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