Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Don’t feed the wildlife!

geese at ps

One of the sessions I went to at AR07 was “Relating to Urban Wildlife (dealing with rodents, feral cats, deer, squirrels, other wildlife)” with Share Bond, Peter Muller, and Kath Rogers speaking. I went to this one because it seemed such a practical topic, which I figured I’d be able to put into immediate use with feral cats or whatever other wildlife issues might crop up in my area.

Kath Rogers, of Animal Protection and Rescue League, spoke first with a story about squirrels in San Diego who were being poisoned. When their group first got involved in this issue, they didn’t know much about wildlife issues. They quickly learned that part of the reason the squirrels had become a “problem” was that they were being fed by park visitors. This naturally increased the squirrel population well beyond what the natural resources of the park would have limited them to, and the squirrels then became a “nuisance”. They worked with the public, the media, and were persistent, and in the end the poisoning was stopped, and in its place was a campaign to educate the public, including numerous signs in the park asking people to not feed the squirrels.

They have used these same basic tactics (Public, Media, and Persistence) in a variety of campaigns, including using polling to show that, for example, the majority of the people do not want the seals at Childrens Beach Park killed, and want a ban on foie gras.

Whether or not people agree with their overall stance (a focus on legislative reform to eliminate cruelty; they do also advocate veganism), I think that there are several things that can be learned from their experience, not the least of which we are doing no one any favors, least of all the animals, when we feed the wildlife.

This point was made again by Peter Muller, of League of Humane Voters. His experience was mostly with deer and geese, and he showed how things could be broken down into three basic views:

  1. What’s really going on (which is rarely what anyone wants to hear)
  2. Short-term solution (the points to bring up in discussions with town boards and mayors)
  3. Long range solution (form political groups)

What’s really going on is often the obvious to us, but is not welcome news to the people who feel that the wildlife is a nuisance. For example, with geese, what’s really going on would be something like “geese can fly!” It is obvious, and it is obvious why shooting out a geese population wouldn’t work to “deal with” a nuisance geese problem. Since they can fly, if you remove one population, the next group to fly over will see the same bounty of food that the first group saw, and settle in s well. A bit more tact than the blunt obvious would be needed in approaching the town boards and mayors with this ground breaking information.

The funny thing is that I grew in the migration path for Canadian geese. My dad would get annoyed every year, as they landed on our lawn and would spend a week or so eating the grass, and then depositing the result of digesting that grass. “Don’t feed the geese!” he would yell at us. It was obvious to my dad, who never cared two figs for animals, that the “nuisance” geese would leave soon enough, and the less we fed them, the less mess they’d make.

Lethal control doesn’t work for deer because their reproductive cycles are influenced by the amount of food they have available. This can be controlled either by overall availability of food, or the size of the population, which influences the competition for the total resources. In other words, if you kill deer, using the excuse of overpopulation, you create what is known as “compensatory rebound” in the deer population and generally end up with more deer than you started with.

Similarly, if you feed the local deer population, you’ll enable a growth in deer population that exceeds what the habitat would naturally support. This has a couple main consequences: the deer become dependent on the food you provide, and you will possibly help create what others will see as a “nuisance” population, leading to calls for lethal control.

The point to keep in mind is that while our motivation for protecting populations from exploitation and lethal control is our belief in the rights of those animals to live their own lives, it will require more practical arguments to convince the town boards and mayors and maybe even animal control that lethal control should not be used. The truth is that lethal control simply doesn’t work. We need to understand that, and understand why, in order to best protect the wildlife in these cases. We can certainly discuss animal rights as part of the reason to not use lethal control, but the practical arguments for why lethal control doesn’t work shouldn’t be neglected.

Sometimes we inadvertently create problems when we are trying to do good. Share Bond, of Protect R Wildlife and SKUNKS, discussed this as related to feral cat TNR programs. She agreed with Peter and Kath that the source of “nuisance” populations is always people leaving food. This can be from bird feeders, where populations of birds that would not normally coexist are brought together in tight quarters, transmitting diseases more easily, and making themselves vulnerable to cat populations which will move in, drawn by the abundance of birds. This could very well be part of the reason bird enthusiasts feel that feral cat populations are such a danger to birds, not realizing that they are making the birds vulnerable by the feeders they provide to help sustain those same birds.

The feral cat feeding stations can cause a similar problem, in attracting possums and raccoons. Share thus advocates what she calls TNR+, which is essentially a TNR program where you leave no food unattended.

This is more imporant than it might seem at first – if the possum and skunk population feed from the feral cat food, their populations will grow, and they’ll be seen more and more in daylight hours, which tends to freak out the humans using the same spaces. This can result in the feral cat feeding stations being banned as well as lethal control used on the “nuisance” populations, which will likely result in the deaths of some of the feral cats that were meant to be taken care of.

Share did a six day study for a large feral cat project to record the impact on the wildlife, and the results seem solid. She also includes a diagram for a simple feeding platform.

I haven’t done any direct work with feral cats at this point, so I can’t claim to be speaking from personal experience, but based on what Share explained, combined with what Peter and Kath talked about, my overall feeling is that we should not feed the wildlife. Not feeding the wildlife and educating people are two of the best ways we can protect these wildlife populations. For feral cat colonies, this means following Share’s advice in not leaving any food unattended. For wildlife in general, take pictures, but keep your breadcrumbs to yourself.

deer at ps

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7 responses to “Don’t feed the wildlife!

  1. Mary Martin, Ph.D. July 31, 2007 at 11:06 am

    This is such a tough message for some people. Thanks for blogging about it. We humans crave some sort of relationship with certain nonhumans (the ones we deem cute) and that craving is usually satisfied by an interaction involving food. After all, they probably wouldn’t hang out with us if we didn’t coax them with a snack. And as you know, the situation never ends well for them. At best, they have a belly ache from the crap we feed them, and at worst, they end up getting targeted for extreme measures of management because their numbers swell due to going where the food is. I try to tactfully have this discussion with all of the mothers taking their toddlers to our lakes to feed the muscovies old bread and other things THEY wouldn’t eat (as if the ducks are living garbage disposals). Many people are receptive, but many simply don’t see the bigger picture. Education, education, education. It’s our only hope.

  2. Deb July 31, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    Education indeed. I certainly learned a lot from this session! I have never been in a situation where I am feeding the wildlife, mostly because I’m so unorganized and forgetful. I would have thought bird feeders were good things and it wouldn’t have occurred to me that feeding feral cats could cause a problem.

    But I was convinced. So I wanted to make sure to post about it, because I’m sure others are just as much in need of education as I am! I’m sure it is hard to explain to the mothers, who probably want to keep their kids happy and entertained. I’m not sure if there is a local group around that would take this on, but maybe signs could be posted around the lakes with some of the basic information. I’d guess that if people could understand they were actually hurting the ducks (or whatever “cute” animals) they’d stop doing it. I bet the local parks & rec or the people who live on those lakes would support informative signs encouraging people to not feed the ducks.

    I’m glad you’re down there holding the line!

  3. Becci July 31, 2007 at 9:00 pm

    Very nice. Pigeons breed the same way that deer do–if you kill a bunch of them off without reducing the food supply, they simply breed more and in the end, you might end up with even more pigeons than you had originally. (And they can breed several times a year.) I still feed pigeons (appropriate foods like seeds) once in a while because I figure that giving them a handful of seeds once a month can’t really affect their population. Maybe I ought not to, but it REALLY bothers me to see people pouring out buckets of seeds for them every day. I know they have the right idea and I want to appeal to them as a fellow pigeon-lover as to why shouldn’t do that, but I’m afraid of making them angry. Maybe I could just print up a pamphlet, give it to them, and walk away? Anyway, thanks for this blog entry.

  4. Deb July 31, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Becci,
    Thanks for your comment!

    I’m sure there are many animals that have similar population rebounds, but of course we only know of what we have experience with or learn from others, so I’m glad you are sharing what you know of the pigeons as well.

    It is hard to tell people who want to do good (and who think they are doing good) for the animals that their kind deeds are hurting the animals they want to help, but in the end, I think they deserve to know. They might very well be angry (defensiveness often comes across as anger at first) but perhaps appealing to these people and asking them to join your efforts to educate the public would let them feel that they were still able to do the right thing for the birds they clearly care about.

    This pdf might give you a good place to start: http://www.sfgov.org/site/uploadedfiles/sfdpw/90_Pigeon_eng.pdf

    I didn’t look all that hard to see if there was anything else that might work as well, but yes, I do think that having literature on hand that you can hand to people might be the best route to go. A lot of it depends on your comfort level and the people’s response in general. You obviously care a lot, and they will be able to see that, and most likely they’ll respond in kind. (don’t get discouraged by those who don’t!) You might also find that there are local groups who would join you in your education campaign, and perhaps see if the parks and rec department would help you put up informational signs. (though I know those don’t always help!)

    Good luck, and I’d love to hear how it goes!

  5. Pingback: Answering questions on “humane” animal experimentation « Invisible Voices

  6. Kristen August 6, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    interesting – what about bird feeders? I know there are a bunch up at the sanctuary – including corn cobs for the squirrels…

  7. Deb August 6, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Kristen – bird feeders aren’t a good idea for the many reasons mentioned. At the sanctuary, the only reason that would apply is the issues caused by a higher density population of birds that would not normally mix together, and the resulting potential transmission of disease. (They just don’t have feral cats in the area because of their location.)

    However, the sanctuary is also a wildlife sanctuary, and realistically they can’t feed the resident geese without also feeding the visiting geese. Some of the squirrels were raised as orphans, so the same basic scenario applies

    The wildlife sanctuary part complicates the general rule. Whether or not they’re a good exception to the rule, I don’t know.

    But for individuals who are thinking about putting out a bird feeder in their yard, I’d definitely say: don’t.

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