Opinion

The many dangers of feeding wildlife | Guest Column

Sure, they
Sure, they're cute. But resist the urge to feed them. A fed wild animal is a dead wild animal, according to Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
— image credit: Fox photo by Michael Cohen. Fawn and raccoon photos by Wolf Hollow staff

The many dangers of feeding wildlife

By SHONA AITKEN

“Oh, it is so cute! I’ve got to give it a cookie.”

It’s Baby Season. Deer fawns, fox kits, raccoon kits and other cute little wild babies are out there and people just can’t resist the temptation to feed them.

Some folks assume that a baby on its own must be hungry and they should “take care of it,” while others use food to tempt a youngster closer to get a good photo. Either way, it is not good news for the young wild animal.

I have heard people say, “I’m not doing any harm. I only gave it one cookie.” But that doesn’t take into account the person who offered the little creature potato chips half an hour earlier, and the family who will offer it peanut butter sandwiches that afternoon. Before you know it, the lesson has been repeated 20 times and the little animal has been taught a bad habit that could get it into serious trouble.

Examples of this on San Juan Island are Red Fox kits. There are several places where dens are in culverts or open areas close to roads, so the kits are visible to passers-by.

By this time of year, the kits are old enough to come out to play outside the entrance to the den. They should be playing with siblings, learning how to eat the mice and voles that Mom and Dad bring home for dinner, then, over the next few weeks, accompanying them to learn how to hunt. Instead, they discover that these funny-looking two-legged creatures will hand out all kinds of food and all you have to do is sit there and look cute — easy!

But what happens later when they are no longer cute little babies? A fox walks boldly up to someone expecting food. The people panic. The fox is being “aggressive.” They leap to the wrong conclusion that it must be starving or rabid! The end result is an animal that is labeled a pest and a danger to people and must be “got rid of.”

Even if this doesn’t happen, when summer comes to an end and there are fewer visitors around, the steady supply of tidbits disappears. This is the time of year when young foxes should be leaving their parents and moving out on their own, but how are they going to survive if they missed out on the important hunting lessons?

Feeding wildlife has its worst effect on young animals because they learn to rely on people for food rather than learning to forage on their own, but, regular feeding that encourages adult animals to come close to people can set them up for serious problems in the future too.

Here are some reasons why feeding wildlife can be harmful:

— Unnatural foods can lead to health problems.

— Feeding by people can be unreliable. They provide food daily for months, then go on vacation or move house — then what?

— Fed animals lose their wariness of people and are then blamed for being pests.

— Tame animals are easy targets for people who want to harm them.

— Overpopulation in one area — if animals are fed regularly and long term, youngsters may stay around rather than moving away to establish their own home territory.

The issue of feeding wildlife is anything but black and white. It is generally considered acceptable to put out feeders for songbirds, so why not feed deer or raccoons? The main question is, how will feeding change an animal’s behavior, particularly its interactions with people?

As an example, throwing windfall apples over the orchard fence for the deer a couple of times in fall is unlikely to cause problems, but encouraging a cute little yearling buck to come up and take apple slices from your fingers each morning is storing up all kinds of trouble. Imagine that buck a couple of years from now, fully grown, with a full set of antlers, demanding his apples NOW!

So do the cute little fox, raccoon and deer a big favor. DON’T GIVE IT A COOKIE!

— Shona Aitken is education coordinator for Wolf Hollow Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. Contact her at 378-5000, or saitken@wolfhollowwildlife.org.

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