I was having lunch with several wildlife managers during the 24th International Conference on Bear Research and Management, and asked them, “what is the one conservation message you want to get out to the public?” And I loved this response from Colleen Olfenbuttel (North Carolina’s bear and furbearer manager):
“Keep bears wild.”
There are several ways to keep bears (or more generally wildlife) wild. One of the biggest would be for communities to value habitat for wildlife. This is a tall order as developed parcels bring in taxes. And it’s not simply about having some habitat, it’s about having habitat either large enough or of high enough quality to support local wildlife. While citizens can talk to their elected representatives about their desire for habitat preservation, there are everyday ways to keep animals wild, a huge one being to not feed the wildlife.
What’s Wrong with Wildlife Feeding?
Wildlife feeding takes many different forms: throwing bread at ducks; maintaining a bird feeder full of seed, suet, or nectar; buying a handful of fish food to throw into a koi pond; baiting game species; or as a tourist activity. However, indirect feeding also occurs: leaving picnic scraps on the ground that ants can take away; animals that raid open compost bins; or rabbits that eat a perfect crop of chives from your garden. It’s easy to think that these types of feedings are innocuous, even helpful, for wildlife, but they have consequences. These consequences can include: rising body weight/obesity in wild animals; behavioral changes including decreased fear response; increased disease transmission; and overpopulation.
Bears are a wonderful example of why feeding wildlife is bad. It’s uncanny how many wildlife managers have a version of the following story. A house has a birdfeeder and a bear starts to visit it. The people in the house are ecstatic that they get to see a wild bear so close. At first it’s fun and they gather around the windows to watch. But eventually the bear comes to the house regularly. Not only that, the bear becomes more aggressive, even trying to break into the house or garage to find more food. So the homeowners call the wildlife agency and want the bear relocated. But by this point, the bear has low fear response to humans and knows that easy meals can be found at human houses. So if the state comes, they will more than likely euthanize. That’s why we always say, “a fed bear is a dead bear.” If the homeowners put away that birdfeeder and discouraged the bear from being near the house, the story doesn’t end so sad.
A new research paper (open) comparing mongooses that did and did not have access to food in a garbage dump found several interacting consequences of eating human foods. The researchers observed increased aggressive vocalizations in troops that ate in the garbage dump. The increased aggression led to fighting which broke the skin. This matters because after the skin broke, the risk of TB infection increased compared to individuals without broken skin (ie- not fighting). This research shows that this indirect wildlife feeding affects not only behavior but also disease rates.
Why Do We Keep Feeding Them?
Wild animals know how to find food, so feeding them is something we do for ourselves. This paper (sub) on wildlife feeding in a tourism context posits that as we become disconnected from nature, seeing wild animals helps us reconnect. And that by feeding them, we receive even more benefit because they must be in close proximity for that interaction to occur. The fields of urban ecology and urban evolution are beginning to tell us how wildlife feeding impacts individuals and populations, and will be exciting to watch in the future.
Wildlife feeding has one more affect important to me; it puts wildlife managers (my colleagues) in the unenviable position of being the no fun patrol. They must constantly tell the rest of us to not habituate the animals for both the health and safety of people and wildlife. This is clearly tiring and thankless work and I applaud them, as I couldn’t even work up the courage to tell my brother to stop feeding the squirrels in his neighborhood. But I’ll try harder in the future and use Colleen’s words: Keep Wildlife Wild.
Kind thanks to my labmate Liz Carlen for the beautiful wildlife photography. Check out more of her gorgeous photos on Instagram.