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Harry Potter and the Absence of Animal Rights

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I’m a proud part of what a lot of us call “The Harry Potter Generation.” Growing up, there was always another book to be read set for release, and another film to be seen, and we waited long hours in midnight lines to get to the next piece of material first. Harry Potter has been credited many times as having explicit nods to different leftist movements and means of organizing, such as Dumbledore’s Army forming in the Order of the Phoenix, and the use of underground radio to communicate during the entirety of . The franchise explored not only good and evil, but racism, genocide, absolute power, and nods towards gay rights and the AIDS crisis. Upon my most recent re-read as a committed vegan, I’ve started to ask myself, how do animals fit into the Wizarding World?

The books are fraught with inconsistency. There’s the same kind of speciesism in Harry’s world as there is in ours, with a few twists that make a rather forward concept much harder to understand. Let’s take, for instance, the human intelligence of animals throughout the series. Snakes are able to communicate with wizards through a special language called “parseltongue,” and are humanoid enough that when a young Harry accidentally liberates a snake from the zoo in the first book (go Harry!), the snake shoots the young wizard a wink in thanks. Beyond this, as Harry’s parseltongue powers grow, he can speak and hear in full sentences with snakes that communicate perfectly. Spiders, too, such as the giant Aragog in the Forbidden Forest, can learn to communicate in the common tongue with humans. In fact, most magical creatures Harry comes across in the book can at the very least, understand human communication. Hippogriffs can feel disrespected by humans, and will retaliate with violence. The Sphynx Harry meets in the final maze challenge in The Goblet of Fire presents him with a riddle.

Despite the fact that fantastic beasts tend to match humans in language and intelligence, what’s everyone’s favorite treat at Hogwarts? Meat! The books and movies depict steaming heaps of turkey legs being chomped down by hungry young students. Shepard’s pie makes a regular appearance, as well as traditional, meat-heavy English breakfasts. It’s never addressed how exactly the wizarding community at large obtains meat products, but considering their treatment of house-elves as slaves and dragons used for circus-like entertainment, as well as the proposed eradication of species such as Giants from wizarding lands, it can’t be good. Adrian on Society, a vegan blogger, wrote about the topic themselves with a few clarifying words: “It isn’t magic food. It doesn’t appear from nowhere. Rowling clarified this later when, in order to increase dramatic tension between the characters, she invented a law of magic that meant wizards could not create food out of nothing; but even before this point, all wizard meat was made of animals, for the simple reason that it was never suggested otherwise.” After the publication of the third book, The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling clarified that yes, vegan diets could be accommodated at Hogwarts in an interview with the Southwest News Service. There doesn’t seem to be a thing that those house-elves can’t do, whether the elves like it or not.

Animal abuse is practiced regularly in the Potterverse. A wizard is hard pressed to not find a wand (necessary for survival in this world) that doesn’t contain a unicorn’s hairs or the heartstring of a dragon. Dragons are abused by the goblins of the wizarding bank Gringotts, as they are used to guard vaults and are portrayed as chained, fearful,  bloodied up, and starved. In turn, wizards have oppressed the goblins themselves for thousands of years, and at this point, the hierarchy of power in the wizarding word becomes a mighty tall hill to be peeking up. In classes at Hogwarts, animal experimentation happens in transfiguration classes where a teacup might need to be transformed back and forth between teacup and rat in order to meet a passing grade. In the potions classes, concoctions are made with animal products such as live slugs, all with the aid of dragon-hide gloves. Is herbology safe?! Almost, but not quite! The root of the Mandrake plant is a screaming, wailing human-like baby, and they are farmed for their magical properties.

House elves are an excellent example in the series of how vegan friendly ideas pop up. Hermione becomes a passionate advocate for their rights in The Goblet of Fire, in spite of the fact that she is told again, and again, that house elves like being treated as slaves. For those who haven’t read the books, house elves are a species in the Potterverse who are widely mistreated and abused as free laborers. While some elves come across as cheery, characters like Dobby demand freedom from under the thumb of wizard lords and ladies, while Winky, another elf, is an example of an aggressively abused elf with nowhere to go and finds herself in a deep depression after being set free. The idea that they “like being treated this way” sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it? Think back to the way cows, pigs, chickens, sheep, and other livestock beings in our own world are depicted through advertising. They’re more than happy to give up their milk, their babies, and their lives to make other people happy, just as Hermione is told the house-elves are! It’s been argued by many readers that Hermione was speaking over house-elves when protesting on behalf of their rights throughout the forth book. Much like vegans are, she is characterized as shrill, silly, and aggressive in her opinions on liberation, and as a child, I laughed along with Harry and Ron at her “antics.” Looking back now, the enslavement of house-elves is morally deplorable, even if some of the elves are portrayed as cheerful. Hermione is a heroine who we all laughed off, and this storyline is worth revisiting, especially for animal rights activists. How ironic is it, though, that Hermione rejected slavery as she happily consumed animal flesh? She’s a powerful character, and I would love her reimagined as one who fights for all creatures.

There’s an unintentional shout-out to the silliness of animal welfare versus abolitionism, too, if you peek around the Potterverse long enough. According to Rowling, “Centuries ago, in blood-thirstier times, when young witches and wizards were expected to personally pop out the newt eyes they were using in potions, they routinely brought boxes of toads to school for use in potions and in other charms. Over time, as the Ministry of Magic introduced legislation regarding animal cruelty (sub-sections 13-29 inclusive relate to potion ingredients and their production) such practices were gradually outlawed.” Huh, this is generally considered a victory, but what about the countless uses and abuses of other magical and non-magical creatures? Are wizards no longer bloodthirsty? Well, clearly, they are.

Harry Potter taught me so many lessons about power structures and social justice. They’re an excellent commentary on effective organizing and how important it is to fight for what’s right, but for vegan readers, they’re a complicated read as we have grown into adulthood. With Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them set for release this year, I hope that questions are answered and we get some animal rights role models in the wizarding world. Liberation for cows, pigs, sheep, and certainly dragons!

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  • Ursula2007

    By far the worst, REAL WORLD animal abuse inspired by the Harry Potter books is the recent trend of people keeping owls in their homes. YouTube can attest to this.

  • Sarah

    Thank you for writing this. I too love the Potterverse and have been a long time fan. I recently sadly had an argument with a friend where I tried to explain that I felt in some cases that Rowling was unintentionally objectifying animals. I gave examples like the dragons in the tri-wizard tournament, I felt this was teaching children (and some adults) to accept things like bull fighting as the norm. The dragon died and he came back celebrated as a hero. Even the boggart is kept in a closet and as it tries to camouflage itself and escape, the students cast spells on it over and over again.

    I feel too that we do see some sympathetic characters, like Hagrid who puts his job on the line to protect the Hippogriff, but then if it hadn’t been brought to the school and put in a position where it could injure someone in the first place, that never would have happened.

    Sometimes I found the books a little insulting towards real animals as well. When Ron takes his rat to the pet store, a woman tries to sell him her magical rats because she thinks they’re better. After Harry lets the first snake out, one of the first things it does is hisses and appears to be chasing the screaming people. After that the basalisk and Nagini are villains. Voldemort’s appearance is even snake-like, and all of this suggest that snakes are inherently evil. I have worked with snakes for years and they are one of the safest and easiest pets to own (with the exception of venomous species and the two super large constrictor species) .

    I respect her as an author and I will continue to read her books, but I strongly feel that her books objectify animals and magical creatures. They are seen as things and not respected as sentient beings. Unlike our society though, most of these creatures could speak, making their animal cruelty all the more shameful and disturbing.

    I’m excited and nervous about seeing fantastic beasts.

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