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Leave the Owl-Owning to Hogwarts

December 02, 2001|DON OLDENBURG | WASHINGTON POST

In 1996, the release of "101 Dalmatians" at the movie theaters unleashed a nationwide pack of kids wanting spotted dogs. The result: a 25% jump in Dalmatians dumped at dog shelters over the next year.

Now we've got the tsunami of all kids' movies, the every-imaginable-record-smashing "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Featuring a cute snowy owl, and a supporting cast of dozens of feathery must-have owls of every size and description.

The drumbeat has started: When the online student magazine Scholastic.com asked its young readers recently what kind of pet they would want if they attended Hogwarts, the school of wizardry Harry Potter attends, 24 of the 41 kids chose owls.

"I'd prefer a tawny owl, but I wouldn't say no to any other type," says 9-year-old Sean Costner of Winston-Salem, N.C., who has devoured all things Harry Potter. And, knowing that, as a boy, his father took care of an injured screech owl, Sean wants one even more.

Well, it's a moot hoot, fans: Selling or owning a pet owl is illegal in the United States without a wildlife or falconry permit.

"The deal is, you are not going to get one," says Patricia Fisher, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "You are not going to find one for sale by a legit pet dealer."

Owls are protected under international treaties and federal laws, such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Wild Bird Conservation Act, and a bevy of state laws that make keeping owls as pets off-limits. Some species, like the Northern spotted owl and Mexican spotted owl, are further protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

International trade in owls is tightly regulated to prevent them from dwindling to threatened or endangered status. Protected birds that are imported require permits certifying that they're 100% legal and the sale doesn't affect the survival of the species in the wild.

Of course, that hasn't grounded illegal trade. International wildlife trafficking is a "massive problem," say conservationists, and the third-largest global black market, behind drugs and firearms. But, whether owl smuggler or Harry Potter fan, anyone breaking the law faces stiff fines and even imprisonment. Knowingly violating the Endangered Species Act can bring penalties ranging from $500 to $50,000, or a year in prison, or both.

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