Don't Feed The Animals

A well-intentioned handout today could mean disaster for panhandling wildlife tomorrow.

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You’re sitting on a log, savoring a well-earned view and the first bite of peanut butter and jam on a bagel, when suddenly you’re confronted by a test of ethics. A deer rustles out of the brush, rolls its fluffy ears in what appears to be a longing for friendship, and one of your wilderness dreams has finally come true. You’re bonding with a member of the animal kingdom. Oh, and it’s probably hungry, too.

It could just as easily be a raccoon with that trademark “sad, forlorn expression,” or a chipmunk that bounds onto your log and stands there begging like a panhandler. In each case, there’s a strong temptation to open heart and sandwich bag to a furry or feathered visitor. The problem is, you go home and forget about that little handout, but the animal remembers it. Next time it won’t be as shy, and a reliance on human food all too often can lead to problems for both two- and four-leggeds. For the animal, the concern comes when it abandons its natural foraging skills or, worse, it becomes a threat to humans and must be eliminated. For humans, the risk is obvious. According to an informal telephone survey I conducted with a dozen national park and forest officials across the country, hundreds of people are bitten or injured every year by food-conditioned wildlife.

Mike Coffey, wildlife program manager with the National Park Service in Fort Collins, Colorado, says feeding wildlife is a problem in nearly every park, forest, and nature preserve in America. “It goes on all the time. Our biggest challenge is dealing with people who teach poor behavior to children. When I was stationed at Sequoia National Park, California, a man put out bait to attract a black bear. As the bear came in, his wife was going to try and put their child on its back for a picture.” Luckily, the humans escaped injury, but as Coffey ominously adds, in the end the bear would have paid the price. It’s a common phrase in brochures, on signs, and on the lips of rangers across the country: A fed bear is a dead bear.

That goes for all kinds of other animals, as well. During the winter of 1988-89 in Wyoming’s Yellowstone, a coyote conditioned to human food was destroyed after it attacked a cross-country skier. Ecologist Jim Halfpenny, author of A Field Guide To Mammal Tracking In North America, recalls an incident at Great Sand Dunes National Monument in Colorado where a mule deer addicted to junk food nearly ran him over as it darted across a parking lot and attempted to get inside his car.

In Florida, the ramifications of wildlife feeding can get really nasty. “Crocodilians are basically wary of humans, and they don’t think of us as a food source,” explains Allan Murray, a ranger at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, located on Sanibel Island off the west coast of Florida. “Once you start feeding them, though, in their eyes there’s no difference between a piece of ham and your arm.” In the 1970s, Sanibel passed an ordinance against feeding wildlife that was eventually enacted throughout the state.

In national parks like Yellowstone and Glacier, where bears conditioned to handouts have become known as “muggers” for their aggressiveness toward hikers, rangers have employed “aversive conditioning.” They use stinging rubber bullets, pepper spray, and even specially trained dogs (see Signpost, June) every time a bear approaches a campground. The strategy occasionally works, but based on studies conducted by wildlife behaviorists, Coffey says, it takes only one feeding incident out of 20 encounters with humans for the animal to become reconditioned. “In other words, you might have 19 hikers refraining from feeding wildlife, but one comes along and breaks out the snacks. Once is all it takes to cause a problem,” he says.

Besides being banished to zoos or receiving capital punishment, there are other ways a well-intentioned gesture can harm a wild animal.

  • Young animals don’t learn how to forage naturally for food and frequently starve after the tourists go home. Even worse, adult animals conditioned to look for easy handouts teach their offspring the bad behavior.
  • Snack foods can adversely affect an animal’s physical condition and ability to reproduce.
  • Animals clustered around unnatural food depots can create a reservoir of disease.
  • Those lured to the roadside are targets for passing vehicles.

Part of your obligation involves preventing a problem before it starts, so here are a few things you can do:

  • Hang food at least 10 feet above the ground in containers (plastic or hard nylon) that can’t be penetrated by birds or rodents. Even if bears aren’t a problem where you’re going, raccoons, squirrels, and mice might be. Hang your food wherever you go.
  • Store food in the car trunk if you’re spending the night in a developed campground. Conditioned bears have been known to smash car windows to get at coolers.
  • Report feeding incidents to rangers.
  • Refuse to give in to temptation. Don’t be an indulgent host when a cute chipmunk comes calling.

The most meaningful gift we can bestow upon an animal is its space, so recognize the invisible boundaries that separate our values from those that are wild. The crumb you hold back now is an animal spared later.

Contributing Editor Todd Wilkinson lives in Bozeman, Montana.