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Harry Potter and the Illegal Sale of Owls

Potter mania is spreading around the globe. Unfortunately as the love for the wizard world spreads, so too does the desire to have a little bit of the life. While here children and families bought wands and clothing, in Asia families are buying owls. Conservationists say the snowy owl Hedwig – who remains the young wizard’s loyal companion for most of the Harry Potter series – is fuelling global demand for wild-caught birds for use as pets.

In 2001, when the film was first released, only a few hundred were sold at Indonesia’s many bird markets. By 2016, the figure had soared to more than 13,000 according to researches. A large majority of the owls encountered in the markets were downy chicks, taken from their nests, meaning the majority of them will die within weeks; making the trade a very unsustainable one.

The conditions in which these wild birds are kept are often appalling, being fed on very unnatural diets sometimes just water and rice. It is particularly heart breaking to see nocturnal animals like owls in the markets, looking stunned and stressed under the bright sun. At a cost of around $10 to $30, the price tag is affordable to most middle-class families in Asia making them all the more desirable.

The issue is of critical concern because the owls being offered for sale are nearly all taken from the wild. The overall popularity of owls as pets in Indonesia has risen to such an extent that it may imperil the conservation of some of the less abundant species. Other areas of Asia are also seeing this media driven effect. The Indian MP Jairam Ramesh has blamed fans of the boy wizard for their role in the dwindling of numbers of wild owls in the country. “Following Harry Potter, there seems to be a strange fascination even among the urban middle classes for presenting their children with owls” The MP notes.

Although the link between the books and the increase in owl trade cannot be scientifically proved. The circumstantial evidence is strong. This unfortunate outcome of the franchise was condemned by JK Rowling herself “If anybody has been influenced by my books to think an owl would be happiest shut in a small cage and kept in a house, I would like to take this opportunity to say as forcefully as I can, ‘you are wrong’, The owls in Harry Potter books were never intended to portray the true behaviour or preferences of real owls”.

It is a terrible shame that so many people can be influenced by media productions and think that it is ok to take wild, vulnerable animals into captivity. However, this phenomenon is not a new problem. After the movie Finding Nemo, the trade in exotic fish taken from coral reefs exploded. As everyone wanted their own little piece of the reef, millions of fish were taken from their natural habitats and taken to markets (often illegally) in order to be sold to households.

Following on, it is important not to take a moral high ground against these developing countries in what they are doing. Recent data shows that people in the western world are also been influenced into buying pets through the media. Fans of the show Game Of Thrones, which feature ‘direwolves’ played by Northern Inuit dogs, are thought to have rushed to buy similar breeds because of their similar looks. Blue Cross said the number of huskies and similar breeds taken to its rehoming centres across the UK had increased by 700% over the past five years.

Unfortunately, it seems the novelty soon wears off and many people decide to desert their new pets after realising the responsibility involved with having such an energetic dog. This current trend has led to Game of Thrones star (lifelong vegetarian and animal lover) Peter Dinklage (Tyrion Lannister) has spoken out against the practice. “Not only does this hurt all the deserving homeless dogs waiting for a chance at a good home in shelters, but shelters are also reporting that many of these huskies are being abandoned – as often happens when dogs are bought on impulse, without understanding their needs. Please, please, if you’re going to bring a dog into your family, make sure that you’re prepared for such a tremendous responsibility and remember to always, always, adopt from a shelter”. This goes to show that people from all different walks of life can be easily tempted into buying a pet they don’t really understand.

Despite the fact that a couple of well-known names have spoken out against the current trends, more needs to be done to control how big media productions influence people’s desires. Clearly the examples above are very different. In the case of the owls more must be done to stop the illegal trade of taking animals from the wild and selling them to homes on markets. It is the responsibility of the governments of those countries to protect the species that live there. In terms of the huskies, more should be done in order to regulate and educate buyers of such breeds, consumers need to be made aware of the harm they could be causing.

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