It’s hard to walk through a park without seeing some kindly soul out feeding the local wildlife. The peanuts come out for the squirrels and the bag of bread for the geese and ducks. Feeding wild animals generally stems from a desire to help, from a feeling of goodwill towards these creatures, and a hope that a little assistance from their human neighbours can make the animals’ lives a little easier.
But feeding these creatures is often not as positive a move as one would hope or expect. In fact, in many cases, providing food for wildlife can be very detrimental. Unbeknownst to those dedicated folks out in the park on a cold winter’s day, the food they are offering to their furred and feathered neighbours can be a significant cause of malnutrition, disease, and unanticipated human-wildlife conflicts.
While it’s hard to imagine how providing extra food for wild animals can lead to malnutrition, the problem is a real one. Many wild animals are opportunists, filling up on whatever food is most readily available. When the easiest-to-come-by food is something like peanuts or bread, the problem becomes that the animals satisfy their caloric needs without meeting their nutritional requirements. Having filled up on the equivalent of junk food, the animals’ desire to seek out natural, wild, and nutritionally appropriate foods is diminished. Feeding wildlife can therefore lead to nutrient deficiency and can, in some cases, cause serious health problems.
In addition to contributing to malnutrition, feeding wildlife can lead to the spread of disease. Providing large amounts of food in a single location encourages many individuals to congregate in one area, even individuals of species that would not normally be found together. The result is a two-fold problem. Firstly, congregation of many individuals in one spot leads to unnaturally high levels of accumulated animal waste, an ideal breeding ground for a variety of diseases. Secondly, close contact between a large number of animals increases the likelihood of disease transmission from one or a few ill individuals to whole populations or subpopulations.
A further negative impact associated with feeding wildlife is the resulting loss of wild animals’ natural fear of humans. Such fear is of essential survival value for wildlife, and its loss can lead to very real human-wildlife conflict. Take, for example, a raccoon accustomed to being fed by a local community member that approaches a young family in broad daylight. The animal is, of course, only continuing the behaviour that has proved so successful in food procurement. However, to the parent of this family, the animal’s behaviour seems unusual and frightening, possibly an indication of rabies. In reported cases like this, the animal is often considered a potentially dangerous nuisance; the all-too-common outcome for wildlife in this scenario is euthanasia.
Learning that feeding wildlife can cause more harm than good may come as a sad surprise for those who enjoy the thought of lending a helping hand to our wild friends. However, many other options exist for assisting wild animals, options that allow these creatures to remain wild, healthy and independent. These options include landscaping our homes and public spaces with native plants that provide food and habitat for wildlife, helping to conserve and maintain natural areas in and around our communities, providing nesting platforms and den boxes for wild animals, and learning more about the issues wildlife face and what we can do to help. These actions are all important ways to provide real, long-lasting help for our wild neighbours.