Feeding wildlife can seem like an enjoyable way to connect with nature. After all, what harm could there be in offering a peanut to a squirrel or tossing a handful of bread to some ducks?
You might be surprised to learn the significant harm that it can cause. Wildlife feeding is always risky – it can lead to poor welfare and even death, and is a significant source of human-wildlife conflict. The BC SPCA is opposed to feeding wildlife, and you should be too!
Just what exactly happens when wild animals come to depend on human handouts? Three major risks from feeding wildlife:
1. It is unhealthy
However tasty, human foods are no substitute for the natural foods that wild animals have evolved to eat. Lots of animals may seem to enjoy eating sugar, salt and fat, just like we do, but eating human foods unbalances their diet and can even rot their teeth.
Because of all the packaging involved, animals who root through garbage are also at risk of ingesting plastic or glass accidentally, or becoming stuck inside jars or bottles, which can be deadly.
Have you ever seen people feeding ducks or other birds at a park? This type of feeding causes birds to suffer from malnutrition, bone deformation and even death. Throwing food into or near water sources also contributes to water pollution and environmental degradation.
Even with food that is “nutritionally appropriate”, feeding birds by hand causes conflicts with people. Food-conditioned birds may become aggressive towards people, become a nuisance or damage property when they gather in large numbers, and stray feed can attract rodents and other wildlife.
2. It spreads disease
Wild animals do not normally gather together in large groups. But when they are all attracted by food to the same spot, they can be found in unnatural numbers. This encourages disease spread not only between animals, but to us and our pets as well.
The crowding and competition also increase the chances of fighting and injury among animals.
In both 2021 and 2022, the BC SPCA asked the public to remove their bird feeders to help prevent deadly salmonella and avian influenza outbreaks. Although we all want to help our feathered friends, bird feeders do carry risks.
Wild ARC frequently cares for sick songbirds, who likely picked up an infection at a dirty bird feeder. Similarly, liquid hummingbird feeders can cause deadly fungal or bacteria infections if not cleaned thoroughly and regularly, or if the nectar is prepared improperly. Get the facts on backyard bird feeding, or learn how to make a naturally bird-friendly backyard.
3. It causes habituation
Normally, wild animals have a healthy fear of humans. They like to keep their distance, which is a good thing. This natural wariness keeps wild animals and people both safe. But when food is involved, animals are more willing to approach people and, over time, lose their natural wariness.
This can happen when people intentionally feed or leave out food for animals, or even unintentionally when people leave out items (like garbage and compost) that attract animals. It is illegal to feed animals like bears, coyotes, wolves and cougars, and it’s our responsibility to manage our waste to protect them. Learn more about co-existing with bears and other wildlife.
Being unafraid puts wildlife at risk of getting hurt or killed. They’re more susceptible to predators and vehicle collisions, and also gets them into trouble when people start to see them as a nuisance. “Problem animals” are much more likely to be killed.
When wild animals become habituated to us, people are also at risk. As food-seeking animals become bolder, they can begin breaking into vehicles or buildings, and threatening people with aggressive behaviour.
Unfortunately, this loss of fear has an impact beyond just the individual animal being fed. When mothers bring their babies to their favourite feeding spots, it can teach the young ones that humans are not to be feared. Growing up on human foods, they can also lose the ability to find food on their own in the wild.
The take-home message? More often than not, wild animals end up paying for our bad habits. For everyone’s health and safety, don’t feed the wildlife!
For more information and tips on managing food attractants, check out our handy “Don’t feed the animals!” (PDF) brochure.