Feeding the Local Critters: Does it Help or Hinder?
An Animal Rights Article from All-Creatures.org


National Humane Education Society (NHES)
March 2010

During a recent NHES educational program with fourth grade students, the children were challenged to devise humane solutions to potential animal cruelty/neglect situations. In one scenario, students contemplated what to do about “that annoying squirrel who will just not leave you alone while you try to enjoy your lunch at the local park.” Inevitably, one well-intentioned student suggested a good resolution would be to share our lunch with the wild animal. We’re happy and so is the animal. Perhaps, yes, the squirrel would be satisfied with that kernel of popcorn, slice of onion, or chunk of orange. And arguably, it’s not unkind to share our food—yet—is it in the squirrel’s best interest? We could try asking him, but he’ll be too busy stuffing his mouth.

Not feeding wildlife in state and national parks, natural areas and refuges, and other non-developed wild lands is obvious wisdom to most adults for both our own safety and the well-being of the animals; but, when it comes to feeding wildlife in our backyard or at the local city park, we tend to be less restrained. From throwing a little bread to the ducks and geese to offering corn cobs to the squirrels and apple blocks to the deer, we find many ways to share food wealth with our wild friends.

But as these things tend to be, it’s a slippery slope when we arbitrarily decide who should and should not get the resources, and unfortunately this mixed message does little to help children understand responsible stewardship when it comes to wildlife. To say the least, it pits the wildlife welcome mat against the “let nature be” philosophy, and has very real consequences for good and bad for everyone involved (even plants).

Even if we are not scientific or philosophical experts on the subject of feeding native animals, most of us can choose a responsible course of action simply by asking a few important questions before we decide to offer up some tasty kindness:

  • What potential health hazards and other problems does offering food, even unprocessed items such as apples, pose to wildlife if it is not a part of the animal’s natural diet?
  • How does feeding wildlife disrupt natural migratory, foraging or hunting behaviors, and in turn disrupt natural habitat and ecosystem balances?
  • Does feeding wildlife, even in moderation, encourage a form of dependence and semi-domestication? Is it more about how the animals are fed or how much they are fed?
  • What potential impact does providing certain foods have on the local environment? For instance, if feeding birds seeds from another part of the planet, what impact does the spread of these seeds through bird droppings have on the native habitat?

It is a seemingly small, but crucial challenge before us when we put food out for wildlife: how do we strike a humane, responsible balance in our interactions? How do we encourage embracing native animals, while also ensuring they remain as wild as possible?

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