How to keep wildlife encounters safe for humans and animals

A bull moose crosses the road Photo by Michael Sarauer/Shutterstock

Getting an up-close perspective on wildlife is part of the wonder of being outdoors, but those encounters can too easily turn tragic, as recent events at Lake Champlain in Vermont demonstrated last week.

After swimming across the lake, a moose was forced back into the water after being spooked by a crowd of photo-hungry tourists. Exhausted after its long swim, the moose drowned — an easily avoidable tragedy.

Small disturbances by humans can add up to large negative effects on an individual animal and its entire species,” says Lisa Leuty, a communications officer with the Saskatchewan South Field Unit of Parks Canada, which operates out of Grasslands National Park. “Maintaining healthy boundaries between people and wildlife results in improved safety for both visitors [to the park] and wildlife.”

Leuty points out that interference with wildlife can result in a wide range of unhealthy animal behaviours, including failing to breed and reproduce, abandoning a nest or den, neglecting young, wasting energy by running away, and becoming distracted and therefore more vulnerable to predators.

Here’s what to remember to keep your own wildlife encounters safe for all involved.

Don’t feed the animals

You aren’t doing a wild animal any favours by feeding it and you could be giving it a death sentence. When small animals (think chipmunks or squirrels) become accustomed to getting handouts from humans, they attract larger predators who could threaten public safety or become nuisance animals themselves.

“It’s easier to educate people than manage habituated wildlife,” Leuty explains. “This is a shared responsibility and we all have a responsibility to keep wildlife wild.”

In fact, feeding wild animals is illegal in Canada’s national parks (as well as in many other areas) precisely because it can be dangerous for humans and animals alike.

Don’t sacrifice safety for a selfie

Yes, you want that perfect ‘Gram-worthy shot — pics or it didn’t happen, after all — but too many people endanger themselves or the animals around them just to snap a selfie. Tourists in Grasslands National Park are no exception.

In the age of cell phones and taking selfies, some visitors have been observed getting too close to bison in the park, and turning their backs to the animals in order to get a better photo,” says Leuty. “We recommend people give bison their space and stay at least 100 meters away as bison can be unpredictable and can move quickly.”

Approaching, pursuing or startling an animal to get a reaction is also a bad idea, she explains. It’s better to get a photo of an animal doing what it does naturally than artificially trying to set up a National Geographic-style action shot.      

Finally, don’t pose people (especially children) or pets with wildlife. Leuty says she and her colleagues have seen people get within five metres of an animal, well closer than recommended viewing distances,  and were put at risk when the animal got agitated and started to act defensively.

Remember that all wild animals are wild and can act unpredictably

Just because an animal won’t actually eat you doesn’t mean they’re harmless. Even seemingly docile animals — like deer and bighorn sheep — can be aggressive when feeling threatened, especially if they have young close by.

To stay safe, read up on wildlife that you’re likely to encounter, and know how to react to them accordingly.

Be cautious when driving as well. Never stop your car somewhere unsafe just to look at wildlife, and drive slowly in areas where there are likely to be animals crossing the road or visible on the sides.

Practice smart — and safe — animal viewing

To make the most of wildlife viewing opportunities, Leuty has the following suggestions:

  • Try to blend into the landscape. Sit down and remain still, use vegetation or boulders to break up your outlines, and dress in earth-coloured tones.
  • Walk quietly and slowly, and stay low to the ground.
  • Drive slowly. Don’t honk your horn if you encounter wildlife along the road.
  • Use your vehicle as a “blind” when viewing animals from the road — and make sure you’re stopped somewhere safe.
  • Leave your pets at home or keep them on a short leash. They can disturb nests or burrows and endanger wildlife.
  • Using appropriate photography equipment to get that great photograph. A telephoto lens (300-400mm) can provide you with great photos of an animal in its natural surroundings from a safe distance.

“Canada’s national parks are gateways to nature, adventure and discovery,” says Leuty. “The chance to observe wildlife as they go about their natural lives is one of the most fascinating experiences that Canada’s national parks offer. Along with this opportunity, however, comes the responsibility to treat wildlife with the respect they deserve and need.”

Good advice, whether you’re visiting a national park or simply relaxing at the cottage.  

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