Humans have been feeding animals since the beginning of our history – sometimes with the best of intentions, other times more sinister. And for about as long, the debate has raged over what is best for them and us. New York City’s plan to ban the feeding of squirrels and pigeons in city parks may seem heartless, but it’s what is best for the animals.
It’s a lovely instinct to want to put out food for wildlife. Typically, it is people interested in attracting or potentially helping wildlife for various reasons: conservationists provide supplemental feeding during lean months and rescuers bait injured wildlife in order to get close enough to save the animal’s life. In limited and exceptional circumstances, proper nutritional assistance can be of benefit to individual animals.
That’s not the situation in New York City’s parks.
There’s a wide variety of negative impacts that can occur as a result of haphazardly feeding wildlife from A (aggression) to Z (zoonotic diseases).
First, there’s the problem that the animals may become dependent on human feeding with the result that it adversely affects the foraging behavior of the animals, causing them to become less active, deterring them from seeking out more natural foods. Instead of hunting for nuts, seeds and insects, our city’s wildlife treat overflowing trash cans as we would a grocery store. Often unable to distinguish food from other trash, wildlife can become sick or eat foil and plastic that they cannot digest, filling their stomachs, but providing them no nutrition and causing starvation.
Wild animals have specialized diets and they can become malnourished or die if fed human food containing ingredients that are toxic to them or lack the nutrients they need. Urban wildlife who are fed a diet of moldy bread, potato chips, French fries and ice cream will suffer from serious vitamin deficiencies, reduced immunity and increase susceptibility to infection.
Supplemental feeding can result in an increase in intraspecies aggression. Animals may attack one another in a rush to obtain human food. Squirrels fed by humans can lose their fear of people and become increasingly vulnerable to human interactions. Not everyone is kind to uninvited guests at the family picnic. This interaction also brings them closer to human areas including motor vehicle traffic. Anyone walking the loop of Central Park will likely encounter at least one animal lying lifelessly on the edge of the path.
Wildlife feeding disturbs healthy ecosystems and skews the balance between wildlife populations and their habitat. This can have adverse consequences for bird populations, such as increased risk of predation and potential changes in evolutionary trajectories. It’s also widely noted that the dumping of large amounts of food in the city’s parks invites rodents and other unintended beneficiaries such as raccoons.
It’s not only non-human animals who can suffer through feeding interactions. The potential for disease transmission is of concern as emerging infectious diseases are commonly introduced to human populations through interaction with wildlife species. There are thought to be around 60 diseases carried by birds and their dropping. Most birds are also carriers of ectoparasites, which can infest structures and bite humans, spreading viral infections.
Supplemental feeding of wildlife is a complex and controversial issue that lies at the heart of humanity’s conflict with nature in our ever-expanding urban areas. It’s somewhat counter-intuitive to suggest that, in order to help the park’s wildlife, we must resist the urge to feed them, but we’re not currently doing them any favors by continuing to do so.
All too often it’s the people with the best intentions who are the ones who inadvertently contribute to the suffering of animals.
Enjoy viewing wildlife at a safe distance. Respect their space and remember they are wild animals that should be left alone.
Let’s keep wild animals wild.
As Programs Director for World Animal Protection Ben Williamson oversees all campaign activities including wildlife, exotic pets and farming. Follow World Animal Protection @MoveTheWorldUS.
Read a different viewpoint:
Stop the Parks Dept.’s Proposed Ban on Animal Feeding
5 thoughts on “Opinion: The Ban on Feeding Animals in City Parks is Smart Policy”
While I agree with your ecological assessment, I think you ignore the sociological fabric. For some New Yorkers feeding the birds or squirrels is an exit from the isolation of their homes and helps them form community. I don’t think that should be penalized. New York City parks are full of banned activities—why ban another that will likely affect some of the most vulnerable New Yorkers?
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Feeding seed to birds is good; unfortunately, most people feed scraps of bread to birds, which is not healthy for them and can even be dangerous. Feeding bread and cornflakes to birds also attracts rats; the only problem I see with that is that when the rat population explodes, the city will respond by putting out poison, which is likely to contaminate the water supply.
And the squirrels are so tame they’ll eat from your hand; a potential problem with that is getting bitten; a squirrel bit me once, but fortunately wasn’t rabid.
This is so wrong. The birds and squirrels of NYC have lived here for generations and are not fully “wild” the way other wild animals are. For animals in parks human feedings are how they get food. There are not enough nut trees and berry bushes to feed them. Remember the carrier pigeon used to be millions across america and are now extinct. And the science about bread feeding being harmful is wrong. It has not been proven to cause angel wings. Bread feeding bans in UK had to be reversed when swans started dying of starvation and people were asked to start feeding them bread again. The rat problem is increasing because the city is allowing whole parks to be filled with vendors and tables from nearby restaurant associations. Human garbage is feeding the rats. How about we increase parks sanitation budget and cut back on cafe tables and vendors in parks? City people have little opportunity to see wild animals. And for someone who claims to be an expert on animal protection to spread conspiracy theories about animal diseases..it is rare to catch diseases from wild birds and squirrels.is just wrong. Wonder who he really works for. Restaurant associations who are setting up all those tables filling our parks???
Apparently, the goal is to empty city parks of what little wildlife still remains.
Shame on the author for writing this tripe.
He has obviously never witnessed city ducks or geese starving on iced-over watercourses in winter.
Starvation is a horrible way to die.