You’ve probably seen the signs on hiking trails or heard the cautions from park rangers: don’t feed the animals. There’s a reason these warning are so prevalent. Whether you’re intentionally throwing bread to ducks, or accidentally letting the raccoons get into your garbage can, feeding wild animals does far more harm than good.
Here’s why human handouts are a bad idea:
An artificial food supply can encourage animals to produce larger families. If that artificial supply disappears, natural sources may not be able to support a larger population, leading to starvation and disease. A population imbalance affects not just a single species, but a whole ecosystem, leading to unintended environmental consequences.
In nature, food sources tend to be spread over a large area, reducing the number of animals in any one spot. Concentrating many animals in one area around a single food source—like urban pests at a garbage dump, for example—is a perfect way to spread diseases that might not otherwise be problematic. As well, large numbers of animals crammed into one space can cause damage to natural habitat and human spaces.
While many animals will happily eat human food, it may not be the right food for their needs, resulting in malnourishment, throat obstructions, malformed bones and muscles, and mouth injuries. For example, a deformity called “angel wing” is often seen in ducks and geese who are regularly fed white bread, popcorn, or crackers. An ongoing diet of human food can be fatal to animals, especially young ones, who require specific nutrients as they grow and develop.
Populations that may not otherwise compete for food may end up interacting in harmful ways. As well, young don’t learn to forage effectively if they’re eating handouts from humans.
Teaching our four-legged friends to associate humans with food is a surefire way to create “nuisance” animals, who may become aggressive and need to be dealt with harshly to reduce their harmful impact on humans. Nuisance bear complaints have tripled in Ontario—some of which have resulted in bears being shot and killed. When animals are fed, animals lose.
Wild animals, no matter how fascinating, are still wild animals—and feeding them can result in humans getting hurt when a furry friend doesn’t realize where the food stops and your fingers begin. Keeping a respectful distance is the only way to make sure you don’t get injured—or worse.
Loss of natural fear
Animals who become used to humans—especially when they’re fed by hand—lose their natural fear, making them easy targets. It can also cause problems when “tame” behaviour is seen by humans as aggressive, problematic, or threatening.
So what can you do?
One of the easiest things is to make sure you’re not unintentionally laying out a wildlife feast in your backyard. Feed your pets inside and make sure your garbage cans are securely fastened (some municipalities have incorporated wildlife proofing into their green bin designs). Rinse out food containers and plastic wrap to reduce tempting smells. And if you’re visiting a park, make sure to thoroughly clean up after yourself and dispose of or pack out any food that’s left over. You’ll be doing the wildlife a huge favour in the long run.