by Whit Gibbons

June 7, 2009

I recently received the following questions about people interacting with wildlife.

Q. Is it safe and also legal to feed wild animals? I know people who feed squirrels and pigeons in parks, have bird feeders in their backyards, or throw food to chipmunks around picnic tables at a state park. But what about deer or bears? Are there any restrictions on feeding these or other animals?

A. The answer to your general question about whether it is advisable or legal to feed wildlife all depends on the species. It is against the law to feed wild dolphins, alligators, and species on the federal endangered species list. On the other hand, feeding birds, squirrels, and chipmunks is fine, under most circumstances; lots of people do so, usually without adversely affecting themselves or the animals. As for deer, which are game species, the rules may vary from state to state or even within a state. In the southern part of South Carolina, for example, it is legal to put out corn or other "bait" for deer, but it's against the law in some upstate areas. Quite aside from any legal aspects, feeding a black bear with sharp teeth and big claws is not a good idea, no matter how cute and cuddly it appears to be.

Q. We feed the turtles in our lake almost every day during warm weather. When we begin our walk down to the water, they start appearing on the surface and swimming toward us. How do they sense us? By sound, sight, smell? A few will actually come onto land to pick up the food. Do you think some of the turtles coming up to feed now are the same ones from last year? Would they remember this? Are we under any risk by interacting with the turtles? Are we harming them in any way? What type of turtles are they [a photograph was attached]?

A. The turtles are common slider turtles that probably know you are coming by ground vibrations transmitted into the water as you walk toward the lake, and by sight. The principle is the same as Pavlov's dog that salivated when Pavlov rang the bell before feeding time. The turtles have associated your presence with food. Their sense of smell is not likely to alert them to your presence unless the food is already in the water.

Some wildlife enthusiasts would disagree, but in my opinion feeding turtles and fish in lakes is generally not a problem for the turtles and fish, or for other wildlife. Turtles can go for weeks or even months without eating, so such food would only be a supplement to their natural diet and would not result in a dependency on their being fed. Also, no turtle is likely to suffer from a health standpoint because of supplemental feeding as is sometimes true with wild mammals that are overfed. Feeding turtles around a lake provides an opportunity to observe them and appreciate them without negative consequences to the animals themselves or to the people doing the feeding.

Research at the Savannah River Ecology Lab has documented that yellow-bellied slider turtles live more than 30 years in the wild, and some probably live 40 maybe even 50 years or more. Some of the turtles you fed in previous years would definitely still be alive and would remember earlier feedings. So the ones that come to be fed probably do include many of the same individuals from last year. Others will join in as they discover the opportunity for a free meal.

Slider turtles living in a lake will not hurt you at all unless you pick one up and let it bite you. In contrast to alligators, no turtle in a wild setting is likely to become a threat to humans because it is fed on a regular basis. Many of the perceived problems with "nuisance alligators" are caused by people having fed them when they were small so that they lost their fear of humans. A 10-foot alligator that approaches shore for a handout every time it spies a human is quite different from a slider turtle accustomed to food offerings. Turtles are not going to become a dangerous nuisance.

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