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Don't Feed the Animals

A good intention, but a dangerous habit

Bears in a dumpster are more than a cute sculpture. "A dumpster bear is usually a dead bear," says Snowshoe Mountain, WV president Bill Rock. At snowshoe, bears don't hibernate normally due to availability of food year round.

A woman walking her dog in North Hills, WV last year was attacked by a doe whose fawn was nearby. In July, the mayor of North Hills expressed concern at a city council meeting that deer attacks could stem from residents feeding ducks and inadvertently attracting deer, bringing them into close proximity with people. As this anecdote shows, it may be a kind gesture to feed wild animals, but it often does more harm than good for animals and humans alike.

“There is a general rule, and that is don’t feed them,” says Jeff McCrady, a wildlife biologist with the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “The problem is it causes them to be dependent on the food, and they lose their fear of man and wildness, and they aren’t truly a wild animal anymore like they should be.”

There are several reasons why you should admire animals from afar rather than intervene with nature:

Basic instinct. Animals have natural tendencies when it comes to hunting and gathering food that are upset when you give them food that isn’t natural to their environment, their diet or that they didn’t have to search for themselves.

“It concentrates animals where it makes them more susceptible to predation and disease outbreaks,” Jeff says. A higher concentration of animals also leads to an unsanitary concentration of feces.

Delaying migration. For some animals, the lack of availability of certain foods is a signal that it’s time to migrate. Hummingbirds, for example, usually go south when they can’t get nectar from blooming flowers, Jeff says. But when you put up a sugar feeder for hummingbirds, it sends a mixed signal that can keep them from migrating.

It’s the law. In West Virginia and Kentucky, it’s illegal to feed bears – a law meant to keep a dangerously large animal from losing its fear of people. It’s a practice highly discouraged elsewhere. It’s also common for state parks to prohibit visitors from feeding animals. Fines in our region for feeding wild animals range from $50-$300.

Overstaying their welcome. Animals won’t distinguish food you want to give them from food you want to keep for yourself. If you want to have a garden in warmer seasons, it isn’t advantageous to feed animals because they will return for food and instead eat your garden, says Mike Hornbach, an agricultural and natural resources extension educator with Purdue University (IN) Extension.

Scarcity is reality. The idea of an animal starving and not making it through the winter isn’t pleasant, but it also isn’t a reason to feed animals during this season. “Winter comes every year and food gets scarce every year, and that’s part of the natural scheme of things,” Jeff says. “It sounds hard, but all of the animals that are born in the springtime are just not supposed to survive all year.”