Fantastic Beasts and Conservation

When I first went to see “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”, I was prepared to be excited for the first new Harry Potter movie in years. I was not expecting to get excited about the biology showcased in the movie, that being that Newt Scamander does a lot of things that actual Naturalists did in the 1920’s. That being said, this essay will have spoilers for the movie, so tread with caution.

Before the movie even beings, Newt is traveling across the world collecting specimens of magical creatures in a briefcase for a book that he is writing. This was (and still is) often done by scientists to better study and understand animals. The key difference is that muggle/our specimens are, more often than not, dead. While thanks to the power of magically large suitcases Newt’s are very much still alive. Despite this, the work Newt had to do to study these animals is likely similar to the work of real-world naturalists. The most obvious example of field work that most people know about would probably be Charles Darwin and his journey to the Galapagos Islands. From that trip he sketched and described species of finches and tortoises and collected evidence for his theory of Evolution which he then published in “The Origin of Species”. Newt, like Darwin, is also collecting specimens as research for an upcoming book and would revolutionize the way the natural world was viewed by the general public. However, Darwin published his writings in 1859, at least 60 years before Newt and his suitcase. But there are a lot more examples of field work of this nature in the real world, closer to when Newt would have been working.

Carl Akeley changed the field of Taxidermy in the late 1800 and early 1900’s, shifting the field from a way to display hokey hunting trophies to an educational and scientific tool. A good example of this was “The Four Seasons” exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum, which depicted a group of white tailed deer and their transition through the year. Weirdly, white tailed deer were endangered at the time and this allowed people who lived in the city to see them.[1] While today it may seem cruel to kill an animal for a display, at the time it was considered one of the best ways to educate the public. Sure, you may never be able to go to Africa to see an elephant, and if you saw a wolf up close it might be the last thing you ever saw, but you could go to a museum and see one. This allowed for the average American to see wildlife as something at least interesting, if not beautiful. Even today Taxidermy is still used. By having specimens of a species from different points in time, scientists can better understand how human factors (urbanization, climate change,and pollution just to mention a few) have affected species. The animals that Newt is collecting would serve a similar role, and we see this several times in the movie when he takes people into his brief case. Their attitudes quickly shift from fear (Wizards in the movie refer to the magical creatures as pests or look for some practical use for them) to amazement, just like museum exhibits did for public opinion of the natural world in the 1900’s.

In addition to museums, zoos also shaped public opinion. Zoos existed thousands of years, largely as a display of wealth and power, while zoos after the enlightenment (1700s) had at least some emphasis on science and studying the animals that were inside of the enclosures. The goals of zoos was to make the enclosures similar to the natural habitat of the animal, however in practice conditions were cramped and inhumane to the animals inside of them.[2] Newt’s case is actually a good example of an ideal zoo for the time period. The enclosures aren’t large, although he is using it as temporary transport so I wouldn’t be surprised if he has more suitable enclosures planned. Each animal had a separate area, with tarps painted to look like its natural habitat. The entire layout exists somewhere between a wildlife area and a museum. Newt uses these animals for study, which he plans on publishing in his book. Scientists today do the same thing, although usually by going to a natural protected area and observing them in a more natural setting. However both of their goals are largely the same, to better understand the natural world around them and to educate the general public.

Why all this interest in the environment around the 1900’s? One of the first big factors happened in 1914, when the last Passenger Pigeon went extinct. In 1860 there may have been 3.7 billion Passenger Pigeons, they were on the scale of being considered a plague when they descended upon a field to roost. They lived in huge flocks, which were then captured in nets in mass as well as more accurate sport shooting guns. This lead to them becoming extinct in a short amount of time. They disappeared so quickly that people kinda freaked out, which is understandable. But nothing was done to try to conserve them until 1909, which was 40 years too late.[3] But this is when people really began to pay attention to endangered animals.

However, well into the nineteenth century, popular culture played a huge role in the way people viewed the environment. The earliest beginnings of the environmental movement could be seen in the writing Thoreau and his book Walden, which focused on the human condition and the natural world. Additionally,  many early American painters that focused largely on landscapes. These painters are often considered the first American painters, since many were not trained in Europe and chose to focus on key elements of American life, which they linked to the landscape. These drawings and paintings shifted public opinion of nature as something to be fear and exploited, to nature as part of the national identity for many Americans. These images were used by the National Park Service, which was created in 1916, to promote the National Parks as a way to escape the city. [4]

This doesn’t seem to have happened in the Wizarding World. Magical creatures are still viewed as pests and the reaction to Newt’s interest in them is often met with confusion. Magical creatures do not seem to have shaped the identity of white wizards the way that it did for their white muggle counterparts.  (I specify white wizards, because the Thunderbird was featured in the movie, and it seems unlikely that native wizards wouldn’t hold such a magical creature in high regard.) It seems that other factors, like maybe persecution, had a larger hand in shaping the identity of white wizards. Given that muggles and wizards were not allowed to interact, it isn’t surprising that they wouldn’t have read the books or seen the paintings or even have visited the museums that so deeply affected their non-magical counterparts. They may have not even had the chance to go to museums or zoos. As a result the wizards in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” are a good snap shot of how Americans viewed the world around them before the natural world was tied to the American identity.

Looking at how magical creatures are viewed in the main Harry Potter series, Newt’s book is a long reaching and long lasting influence. It not only is a text book, it leads to a complete shift in the relationship between magical creatures and wizards that for the non-magical world took centuries of slow change. For example, Harry and Hermione in “Prisoner of Azkaban” go back to save Buckbeak (a Hippogryff) and Sirius Black, while if Buckbeak were simply viewed as a tool for Wizards to accomplish their goals they likely wouldn’t have cared. In addition the existence of Charlie Weasley, who cared enough about Dragons to fly with his work buddies to break into a school and save one, shows just how much Newt’s book changed the outlook of Wizards. While the creators of Fantastic Beats and Where to Find them may have not intended to show case how public outreach and science were done in the early twentieth century, they managed to do so while still exploring a magical plot line.

[1] “Carl Akeley’s Four Seasons” Youtube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 4 December 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zUkbYp1Gyrg&t=206s

[2] “Zoo: Encyclopedic Entry” National Geographic, http://nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/zoo/

[3] “Year of the Passenger Pigeon” Youtube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 10 September 2014 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FPRpX25L5DU

[4] “The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920” The Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/connections/conservation/history.html

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