by Whit Gibbons

March 20, 2016

I receive the following kinds of questions each spring when people begin to have more interactions with wildlife.

Q: Backyard bird feeders are all over the place, so clearly it's OK to feed birds even though technically they are wild animals. People also feed squirrels and pigeons in parks or throw food to chipmunks around picnic tables.

Is it illegal to feed other wild animals like deer or bears? What about the turtles and ducks in our city park lake? I can understand exercising caution for safety reasons in some situations. But what is acceptable and what is not?

A: The answer to your general question about whether it is advisable or legal to feed wildlife depends on the species, the location and who's making the rules. It is against the law to feed wild dolphins and alligators anywhere.

Species on the federal endangered species list or in national parks are also off-limits. As for deer and other game species, the rules vary from state to state.

Quite aside from any legal aspects, feeding a bear with sharp teeth and big claws is not a good idea, no matter how cute and cuddly it appears to be. Feeding raccoons can often lead to their becoming a nuisance.

The National Park Service says, "Feeding wild animals disrupts their lives, and is dangerous for people. When animals become used to being fed, they become habituated and no longer act naturally."

I view that as somewhat of an overstatement and too restrictive because clearly backyard birds do not qualify. Why the statement does not apply to these animals is a question for the NPS. But I agree that we want to see truly wild animals in a national park.

Observing animals in the wild that are waiting to be fed might make your wildlife adventure more akin to a visit to the zoo.

So, feeding some animals under some circumstances is fine, lots of people do so, usually without adversely affecting themselves or the animals.

With U.S. game species the rules vary. In some places it is legal to put out corn or other "bait" to attract deer, but it's against the law in others. What is legal and what is not varies across the country. Many of the laws governing such activities are geared to the lowest common denominator of how people behave and are not about the animals themselves.

In my opinion, feeding turtles, ducks and fish in public lakes is generally not a problem for the turtles, ducks or fish, although I feel certain some wildlife enthusiasts would disagree.

The turtles would most likely be painted turtles, slider turtles or possibly soft-shell turtles. They readily learn to come near shore for a handout.

The animals probably know you are coming by ground vibrations transmitted into the water as you walk toward the lake or by sight.

The principle is the same as Pavlov's dog that salivated when Pavlov rang the bell before feeding time. Turtles, ducks and fish are not dumb in their own worlds, and they associate the presence of people with food.

Turtles in particular 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 reliance on their being fed. No turtle is likely to suffer from a health standpoint because of supplemental feeding as is sometimes true with wild mammals that are overfed and develop a dependency.

Feeding aquatic animals 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. And none of the animals are likely to become a dangerous nuisance.

Check out the regulations about feeding whatever wild animals you expect to encounter. If you stay within the legal guidelines and add a dose of common sense, feeding wild animals can often be a gratifying experience.

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