June 4, 2024

Limited GovernmentMarkets & Free Enterprise

5 Things To Remember When Sharing Space With Wildlife

By: Kelvey Vander Hart

I recently drove out to a wildlife refuge with some family members in an attempt to spot the alligators that live there. While the extent of our wildlife interaction was helping a turtle cross the road, a conversation with my sister sparked a question: Do we really know how to share space with wildlife? 

It all started with a simple request from my sister, Lily: “Can we stop and get marshmallows?” Instantly suspicious, I asked her why she wanted them. “I want to feed the alligators.” 

She now knows to not feed alligators marshmallows, but for all of you that would have wanted to do the same thing, here are five things to remember if you find yourself sharing space with wildlife this summer: 

Don’t feed them 

I think all animal lovers are tempted to feed wildlife at some point or another. Like my sister’s desire to feed the alligators marshmallows, it comes from a place of compassion and desiring that the animals be happy. But it could have disastrous results. 

First of all, we aren’t always inclined to give animals the food that’s good for them—alligators shouldn’t eat marshmallows. More importantly, when animals start to associate people with food, it can lead to disastrous consequences. Animals that aren’t typically in densely populated areas may become more urban. Predators that are fed may start seeking people out more often, which can lead to deadly outcomes for humans and the possibility that the animal may be put down. 

To be sure, there are exceptions to this rule. Bird and squirrel feeders, feeding ducks at your local pond (with nutritious food and not bread), and setting water outside your home are all totally fine things to do. I would even argue that if you live somewhere with a large feral cat colony as I once did, scattering some high protein kitten food if you spot some kittens might be okay. But overall, avoiding feeding animals most of the time helps keep them safe and healthy. 

Animals are faster than you think 

Want to take a picture of that bear? No you don’t. Want to pet the bison? No you don’t. 

Animals are much, much faster than you might think. I remember a hike where some acquaintances of mine thought it was a good idea to stop and take pictures of a half grown bear cub only to have to scatter and jump a fence when the cub charged at them. (They were very lucky the cub’s mother was not lurking in the treeline.) 

And predators aren’t the only animals that could kill you. One of the greatest frustrations aired by U.S. National Parks Service staff on social media are park visitors that get much too close to bison. Bison, moose, and other big prey animals are still totally capable of injuring and killing humans. 

Be smart—don’t stop to gawk at the wildlife if the wildlife could reach you at any point. 

If you leave behind garbage, you could kill an animal 

Leaving a water bottle, plastic bag, or fishing line behind might not seem like a big deal to you. But in doing so, you could easily take the life of an animal that eats or gets stuck in the items. It’s always the wise and kind thing to pack out your trash and leave no trace that you were ever out in nature. But you’re not just helping keep nature pristine when you do so—you’re protecting wildlife. 

Taking a tour? Make sure the operator knows what they’re doing or is certified

I am all for taking tours to see wildlife in their natural habitat instead of seeing them in a zoo or an aquarium. I myself plan on booking with different tour operators this year to try and spot marine life. But when you work with an operator, take some time to ensure that the company you’re thinking of booking with will treat animals well.

Read through the website and see how they talk about animals. Animal-first language, such as explaining local conservation law and why the operator keeps a certain distance from animals, is a good sign. Person-first language, such as absolutely promising that you will get up close and personal with animals, is not a good sign. 

You can always give tour companies a call and ask more questions, seeing how willing they are to disclose their practices. Transparency is a good sign. Reviews are a gold mine as well—if you have more people complaining about boundaries the tour staff set in treating animals than people complaining about how tour staff treated animals, that’s probably a good sign. 

World Nomads has a good guide on booking ethical wildlife experiences, which can be found here. If you implement these tips and also look for local government certifications or humane treatment certifications like those from Global Humane, you can be confident that you are doing your best for wildlife. 

Be responsible with your pets 

I know we all love our pets, but wildlife shouldn’t suffer because of poor pet behavior. We’ve all seen the bad owners that let their pets, typically dogs, run wild—in my world, it’s the frustrating dog owners at my local park that just laugh while their dogs chase ducks that roosted on the bank to sleep for the night. 

Your pet is loveable and adorable and all the good things, but it is not part of nature. Just as you shouldn’t chase animals, leave trash behind, or get too close to wildlife, you shouldn’t allow any of the same when it comes to your pet. Keep your animal in check, keep them leashed around wildlife when possible, and clean up after them. 

And, as a side note for those who need it: Never, EVER abandon your pet in nature. For animals like dogs, declawed cats, or small rodents, you could have just given them a death sentence. For cats that have their claws (especially animals that are fully intact), fish, and other animals, you could help foster an environment for invasive species to flourish or upset the local food chain. Rehome your pets humanely or work with a local shelter. 

There is little as exciting as spotting wildlife in its natural habitat. I hope that with these tips, you are armed to do so safely this summer, creating a better experience for both you and the animals.