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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Aug 2, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelI know how much fun feeding wildlife can be. I fed my share of squirrels when I was a little kid. But feeding wildlife is dead wrong. It could be deadly for you and for the little creatures you’re feeding.

I know they are cute. And they might be begging you for food because they’ve done it before, and it’s an easy meal from suckers like you. But you’re not doing them any favors.

Our wild animals are in big trouble. Why? People. People feed wildlife and get them accustomed to depending on the handouts, and then they cannot fend for themselves.

Sometimes animals venture into campgrounds. Sometimes they are relocated, and sometimes they are just killed. Once an animal develops a taste for human food, they are addicted. They can even threaten or kill humans. Most likely, they will die, as well.

So you think that peanut is harmless? Imagine a squirrel in a national park that is fed peanuts by visitors all summer. When summer and fall come to an end and all of the visitors depart, that squirrel will probably die. He doesn’t have a winter stash, and he doesn’t know how to find food himself. He becomes dependent upon those handouts. When you change an animal’s natural behavior, it can be disastrous.

donotfeedNot only can squirrels carry the plague, but they can carry rabies and Hantavirus. too. That’s right: In our very own Angeles National Forest, there are almost always summer indications of the Black Death. Some counties in California have Hantavirus. And you can find rabies everywhere. A teen in Colorado just died from the Black Plague last month. His doctor sent him home thinking it was a case of the flu.

If the wildlife biologists have detected the plague in their trapped animals, they will post signs. So DO look for signs when you get to a trailhead to hike.

The most notorious area locally is Switzer Falls. Don’t hike in an area like this where a sign is posted. You need not even feed a rodent to get the plague. If a flea jumps on you that has previously fed upon an infected rodent, you can get it from a simple little flea bite.

feedbirdPeople food isn’t good for the animals. It is not nutritious enough for them to sustain maximum health. If you’re feeding waterfowl white bread, for instance, it can cause deformities. (This is a clue for you and your health, too – eat the whole grain stuff.) Some urban areas will offer duck pellets or waterfowl feed, which is perfectly nutritious for these birds.

Feeding wild animals makes them lose their fear of people. This is dangerous for their safety. It was common is the past for visitors to certain national parks to feed the bears. They even had a spot for people to pile up their leftover food and encourage the bears to come in. Soon the bears learned that people meant food, and they became aggressive, even breaking into vehicles to get food.

feedbearThe national parks now manage this issue in a much better, bear-friendly way. People use bear canisters in the wild areas, and in campgrounds, in most cases, secure bear boxes are provided for visitors.

If you’re camping in bear territory, make sure you use these food-safe devices, and don’t have any food or smelly personal items such as toothpaste in your tent. Also, clean up after yourself when you cook a meal in the wild. You don’t want to invite a bear to dinner, too. You don’t want to be chased by one, either. Feeding wildlife can lead to aggressive animals. Bears will sometimes charge you to get you out of the way so they can steal your meal.

If you’re cooking outdoors, make sure to clean up immediately afterward, even if you’re not in bear territory. One helpful thing to think about is the possibility that animals could stick their heads inside a cup, glass or bottle, and that item could stick onto their heads. If this happens, the animal will starve.

Feeding wildlife can also habituate them close to urban areas. This can lead to all kinds of trouble in your neighborhood. For instance, perhaps you feel sorry for those skinny coyotes in the hills above your house, and you start leaving food scraps or even cans of dog food out for them. They become dependent upon this food source, and they start roaming the neighborhood for small dogs and cats that are left out overnight. Neighbors complain because they are losing their pets. The coyotes are shot or trapped and euthanized.

feedwolfOften an animal cannot tell the difference between the food and the wrapper it comes in. If they eat the wrappers, they can die or get sick. When you’re camping, make sure to secure your trash at night to prevent things like this from happening.

Another concern is that animals will produce young at a higher rate if they have a constant food source to sustain them. If that food is from humans, we will see an overpopulation of a specific species and all of the problems that comes with it – invasion of home gardens, bears breaking into cabins and cars, and animals negatively interacting with humans.

When I was in Florida, I took an Everglades tour. The guide was feeding an alligator a big hunk of chicken for the tourists. This was his job, and he had done it for several months. But this time, the alligator lept just a little further out of the water, and the man lost his hand. (Don’t try this at home.)

About the only place it is safe to feed wild animals is at zoos, petting zoos, and other wildlife-related parks where the staff will provide you with appropriate foods and the animals are guaranteed safe to be around.

So, be kind to the animals by NOT feeding them.


Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.


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  1. People food isn’t even that nutritious for humans, much less animals. But I don’t know if you can stop people from feeding animals. But good try!

  2. JohnM says:

    There are several factual errors in this article. First, squirrels don’t give people Hantavirus; deer mice and a couple species of rats are the only competent vectors of the disease. Second, squirrels have never been known to give rabies to a human–rodents just aren’t good carriers. Third, it’s bubonic plague, not black plague.

    • SCVNews.com says:

      The Black Death was the bubonic plague that wiped out a quarter of Europe’s population in the 1300s.

  3. Diane S says:

    We have a neighbor whom we call “The Snake Lady” Why? She insists on broadcasting bird food in her back yard which attracts rodents and the snakes frequent her yard for the rodents! Then she cries for someone to come & kill the snakes!

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