"Harry Potter" Owl Scenes Alarm Animal Advocates

John Roach
for National Geographic News
November 16, 2001
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A bespectacled 11-year-old boy's name may be in the title of the movie, but British animal protection groups fear that Harry Potter's lovable messenger/pet will steal the show and lead to a surge of interest in keeping owls as pets.

As the film based on author J.K. Rowling's best-selling books about the adventures of Harry Potter at the Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft debuts this month, several groups in the United Kingdom have voiced concern about the potential welfare of owls given as gifts this holiday season.

They fear that when people realize the difficulty of keeping an owl as a pet, the raptors—known to be temperamental—will be abandoned to a barn or released into the outdoors where they most likely will starve to death.

"The snowy owl is featured in this particular movie. We understand that Harry Potter keeps it in a parrot cage, which is against everything we know," said Jenny Thurston, a trustee at the World Owl Trust at Muncaster Castle near the village of Ravenglass, England. "That is horrendous. It will foul up people's imagination."

Legal to Keep Owls in the U.K.

The concern has been an issue mainly in the United Kingdom, where it is legal to buy and keep owls. In the United States, keeping owls as pets is illegal under most circumstances due to their protection under various federal, state, and local laws, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.

In the United Kingdom, a snowy owl like Hedwig, who serves as Harry's messenger/pet in the Harry Potter movie, can be bought for about 400 pounds (U.S. $576), said Thurston.

Owl Care

"To keep [a snowy owl] correctly, you need the biggest aviary you could ever build," said Thurston. "It is a big heavy bird, and in the wild it would fly for miles. We are talking an aviary of a minimum 20 to 30 feet (six to nine meters) long and as deep as you could make it and at least ten feet (three meters) high."

Wild snowy owls live in snowy, rocky landscapes such as the Arctic. They have a thick coat of feathers to keep them warm, weigh about five pounds (two kilograms) and can live for as long as 30 years. Snowy owls, unlike most owls, hunt during the day and feed primarily on lemmings.

The concern of animal rights groups is that people will go out and buy a snowy owl, keep it in the wrong conditions and feed it the wrong food and it will die. "Where do you buy lemmings?" asks Thurston. "You can't."

Conservation Symbol

The issue of keeping owls as pets has raised concerns mainly in the United Kingdom. On the other side of the Atlantic, some U.S. conservation groups hope the movie's popularity will make Hedwig a visible symbol for their efforts to ban oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Conservationists consider the Alaska refuge as one of the world's most pristine habitats. It is home to hundreds of wildlife species including polar bears, caribou, musk oxen, wolves, and millions of migratory birds, giving it the nickname "America's Serengeti."

The refuge is also an untapped oil field and the Bush Administration wants it open for drilling. Government studies indicate that there is a 95 percent likelihood of finding 1.9 billion barrels of economically recoverable oil in the refuge and a 50 percent chance of finding 5.3 billion barrels.

The debate over whether to go in and drill for that oil has intensified since the terrorist attacks on September 11. The Bush Administration sees any additional domestic oil as vital to the nation's security. The conservationists say the oil would only last for six months and drilling for it would erode the pristine habitat.

Hedwig May Raise Awareness of Refuge

Conservationists hope the popularity of Hedwig will help them raise public awareness of the refuge and the precious wildlife that would be lost if it is opened to oil drilling. Snowy owls are one of the more than 140 bird species that call the refuge home.

In preparation for the potential spike in interest in owls generated by the Harry Potter film, Defenders of Wildlife has set up a Web site, where visitors can learn more about the raptors as well as write President Bush a letter asking him to not drill in the Arctic.

"Snowy owls may not be the most likely to be impacted, but given that there is very little research on snowy owls and that the research has not focused on the likely impact from this activity, we cannot rule out serious consequences," said Caroline Kennedy, a species conservationist at Defenders of Wildlife in Washington, D.C.

Snowy Owl: Vital Statistics

The snowy owl (Nyctea scandiaca) is a large white owl, with rounded head, and yellow eyes. Dark bars and spots are heavier on females, heaviest on young birds; old males may be pure white.

An owl of open tundra, the snowy nests on the ground. It preys chiefly on lemmings, hunting by day during the Arctic summer, as well as at night.

The snowy owl's existence is closely related to the lifecycle of its favorite food item, the lemming. This mouse-like creature of the tundra, multiplying into millions upon millions, furnishes abundant fare for the snowy owls. The birds wax fat, raise bumper broods of a dozen or more, and show little urge to migrate southward when the fearsome Arctic winter begins.

After a lemming "crash" few snowy owls breed. Those that do must hunt constantly. Without the parents' protection many an owlet falls prey to a fox or jaeger or wanders off and dies.

The harsh habitat of the snowy owl produces a tough and clever bird.

Source: National Geographic Society's Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America and National Geographic Society Field Guide to Birds of North America

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