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May 7, 2013

Four Reasons Not to Feed Wildlife

Feeding wild animals, whether on purpose or not, does more harm than good

  • This swan, a patient at our Cape Wildlife Center, developed a deformity called "angel wing," a result of a diet high in bread or other "people foods." Deborah Millman/The HSUS

  • Hand-fed wild animals lose their fear of humans. It's OK to feed squirrels if you'd like, but do so from a feeder—never by hand. Christiaan Arthur Hemerik

  • The scent of human food, even in a garbage bag, can lure raccoons, skunks, and other wildlife. Keep trash cans securely covered. iStockphoto

  • Even daytime feeding of pets outdoors can attract hungry wildlife. It's best to feed your pets inside. iStockphoto

We know they're cute and they might seem hungry, but feeding most wild animals (with a few exceptions) just isn't a good idea. Here's why.

1. “People” food isn’t good for animals. Human foods aren't nutritious enough for animals and may cause serious health problems. A deformity called "angel wing" is commonly found in ducks, geese, swans and other waterfowl who are fed white bread, popcorn, crackers, or other people food. (This doesn’t mean you can't feed ducks and geese; you just have to identify areas where feeding waterfowl is supported, and offer the birds the right foods. Look for waterfowl feed or duck pellets at feed stores. Other healthy foods include seedless grapes cut in half, shredded kale, Swiss chard or romaine lettuce, and grains, including wheat, barley and oats. Make sure anything you feed is bite-sized to avoid choking hazards.)

2. It makes wild animals lose their natural fear of people. Feeding can make large, potentially dangerous animals become too comfortable in residential or recreational areas. Once animals learn they can panhandle for food, they can become a nuisance—or even worse, a safety risk.

3. Feeding wildlife from or near vehicles is dangerous to animals, people, and property. Animals can be hit by moving vehicles or might try to enter vehicles in search of food. In Yosemite National Park in 1998, more than 1,100 vehicles were broken into by black bears—causing more than $630,000 in damages.

4. Wild animals who depend on people for food can cause injuries or spread disease. When wild animals gather for food handouts, it can cause crowding and competition. These unnatural conditions increase the chances of fighting and injury among animals. It can also increase the spread of diseases, some of which may be transmitted to pets and humans.

So what can you do for wildlife?

Stop the unintentional food supply:

  • Rinse all recyclable glass and plastic containers to remove any food remnants and odors. Some animals, like skunks, can get their heads stuck in containers and wind up starving to death. Cut and/or crush plastic containers, and cut each ring of plastic six-pack carriers.
  • Feed your pets inside.
  • Make sure plastic food wrap is rinsed and secured in a tied bag or securely covered garbage can.
  • When visiting parks and similar settings, clean up after yourself and follow the rules regarding wildlife. Encourage others to do the same.

Learn when to step in. If you see an animal who you think may be injured or orphaned, make sure the animal truly needs your help before feeding the animal anything or attempting a "rescue."

Feed backyard birds (and squirrels, if you want). We oppose feeding wildlife when it might cause problems, but feeding birds and squirrels is generally harmless. Don’t feed them by hand, though—set up a feeder where you can watch them from a distance. Get our tips on backyard bird feeding »

Provide some natural food sources. Plant some native bushes, trees, or flowers and put up a birdbath or other water feature for your local wildlife. You'll be on your way to creating a humane backyard.

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