By Heather W. Barron, DVM, DABVP
Hospital Director, CROW
If you are feeding wild animals, you may be killing them with kindness. There are many reasons not to feed wildlife, including some that may affect your own health! At the Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW), we frequently see wildlife casualties that have gotten into trouble scavenging for handouts from well-meaning nature lovers. Here are some things you may want to consider before you offer Mother Nature’s children any tidbits.
Feeding animals can interrupt normal behaviors, such as breeding, migration, and fear of humans. Wild animals that readily approach humans may be a danger to themselves and to people. At the very least, they may become nuisance animals. “Nuisance” wildlife are wild animals that cause (or are about to cause) property damage or present a threat to humans. You’ve heard the catch phrase, “A Fed Gator is a Dead Gator”, and this applies to many other species as well. Providing an artificial food source may encourage a myriad of wild creatures, some of which may damage your property or become unwelcome “houseguests”, to move into your neighborhood. Control of nuisance wildlife costs the state of Florida and private property owners millions of dollars a year.
The additional food that humans provide can lead some species to procreate in higher numbers to what the habitat’s equilibrium would normally allow. This leads to overpopulation, which in turn can lead to instances of starvation when the artificial food supply stops, or epidemics of disease as populations of animals expand. Some of the worst diseases affecting and killing songbirds are contracted at birdbaths or feeders set up in residential yards by bird lovers!
Additionally, humans often offer wildlife inappropriate food items leading to malnutrition, obstruction of the gut, dysbiosis (overgrowth of bad bacteria in the gut, which can lead to diarrhea and death), and other problems affecting the health of the animal.
CROW is participating in a study with researchers at the University of Georgia to find out how being fed by humans is changing the health, ecology and behavior of white ibises in south Florida.
“The birds normally feed on aquatic animals like fish, snails and crayfish, but they are now becoming accustomed in many places to human food,” said Sonia Hernandez, an associate professor with joint appointments in UGA's Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources and College of Veterinary Medicine.
This shift in feeding behavior could have serious consequences not just for the white ibises, she said, but also to people.
"In a previous study, and using molecular typing methods, we found that the strains of salmonella bacteria that white ibises are infected with are the same that some people get sick from, particularly in Florida," Hernandez said. "Because white ibises move from urban to natural environments readily, they might be responsible for moving these strains around over large distances."
So, do yourself and your wild neighbors a favor and keep those donuts and other delicacies out of their diet. Not only is it bad for them and you, but it may also be illegal! There are many local and federal ordinances that make providing handouts for wild animals an offense, often punishable by large fines and even jail time.
If you have questions about appropriate diets for wildlife or if you see an animal that you think is in trouble, please call us at CROW at 239-472-3644.