One of the things I find many visitors love about going to the zoo is the experience of feeding the animals themselves. Not to downplay how awesome it is to experience but I feel in many cases this is not healthy for the animal or our relationship with them.
1. Overweight Animals
Animals at zoos which allow visitor feeding I have observed to be more overweight than those where diets are monitored. In terms of animal health this can cause many issues – much like obesity in humans. In zoos with strict no feeding policies animal diets are monitored and keepers are better able to adjust the diet if need be to suit specific animal needs.
Competition for food is a normal part of animal life. In many cases the more dominant or aggressive individuals are more successful. I find many animals within petting zoo style enclosures which are fed by the public are conditioned to be more aggressive than they usually would. In the wild or in keeper fed enclosures there are usually multiple sources of food – grass fields, larger feeding vestibules, or separate feeding stations for individuals. In public feeding scenarios either the food pellets are the only option or the more enticing one – meaning the animals have to compete for the attention of the visitor. This can be detrimental for the whole visitor experience especially for young children who may not be used to pushy animals.
A huge element in the modern zoo is the role enrichment plays in the lives of the animals. One of the easiest ways to provide enrichment and diversity into day-to-day life for the animals is through food. By hiding food in the exhibit it encourages foraging or hunting behaviours and mental stimulation. In many species diversity in their food can be used as cues for seasonal changes, to allow for variation between individuals (one may need more fat, another may be low in certain vitamins or minerals), or research into better zoo nutrition overall. Treats can be used as rewards in the training process and/or to help in the administration of medication. The more public feeding becomes dominant in a zoo, the more stagnant their diet becomes and these other diet aspects are put to the side.
4. Encourages Feeding at Other Zoos/Exhibits
Contrary to many guests beliefs that if one zoo has certain rules it applies to all – not all zoos allow feeding. Along those same lines, some species are more easily adapted to public feeding scenarios than others. For this reason, pay careful attention to signs posted and unless it explicitly says that feeding is allowed…don’t. Just because an animal is in a zoo doesn’t mean it is domesticated or unable to harm you.
Most zoos have a variation of an indoor enclosure for their animals to spend the night. Normally their indoor environments are better controlled than their exhibits and are more secure. The easiest way to encourage an animal to go inside at night or outside in the morning is through their stomach. If visitors are filling them up all day it can be harder for keepers to get them inside at the end of the day. This may not seem like a big deal to the visitors who don’t have this frustrating task – but if you think of it in terms of the safety of the animal this should be of more of a concern.
6. Social Status
Many zoo animals live in social groups with members having different social rankings. One of the most common perks of being near the top of the standings is having first pick of the food. When a guest disturbs this practice by feeding one of the lower ranking individuals they could be causing social unrest within the whole group. A prime example of this is the death of a young orangutan at the Toronto Zoo in 1998 when guests threw food into the exibit.
7. Encourages Feeding of Wild Animals
Obviously there are differences between putting out a bird feeder and trying to give a slab of raw meat to a bear – but feeding in zoos can encourage disruptive behaviour. Hand feeding wild animals can make them imprinted on humans or unable to forage properly. Not having that fear of humans leads them to become comfortable in urban areas or being near humans – this can lead to them being labeled nuisances and sometimes killed. It can also be a danger to those doing the feeding as protective mothers may attack those trying to feed the more inquisitive young. It’s best to keep the wild animals wild and admire from a distance.
Those of you with pets probably know that certain foods can be toxic to different animals, such as chocolate or grapes for dogs. This is the same for many zoo animals. What you may think would be part of their natural diet could be potentially fatal – for example avocado skin and pits can be toxic to many species including goats and rabbits, and the flesh can be harmful to a number of bird species. Many plants can have toxins in their bark, wax covered leaves, or flowers. For this reason, feeding your picnic lunch or nearby vegetation to zoo or wild animals could be causing them harm.
While zoos regularly check their animals for diseases and keep as sanitary an exhibit as possible, it doesn’t mean guests still can’t get sick if they come in contact. Many animals touch or eat their own feces or that of other animals, which can make humans sick. Many wild animals may have ticks, fleas, or other problem insects that can be transferred to humans. The list is endless which is why it is safer to view from a distance – zoos add barriers for a reason.
I don’t mean to completely deter guests from doing behind the scenes feedings or going into the petting areas – I just want you to make some smart choices at zoos. If the animals appear overweight don’t buy the food when you go into the petting area; if the food being fed to the animals during guest feedings don’t seem like a natural option for them don’t take part; if you see other guests feeding the animals approach them and explain why it is harmful. Most of all respect the zoos wishes and remember it is for the animals safety as well as your own!