Don't Feed the Squirrels

Because opossums, and coyotes, and bears.
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Because opossums, and coyotes, and bears.
Oh my! (Photo: johnkay/Flickr)

Oh my! (Photo: johnkay/Flickr)

Edison Park looks like any other park. Except for the five-foot long banner posted at the park entrance that warns visitors in bold red letters: “CAUTION COYOTE ALERT.”

Coyotes have been sighted in Seal Beach, the coastal California town where Edison Park is located, four times more frequently this year than last. The predators have grown brazen, snatching small dogs during daylight hours—sometimes with owners standing only a few feet away. But the real lure is an urban buffet of trash, pet chow, fruit droppings, and rodents. It’s an easy bounty for the animals compared to the task of hunting in the wild.

In October, Seal Beach city lawmakers agreed to catch and euthanize coyotes and impose $100 fines on residents who directly or indirectly feed the animals. At least three coyotes have already been put to death, according to the Los Angeles Times.

But city boundaries mean nothing to coyotes, or to any other animal that has discovered a food bonanza in urban backyards and parks. Coyotes range further now. At the same time, suburban sprawl encroaches on their hunting grounds. Experts disagree over whether the state’s record drought has worsened the problem.

Our city bans this type of activity, but my neighbor loves her wildlife menagerie. She gives the critters names.

Not far from Edison Park, on the other side of the aptly named Coyote Creek, is the city of Long Beach. The problem there is the same; the answer is different. When residents spot a coyote, they blow air horns, bang together pots and pans, and shoot squirt guns. It’s a response called “hazing,” one that wildlife experts say teaches coyotes to stay away.

But there’s an even better answer than that.

IN THE NEARBY COMMUNITY of Costa Mesa, there's a squirrel feederin my neighbor’s oak tree. It is stocked with peanuts, many of which end up buried in my backyard. A family of opossums lived for a time in my neighbor’s outdoor fireplace. They ate the same cat chow as her pets. Our city bans this type of activity, but my neighbor loves her wildlife menagerie. She gives the critters names.

There was a time when feeding wildlife was sanctioned.

For nearly 50 years, rangers fed bears at Yosemite National Park. The idea was to keep the bears away from the park's developed areas. For visitors’ entertainment, the park even ran a lighted feeding station until 1940.

A little more than 30 years later, the feedings stopped altogether, but the bears continued to scavenge a ready diet of potato chips, hot dogs, and other human fare.

Decades of feasting on a human-provided buffet had changed the animal’s foraging and hunting behavior. They had grown unafraid of people, a transformation called “habituation,” a change that’s not exclusive to bears.

It wasn't until 2001 that the share of human food in bears' diets dropped from roughly one-third (35 percent) to 13 percent, according to a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

What changed? The park installed bear-proof lockers and stepped up patrols in problem areas.

Jack Hopkins, the lead author of the paper and a research fellow at University of California-Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times that the key was a “proactive management strategy to keep human food off the landscape."

What works with bears can also work with coyotes and Canadian geese.

"I told her these raccoons are supposed to be learning to forage, but instead they’re learning to come to you for dog food and cookies."

A steady diet of nutrient-poor white bread has created generations of Canadian geese that can’t fly, explains Lynsey White Dasher, the director of Humane Wildlife Conflict Resolution for the Humane Society of the United States. Parks across the country posted signs advising park-goers to stop feeding the waterfowl. But what truly cut down on feedings were signs that spelled out the link between a diet of human food and wing deformities, according to White Dasher. A 2006 study conducted in Arizona's Petrified Forest National Park showed that visitors were most persuaded by park signs that described a socially desirable behavior. Signs that highlighted the prevalence of undesirable behaviors—in this case thefts of petrified wood—actually increased theft rates.

Along the same vein, she noted that various parks services have run public education campaigns about coyotes for years. The message doesn’t always sink in.

“A lot of time people don’t get the message until they see a coyote or their pet is attacked,” White Dasher says.

White Dasher says public workshops proved effective in changing people’s behaviors in Denver in 2009, after the city experienced a surge in coyote sightings and attacks. The workshops, among other things, taught residents to pick up around their fruit trees, cover their trash, and to haze the animals—blow whistles or bang together pots and pans upon sightings.

Afterwards, in an online survey of participants, 30 percent said they covered their garbage and removed food from outdoors. Thirty-two percent started carrying hazing tools when they walked outside. Nearly 100 percent of participants said they shared what they learned with family, friends, and neighbors.

Researchers found that the number of coyote sightings in the area dropped more than 85 percent between 2009 and 2010.

White Dasher said the Humane Society would hold similar workshops this month in Seal Beach, the California town that has been overrun with coyotes.

LAURA SIMON SPENT 18 years talking to people from all walks of life—homeowners, police, city officials—who called into the Humane Society’s national wildlife hotline. One time, the police called her about a woman who had been feeding raccoons. The woman had 40 raccoons crawling around in her yard.

The police put Simon, a wildlife ecologist, on the phone with the woman. Simon explained the lasting damage the woman had caused to the animals and their young. “I told her these raccoons are supposed to be learning to forage, but instead they’re learning to come to you for dog food and cookies,” Simon explained. “One day they’re going to approach the wrong person and they’re going to be dead.”

Simon believes this type of explanation is more persuasive than simple admonishments. And appeals to morals—such as "Want to Help the Environment?"—can be more effective, according to a study of environmental campaigns published in 2013 in Nature Climate Change.

Even so, some people resist. These are the ones who Simon calls "hardened feeders."

Simon recalled a visit to Yellowstone National Park about six years ago, where she saw two coyotes lingering on the shoulder of the road. She asked the park ranger about them. She learned the coyotes had spent their entire lives begging, waiting for passersby to toss food out the window. The coyotes had never learned to feed themselves. The ranger told her they would likely be euthanized once tourist season ended.

“There’s a saying, ‘A fed animal is a dead animal,’” Simon says. “When that sinks in, people tend to change their behavior.”

Traumatic experiences, such as a coyote attack, also prompt change, according to Steve Sullivan, the curator of Urban Ecology at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, although the effect might not last.

Even so, some people resist. These are the ones who Simon calls “hardened feeders.” For them, Simon believes, the reward of interacting with a wild animal is too great. “For some people, it’s the highlight of their days and nights.”

Medieval Europeans believed animals recognized “holiness” in humans, a belief that might well be shared by modern-day man. When researchers in the 1980s studied why park visitors fed big horn sheep, the two most common reasons were to bring the sheep closer and to demonstrate the sheep’s trust of the visitor. Being approached by the sheep, visitors explained, made them feel better about themselves and reflected highly on them as an individual. They also believed that other people, seeing them approached by the sheep, would think highly of them as well.

MY NEIGHBOR HAS FED the squirrels for about three years now. She sits on a lawn chair to watch them scamper to and fro, sometimes feeding them by hand.

In her backyard, the squirrels have learned that a feeder chock full of peanuts is the natural order of things. Three generations have passed on a single survival skill: just lift the hatch door and be granted a feast.

I’d like to ask my neighbor to take down the squirrel feeder. I should have asked a few years back, when this all started. But from what I know now, it’s likely too late. The squirrels live in a human-created limbo, caught somewhere between wild animal and pet. Taking down the squirrel feeder would probably spell their doom.