer ball filled with sardines.

Common elands play with a soccer ball in their enclosure at the Allwetter Zoo in Muenster, Germany, on June 1.

An elephant and its keeper play with a soccer ball at the Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa on June 29. Keepers used the soccer-playing as part of the elephants’ daily cognitave stimulation exercises.

Blue fish representing Japan’s national team and red-and-white striped fish representing Paraguay’s team swim in an aquarium decorated to resemble a soccer pitch at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium in Yokohama, Japan, on June 27.

A sea lion named Baron and his trainer play with a soccer ball at the Shinagawa Aqua Stadium aquarium in Tokyo on June 8.

One of Zhang Lijun’s trained soccer-playing roosters leaps for the ball in a mock World Cup match in Shenyang, China, on June 3.

A river otter plays with a soccer ball at the Santa Fe Zoo in Medellin, Colombia, on June 9.

An African penguin stands near a miniature soccer goal during an event at the Hakkeijima Sea Paradise aquarium in Yokohama, Japan, on May 20.

Elephants play their own version of soccer using a big orange ball in their enclosure at the Amstersfoort Zoo in the Netherlands on July 8.

Zhang Lijun’s roosters go head-to-head for control of the soccer ball during a mock game on July 8.

An Asian lion cub plays with a meat-filled soccer ball in its enclosure at the London Zoo as another lion watches on May 27.

A triumphant lobster holds its prize -- a sardine-filled soccer ball -- in its elaborately decorated tank at the Sea Life aquarium in Berlin on July 11.

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-- Lindsay Barnett

Photos, from top: Roosters: European Pressphoto Agency. Chimpanzees: Ariel Schalit / Associated Press. Penguins: Shin Young-gun / Associated Press. Jumping dog: Helmut Fohringer / European Pressphoto Agency. Lobsters: Barbara Sax / AFP/Getty Images. Common elands: Bernd Thissen / European Pressphoto Agency. Elephant: Johann Hattingh / European Pressphoto Agency. Fish: Itsuo Inouye / Associated Press. Sea lion: Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP/Getty Images. Rooster: European Pressphoto Agency. Otter: Fredy Amariles / Reuters. Penguin: Yuriko Nakao / Reuters. Elephants: Valerie Kuypers / European Pressphoto Agency. Roosters: Associated Press. Lions: Ben Stansall / AFP/Getty Images. Lobster: Barbara Sax / AFP/Getty Images.