Only at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry would a professor feel the need to instruct: "But monsters don't make good pets."
Of course, this is a school with a course in "The Care of Magical Creatures" and first-year students receive an advisory alerting them that they may bring "an owl OR a cat OR a toad." But as one young student says: "If I brought a toad, I'd lose it as soon as I could."
Rats are also considered permissible pets in the world of boy wizard Harry Potter, star of the children's series that has become a publishing legend and a feature film produced by Warner Bros.
Much has been made of British author J.K. Rowling's attention to magical detail in creating an entirely believable fantasy where wizards co-exist with Muggles (non-magical humans) who are blessedly unaware of the existence of the evil Lord Voldemort, a dark wizard who attempted to murder Harry as an infant, leaving a lightning-shaped scar on the boy's head.
Pets Are Critical to Plot
Pets play roles both large and small throughout the 1,819 pages that comprise the series so far. Not only do they move the story along at critical junctures, the cats, rats, and, yes, even the toads Harry and company curl up with in their dorm beds at night offer the vital companionship and comfort these children so need. After all, the students at Hogwarts' may be wizards, but they are also children away from home.
Meanwhile, the books are also populated by humans who can disguise themselves as pets as well as animals that should never, ever be petted.
In fact, at Hogwarts' even the textbooks growl. The shopkeeper in Diacon Alley, where Hogwarts' students get their supplies, keeps the "Monster Book of Monsters" in a large iron cage because it has a habit of aggressively snapping. The alley is also where the young wizards buy their pets at the aptly named "Magical Menagerie."
The Magical Tortoise
There, a gigantic tortoise with a jewel-encrusted shell literally glitters, and that popping noise is the sound of a white rabbit changing into a silk top hat and back again. The black rats play a skipping game using their tails as rope. And the witch behind the counter offers veterinary advice on all manner of beasts including the care of double-ended newts.
It is to this witch that Harry's best friend Ron brings his oddly listless pet rat, Scabbers, for treatment in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
The Pet Rat
Not that Scabbers ever had much energy. Ron Weasley, the youngest of six boys in a struggling wizard family, inherited the pet as yet another hand-me-down from an older brother. As he tells Harry on first meeting, "He's useless and he almost never wakes up." But then the plucky little rodent almost immediately saves the boys from a pack of bullies by biting one of them.
A good rat, that.
Now, though, after a summer trip to Egypt, Scabbers plays dead more often and more convincingly than before. Unfortunately, the witch has no remedy, but one good thing comes from the visit to the store. Hermoine Granger, close friend to both boys, buys Crookshanks, a ginger cat with a bottlebrush tail and a face that "looked grumpy and oddly squashed, as though it had run headlong into a brick wall."
Only Scabbers, and as a result, Ron, seem put off by Hermoine's choice. She was supposed to purchase an owl (more on that later). In the third book, which features animals more critically in the plot than the others, Scabbers strangely disappears while Crookshanks is oddly present.
In fact, there's a suspicion… oops, can't tell. That would be what young Harry Potter fans – seemingly always mindful that there will be a next generation of readers who need to be kept blissfully ignorant of developments – call a "spoiler."
So, more on the owls then. One of the author's more delightful inventions is the wizards' mail delivery system – owls, who are treated as working pets. After meals in the Great Hall, where the ceiling mimics the actual sky with stars appearing by night, there is a burst and flutter of wings as letters from home are beak-delivered to the students.
In reading Harry Potter, though, it's best to remember that animals are not always what, or who, they appear to be. There's such a thing as a transfiguration spell, and at various points one or another student is transformed into a ferret, a canary, and unfortunately for Hermoine – thanks to the work of a faulty potion – a kind of cat. She has to retreat to the infirmary until her feline symptoms cleared up.
Also there is such a creature as an Animagus – a witch or a wizard who can become an animal at will and sometimes pass itself off as a pet. While Animagi are supposed to register with the Ministry of Magic, there are rogues who don't, and in one book an agent of Voldemort's with lethal designs on Harry appears as a…
No, that's enough of the plot – until the appearance of the fifth Harry Potter.