A Strange Interaction
As I came back from my lunch, I took my familiar position staffing the information desk. Five minutes later, a family walked in — mom, dad, a younger daughter and son. They looked to the be the typical midwestern family visiting Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time. I anticipated them asking one of the common questions I often got asked.
“Can you suggest an easy hike?”
“How far is it to Alpine Visitor Center?”
“Where can we see the elk?’
But I was incredulous over what the dad asked me instead.
“Can you tell me where we can go to feed the squirrels and chipmunks?”
At first, I thought I hadn’t heard him right.
“We read there’s a great place to go to feed the squirrels and chipmunks here and wanted to get directions.”
Ok, I did hear him right. Now I thought maybe he was pulling my leg. But I could tell from his expression he really wasn’t joking. I didn’t know how to be polite and not embarrass him in front of his kids.
“Actually, it’s illegal to feed wildlife in a national park. It’s bad for the wildlife, teaching them to be dependent on people food. It’s also dangerous for visitors because any wild animal can carry rabies and could potentially bite you.”
Now, he did look embarrassed.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I felt sure I’d read something that said there was a place they sold nuts to feed the squirrels with. I guess I was mistaken.”
Keeping Wild Animals Wild
The saddest part of this exchange is that he wasn’t entirely incorrect. There is a place in Estes Park, the gateway town for Rocky, that promotes feeding wildlife. It’s sad that a business would put their own greed that contrasts so sharply with the idea behind national parks. National parks help preserve wildlife and wilderness unimpaired for people to enjoy. They don’t espouse trying to teach wild animals to be like pets.
This idea continues to be controversial living in the mountains of Colorado. I still see people in Nederland leaving food for deer, or bread crumbs for wild animals.
The park ranger in me feels so strongly about the idea of letting wildlife forage for natural food, that we don’t even have a bird feeder. Whenever people start putting out any kind of food, you open the door for a whole host of problems. A couple of years ago, a woman found a bear inside her house. She had left a garbage can near her deck, and the bear had figured out a way to open the door and raid her kitchen.
Keeping Ourselves Safe
Keeping wildlife at a safe distance doesn’t just benefit wildlife, but helps keep us safe as well. All wild animals can carry a host of diseases. Two of the most common are rabies and plague. When you literally feed squirrels and chipmunks on your lap, you are risking an animal bite and the possibility of getting a nasty disease.
The Mountain-Ear recently published an articled saying there have been 180 reported cases of rabies this year in Colorado. Eleven of those cases are in Jefferson County, a neighboring county to Nederland.
Sometimes, we see wild animals so routinely, we can forget that there really are wild. The beauty of living in mountain habitat is being able to share it with elk, moose, coyotes, and mountain lions.
But to keep them wild, we need to remind ourselves to not treat them like pets.