Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of visiting Grand Canyon National Park for the fourth time (one of these years I’m going to do it properly and hike to the bottom of the damn thing). The park is full of sheer vertical cliffs, dangerous rapids, and mountain lions, and in summer is dangerously hot and dry. In the park gift stores they sell a book titled Death in the Grand Canyon. But you know what one of the most common injuries rangers have to deal with is?
Parks are often full of signs reminding people not to feed the wildlife, and the Grand Canyon is no exception; at one of the most popular overlooks we passed signs about keeping wildlife wild about every twenty feet along the path. So why do people do it anyway? And what’s so bad about feeding wild animals, anyway (other than the risk of squirrel-related injuries)?
In fact, feeding wild animals is bad for both the animals and the people who do it. Forget squirrel bites, I once watched a woman in Yellowstone Park encourage her young son to feed some grass to an enormous bull elk so she could take a picture, a situation that very easily could have ended with the boy gored to death. Animals can also pass diseases on to humans when they come into close contact.
Taking handouts often leads to suffering for the animals involved. Human food is often harmful to animals’ health, since their digestive systems aren’t adapted to it and it may not contain the nutrients they need to survive. Over time, animals who get fed lose their fear of humans, a process called “habituation,” which makes them increasingly dangerous to people and increasingly at risk of accidents such as being hit by cars. When this happens, rangers and wildlife managers sometimes try to relocate problem animals to backcountry areas where they’re less likely to encounter humans, but relocation is stressful and many relocated animals eventually die after failing to establish a new territory.
Of course, it’s important to note that not all wildlife feeding is harmful—there’s nothing particular terrible about backyard birdfeeders, as long as you clean them regularly and can live with the fact that hawks may use them as all-you-can-eat buffets.
Returning to our car at one Grand Canyon scenic viewpoint, my fiancé and I watched a man with a very large, very expensive camera (the conspicuous kind that you buy if you want everyone else to know how much you can afford to spend on a camera, my fiancé informed me) baiting ravens in the parking lot with pieces of bread, enticing them to come closer and pose for photographs. This after presumably having walked past multiple “please don’t feed the animals” signs over the course of his day. Don’t be that guy, okay?
· Four Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife, from the Humane Society
· Don’t Feed Wildlife, from USDA-APHIS
· Keep Wildlife Wild, from Grand Canyon National Park
· Keep the “Wild” in Wildlife: Don’t Touch or Feed, from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service