Sometimes the kindest intentions can end in the cruelest results.
As a public relations director with a state wildlife agency, I often fielded calls at all times of the day and night from residents.
“There’s a bear in my back yard,” one distraught woman told me late on a Saturday afternoon. “What should I do?”
I asked what the bear was doing.
“It’s eating from the deer feeder.”
I advised her that if she wanted to keep bears out of the yard, she would need to remove all sources of food. “Bears will take the easiest route to fill up,” I said.
“But I’m feeding the deer, not the bears,” she said.
“The bears don’t know it’s not for them. It’s food, and it’s not good to feed any wild animal.”
And then I launched into all the reasons why wildlife should be left alone to forage for their own food in the woods. Bringing wildlife into residential situations with humans is dangerous for both animals and the people. When wildlife loses its natural fear of humans, its chances increase dramatically for negative encounters with vehicles and other means humans use to control animals. She didn’t seem quite convinced, but told me she would try taking down the deer feeder, even though she didn’t see the harm in having Bambi and his folks over for a meal.
Another time I was working at the agency’s state fair exhibit where a captured panther was on display. The wild animal had been hit by a vehicle and rehabilitated but not fully enough for it to be released back into the wild. The agency brought it out for public events as an educational tool on endangered species.
A middle-aged couple approached the enclosure, and we began talking about the efforts to save the panther from extinction.
“We just love wildlife,” the woman said. “We go camping in Big Cypress National Preserve every year, and we’ve had panthers approach our campsite. We always leave food out for them, and when we come back the food is gone.”
Even though it was highly unlikely they saw a panther because their numbers are so few, and they are rarely seen in the wild, I still went into my pitch about the dangers of feeding them.
“But the one we saw looked so skinny,” the woman said. “We are helping them.”
“No, you’re not. Feeding them our food makes them more accustomed to us and that hurts them. There are only about 100 of them left in the wild in Florida and too many of them are hit each year by vehicles. Just like this one here.”
“But they’re so cute,” the woman said. “I’m still going to feed them.”
Even the mention of it being against federal law under the Endangered Species Act did little to dissuade her from her determination to help the skinny panther survive in Florida.
Recently, we took a trip to the Florida Keys. We visited No Name Key where the Key Deer live. They also are a highly endangered species because of human encroachment, vehicular accidents and limited habitat – they only live in one small area of the Keys. Signs are posted all over about speed limit laws and warnings about not feeding the deer. But when you drive down the road of the Key, you see the deer come close to the road oblivious to the vehicles driving there. We passed a couple on a stopped motorcycle who we’d met a few minutes earlier at the No Name Pub. A Key deer approached them, and the woman sat on the back of the bike with her hand held out with potato chips in her palm. The deer approached and ate from her hand, while the man snapped photos.
I should have told my husband to stop the car so I could talk to them, but I didn’t. We drove on, and I’ve thought about that moment every day since. Would I have been able to convince them that their momentary pleasure in having that beautiful animal eat out of her hand might result one day in the death of that very same deer? I’ll never know.
I do know the politeness I tried to show those tourists may not be so kind in the end, at least to the “cute” little endangered deer.